How to keep IT staff safe when they are needed on-site

Even if almost everyone is working from home, there will inevitably be a need to have IT engineers go on-site to fix problems that cannot be solved remotely.

For instance, if a piece of essential network equipment fails, a site visit is usually the only way to restore the service. IT support engineers may also be needed to reboot software systems that are not accessible via virtual private network connectivity.

Although lockdown measures are easing and the economy is opening up, many people are working from home. Those who are required to visit offices are both at risk of infecting others and being infected by coronavirus themselves. So long as there is no wide-scale availability of a vaccine to protect those people who are required to visit multiple sites during their normal work, IT workers will be exposed to the coronavirus.

As such, CIOs and senior IT decision-makers need to consider how they can keep their own staff safe, protect colleagues in the business, and maintain a high level of IT service, which will inevitably require IT engineers to be on-site.

The BSI’s paper Safe working during the Covid-19 pandemic – General guidelines for organisations, published in July, recommends that to avoid transmission from contamination of surfaces, the organisation should implement fixed workstations, zones, desks and/or equipment and require workers to keep their personal belongings in personal spaces, such as lockers or bags, ensuring that belongings are removed from the workplace at the end of each shift.

To reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, the BSI paper recommends that organisations should restrict non-essential deliveries, ensure that materials, equipment and other objects entering the workplace are cleaned, and clean the touchpoints of shared equipment after each use. These guidelines mean that, as with other people who are required to be in an office, IT workers will need to change their normal way of working.

Like many IT services providers, Advantage Business Systems has been kept busy supporting its business customers throughout the pandemic. This work has been vital for UK companies, as remote access and cloud technology have enabled them to continue operating seamlessly throughout an unprecedented crisis that would otherwise have brought business and productivity to a halt.

Christo van Zyl, managed services director at Advantage Business Systems, said: “The majority of our customers are still working from home full-time. One or two have IT managers that pop in infrequently to check on infrastructure equipment.”

Van Zyl said that given the rise in virtual meetings, the Microsoft Dynamics consulting and software support side of the business has seen site visits fall to zero. “On the IT side, visits have gone to nearly zero,” he added. “Equipment setup is mainly done remotely and shipped to customers.”

In van Zyl’s experience of IT support and consulting services, office moves and closures are the main reasons why IT engineers are required on-site. He said: “We have been lucky in the fact that there have not been any network hardware failures that required on-site visits.”

To protect engineers who are required to be on-site, van Zyl said they use hand sanitisers and wear masks. Advantage Business Systems also regularly tests its IT engineers with rapid antibody testing from MEDsan UK.

The testing strategy has enabled Advantage to discover if there is any presence of infection in its workforce. Employees can test themselves at home, or have a test taken at the office, and results are given within 10 minutes. According to MEDsan, this avoids hospital visits and waiting for lab results. It claims the tests are 97.1% accurate.

Although the UK economy is opening up, van Zyl said the level of on-site visits has not yet picked up. “Most customers have not returned to their offices yet, so we are trying to prevent our visits where possible,” he said.

Van Zyl urged IT decision-makers to embrace long-term remote working. “The lockdown has shown that it is possible for most,” he said. “Ourselves and some of our customers have now shifted to permanent remote working, converting offices to a hotdesk setup if staff need desks during a London visit.”

Beyond the immediate impact of Covid-19, the pandemic has also resulted in IT conferences, seminars, and training and education events being hosted as virtual events. In van Zyl’s opinion, the lack of face-to-face direct contact with peers, and contacts, has made these events very different.

“Our vendors/partners have hosted their annual events virtually,” he said. “My view is that it was not the same as usual. Not being able to network face-to-face with other partners was my main disadvantage. Technology will eventually improve to facilitate this better, such as the use of breakout rooms, but I feel these events are best face-to-face.”

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