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COVID chronicles: Inside Cisco’s massive shift to working from home

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cisco Systems Inc.’s remote workforce quickly swelled from 25,000 employees working remotely to more than 140,000 teleworkers in 96 countries, providing one of the most sweeping examples of how companies can pivot their employees to working remotely.

Just a few short months ago, chief information officers couldn’t have imagined a scenario where they’d be managing the majority of their workforce remotely. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted businesses of all sizes, forcing them to think on their feet — whether it’s enabling call center agents to work from home, connecting students to virtual classrooms or providing telehealth services to patients.

Even leading information technology companies have faced the challenges of enabling their global workforce in the wake of a pandemic. Cisco is one of them.

Scaling up work-from-home

Cisco has always had an adaptable and flexible internal network; the unique challenge during this crisis was speed to scale. The company went from a single office closed to a global work-from-home scenario in about 10 days. Initially, it prepared for the increase in traffic by using techniques such as split tunneling to route some application traffic through a virtual private network and other traffic through the internet. The main goal was to enable all employees and partners to work remotely and keep business continuity, Cisco Group CIO Jacqueline Guichelaar explained at a recent virtual industry roundtable.

Cisco already had about 25% of its workforce working remotely, so it had most of the tools and technologies needed. The challenge for the organization was scaling to all 140,000 people quickly. Issues such as trying to implement split tunnels is a systematic way, but the organization had never done it this fast before.

Cisco CIO Jacqueline Guichelaar

The network issues posed a speed problem, but certain use cases were more challenging than others. For example, Cisco took a two-pronged approach to shift 3,000 call center agents to remote environments during India’s nationwide lockdown. By forming a partnership with India’s IT trade association NASSCOM and the Other Service Providers Association of India, which includes approximately 1,000 software companies, the Indian government gave Cisco some leeway around the country’s strict regulations.

Additionally, Cisco’s team had to write code to automate the deployment of a special virtual private network solution required by India’s regulators for remote telephony. The company has since made the code available to others on DevNet, a site for developers and IT professionals who want to integrate with Cisco tech.

“We achieved in days what would have otherwise taken years to do by coming together as an industry,” said Guichelaar. “We want everyone to learn from what we’re learning.”

Guichelaar shared her experience and advice during a recent virtual industry roundtable on best practices for making remote working successful:

Partner with HR

Listening to what employees are worried about is especially critical in a time of crisis. CIOs should join forces with human resources not only to ensure a smooth work-from-home transition, but also to address any concerns employees might have. Doing so created a tight partnership between Guichelaar and Cisco’s chief people officer, Francine Katsoudas.

Take a phased approach

Instead of trying to do everything in one big bang, Cisco chose to take a multistep approach to remote working. The first step was providing basic connectivity so workers could access internet and company resources over the same connection without requiring manual intervention. Second was basic collaboration and video to enable workers to maintain a similar work environment as if they were in the office.

The third was to ensure critical functions were up and running. For example, Cisco had to ensure all the services required to keep its technical assistance center were up and running. The TAC provides technical support to all of Cisco’s customers and it’s a core function of the business.

Fourth was special use cases such as the India call center, and fifth was how to secure everything. The multistep approach made the remote work process not as daunting as trying to do everything at once.

Learn from your customers

Another strategy Cisco used was to learn from its own customer base. One such lesson came from Andrea Prencipe, the Rector of Luiss Guido Carli University in Italy. He discussed the importance of maintaining continuity of experience. Initially, the school tried to record many of the lessons for the students, but that wasn’t very popular with students as they wanted a more interactive environment, like the classroom provides. The school used video as a way of enabling students to engage more with professors and other students. 

Team up

IT teams are in overdrive around the clock — from managing data centers to freeing up network capacity in real time — early in the morning, in the evening and on weekends. CIOs, including Guichelaar, are forced to make quick decisions, while relying on partners and tech providers to keep everything up and running.

“In a time of crisis there are no contracts and we’re just getting work done by joining forces in the industry,” said Guichelaar. “We’re figuring out what to do to get equipment into the right data centers to provide the right capacity to our customers.”

Share and share alike

One last best practice was echoed by all the attendees, and that’s to share information with other CIO peers. Giuchelaar described a scenario where a CIO peer from another firm called and asked for some help on provisioning, securing and distributing tens of thousands of laptops quickly. She was happy to share material and training information on how to scale operations.

The reality is that we are all in this pandemic together and helping others helps the entire world get back to some semblance of normalcy sooner than later.

Zeus Kerravala is a principal analyst at ZK Research, a division of Kerravala Consulting. He wrote this for SiliconANGLE.

Image: Tumisu/Pixabay

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