Are you managing your team, a contact center, or office clients remotely? You’re not alone. Thousands of IT teams around the world deployed, shipped, and installed networks overnight, enabling hundreds to thousands of remote workers to work from home. Meraki has been working from home since March, including our customer support team. That is three months of 24/7 technical customer service for over 2.6 million active networks, supported completely from the homes of remote work employees. Ben Cho, Manager of the EMEA Support Center, knows how to manage a remote contact center and has talked to many IT teams worldwide in the past weeks. In this post, Ben shares his personal experience and biggest learnings from other companies.
When Ben first heard about the plan for Meraki to move the entire team to remote work in the beginning of March 2020, he didn’t know that three months later, his team would still not be back in the office. Ben manages a team of 75 support engineers at Meraki in London. Worldwide, 450 people work on this team and take care of Meraki 24/7 customer support in San Francisco, London, Sydney, Shanghai, and Tokyo. Different sub-departments correspond with customers via phone or email. The team is supported by a network of operations, internal software teams, and product specialists who work very closely with engineering. On a normal day, customer requests can vary from maintenance questions to project deployments or help with troubleshooting across all Meraki product lines.
In the early weeks of this year, that ‘normal’ IT world changed within a few days. Companies around the globe shut down on-site operations and services, and apart from essential workers, transitioned their entire workforce to working remotely. Ben’s team experienced a 200-300% increase in support inquiries regarding the Meraki teleworker solution, the Meraki Z3, and security-related questions. Some companies had not used teleworker solutions in such high volumes before and were new to setting up clients for secure networking. Oftentimes, they simply didn’t have a plan for a scenario like this. Many companies needed guidance to set up VPN or client VPN access.
“Some companies didn’t use VPN or client VPN connections that much in ‘normal times,’ therefore, many companies were not prepared for this scenario, didn’t have much experience with setting up VPNs, or hadn’t used it at all and gave us a call,” observed Ben.
At the same time, questions about optimizing security configurations moved to the top of companies’ priorities, regardless of how big their network was. Most of the cases could be solved in no time, thanks to the Meraki cloud solution, which is designed from the ground up for remote management. However, some long-term projects were paused and parked, as companies and organizations shifted their attention to fixing gaps in their IT infrastructure.
So, what was the experience of the Meraki support team, delivering customer service from home? When talking to Ben about his team and remote work, he exudes confidence, like a pilot who just navigated his airplane safely through a thunderstorm. Surprisingly, remote work caused no major disruptions to his team. Ben embraced the situation and saw the positive in it:
“Not everyone dislikes working from home, especially in IT. I’m an introvert at heart, so when someone tells me to sit behind the computer all day, the first thing I think is: that’s great,” says a smiling Ben.
There’s more to it, of course. The trick is, you need to have a plan, provide the right tools, and make sure everyone is on board. While more and more organizations look into expanding their remote work situation to a permanent policy, it’s important to get it right with a bit more planning time.
1. Make a plan
Ben’s team usually provides customer service from our office, in the heart of London. The global pandemic forced the team to work from home, but it’s not the first time: power outages, bush fires, or office building renovation work have required Meraki teams to work from home in the past. Cases like that are pretty rare, but they require disaster recovery plans that enable the team to flow into remote work easily and quickly. Meraki provides 24/7 customer support and needs to guarantee that teams are connected at all times. Our disaster recovery plan covers the most important elements and the steps each team should follow. In the world of technical support, that can start with regulations that require each team member to take their laptop home after work each day. It defines which IT equipment each team member needs in order to do their job properly. It doesn’t matter if your business wants to be prepared for uncertainty or starts to play with the idea of permanent remote work—a good plan is needed. Many companies didn’t have that plan at the start of the pandemic, but can learn from the past few months and get prepared with guidelines that cover many different unforeseeable scenarios.
2. The right tools for less disruption and better customer service
True customer service can be one of the most important experience points customers have with your brand or product, and should, therefore, always be a high priority. Especially in times of uncertainty, customers may need more or different support from a contact center. It is important to ensure your team is sensitive to these realities and equipped with the right tools. It’s best to avoid unnecessary disruption for your team where possible. A poor connection, background noise, or a delayed answer can damage your customer experience. Therefore:
- The best remote work solution provides an in-office experience: provide noise cancelling earphones and standard IT equipment, like keyboards or another monitor.
- Ensure your company has a good VPN infrastructure so your staff can access all company resources or sensitive data securely remotely. That may mean a hardware VPN for certain professionals that requires added security and functional benefits over software VPNs.
- If the team you manage needs telephony access, consider software-based telephony. “All calls are routed via VPN so you don’t need to worry about ISPs or landlines,” says Ben.
- In the IT world, many teams work with physical labs so they can simulate their customers’ scenarios in real time. “We made sure to set up our lab to be accessible remotely and equipped our team with test devices to use at home to play around with for different scenarios,” shares Ben. Providing these tools protects you from having to troubleshoot the troubleshooting.
- Do you have a team that works with company-owned devices? Make sure that hardware is updated and ready to use. Ideally, you use mobile device management software to identify what it’s running or access the device by remote desktop to troubleshoot remotely.
- Sometimes troubleshooting goes beyond the access to physical hardware or management tools. Your team may want to reach out to a colleague to get advice or simply get a second opinion on a case. In the office, your subject matter expert or manager may sit just a few steps away. Working remotely, conversations like that still need to be enabled in real-time by chat applications. Don’t forget to train your team on a communication policy and provide collaboration tools that allow them to engage and communicate, even when the customer is on the line.
3. Everybody in
Only happy teams that are fully brought into their team’s vision can function well in unusual work environments. Ben has worked with his team on plans that allow them to swap shifts flexibly when needed. “Sometimes your team needs flexibility. Unexpected issues can come up.” Personal relationships and trust in each other plays a big role. Ben made some changes to accommodate personal challenges for parents or tricky apartment share environments, and staffed around that. The team continues to communicate often to be flexible in emergencies and cover for each other.
All in all, remote work comes with many benefits, including more flexibility and less commute and transport time for employees. At the same time, it allows companies to source from a broader and more diverse workforce, without geographic boundaries.
“This experience has definitely opened my eyes to the viability of a permanent remote workforce; some people do want this as part of their work-life balance,” says Ben.
Having a plan, the right tools, and enabling a motivated team can help you navigate towards a permanent remote work policy. However, it is important to find the right balance and ensure there are still opportunities to maintain team spirit and company culture, especially for people who didn’t have the opportunity to build relationships with colleagues in real life.