It’s difficult to make sense of the current wave of panic that is sweeping over the nation as concerns about the Coronavirus strike at the heart of all sorts of things, even if COVID19 itself is curiously absent. Get mildly freaked out and carry on appears to be the order of the day.

As businesses look hard at their continuity plans and in many cases realise that they didn’t gear them around “this kind of disaster”, many are talking about a coming wave in homeworking as people take it upon themselves, or are told, to self-isolate.

What sorts of challenges and bottlenecks might such sudden uptake in homeworking place upon our business and technology infrastructure?

Well, first of all its fair to say that many types of jobs don’t really lend themselves to self-isolation and working from home. If you are in a role where you are paid to be in a particular place at a particular time, the advent of videoconferencing won’t help much. In these cases it will probably mean a period of just not working, whether that’s as a care worker in sheltered accommodation, or a septuagenarian pop star on tour.

But if we think about the world of knowledge workers, it’s fair to say that certainly in the UK (and judging by how less traffic there is on the roads and passengers there are on trains) quite a bit of home working already exists on Fridays. What more widespread home working might test is how much of this Friday work is “work”. You know… <Air Quotes>Working from home</Air Quotes> working from home.

The next thing to look at is the potential technical barriers to greater home working (and I’m indebted to various Tweeps for their contributions here).

The capacity of Cloud-based collaboration systems

People like Microsoft scale their systems big. So if you are using services like Office 365 it’s unlikely that we will find huge interruptions to the use of those core services in a time of greater technical load because of homeworking.

However, patterns of use might well change. For example, at the moment, you might find a few people calling into video calls where the majority of the people are all in the same room. If everyone is calling from home, the number of connections shoots up, as does the bandwidth and processing considerations. Internet video of one form or another has become so commonplace in our lives that we can forget how much network bandwidth it can consume.

Overall, though, the supplier bandwidth availability is probably the least of our worries.

The capacity of private VPN configurations

I’ve known quite a few organisations where they took the decision to use Cloud-based collaboration systems, but only by accessing them through a private VPN infrastructure – so you have to connect to the organisation to then connect back out to Google or Microsoft or whoever else.

That’s an architectural decision that might well come back to haunt people.

Similarly, if there is lots of legacy sitting in either physical or virtual rackspace, then the virtualisation applications (VMWare, Citrix) as well as the VPN stuff will likely be put under a bit more strain (although if this legacy is already being virtualised to people’s desktops, the load shouldn’t change too much. Unless of course you made the decision to save costs by sticking everyone on Thin Client terminals that are bolted to their office desks…

The capacity of domestic broadband

You’ve got loads of broadband, right? You stream iPlayer in UHD. You download games. You… well, you mostly download, not upload.

And for domestic use that mostly works out fine. But when you go to work you need to upload too, and the broadband technologies that most of us use are both asymmetric (most notably, you have much more download bandwidth than upload bandwidth) and often heavily contended (lots of people sharing the same bandwidth capacity).

Lots of people using video calls at the same time in the working day. And a bunch of kids at home because the schools are closed. I reckon this is possibly the weakest link for a pandemic of homeworking. Technically.

It’s all about the people

Reality is, though, that if you are thinking that people who are generally only used to working in fixed physical locations or “Working at home” on a Friday, long-term homeworking at scale is going to come as a heck of a shock.

Working at home isn’t like working in the office. And you’ll soon find if you are a location-based organisation exactly how.

It might be physical resources (an HR team I met recently in a Government organisation were tied to their office because of paper filing).

It might be skills (there’s a lot of discipline needed to work at home long term. And some people simply hate it).

It might be management (especially if you’re the sort of manager who uses Air Quotes around the words “Working From Home”).

It might just be habit – are your people all taking their work laptops home every night? (Do they even have laptops?)

Throwing an organisation in at the deep end of home working might lead to spectacular results. It might also, though, discredit the concept for years to come. Especially if we end up blaming the tech for why it didn’t work very well.

It’s potentially going to be an interesting few months…

(And a big thanks to all who contributed to this thread…)

One thought on “The homeworking pandemic

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