Assertive, sharp, a natural storyteller — Chris Hall is the portrait of an IT executive. As the VP of Global Information Technology at KEMET, Chris is responsible for everything from the global network, ERP, Shop Floor Control Systems, and employee experience as it relates to technology for this industry-leading manufacturer of passive electronic components. But KEMET is more than just any electronics components manufacturer. As Chris put it, KEMET’s components are in every electronic device that you own. I caught up with Chris recently on Zoom to ask about his experience responding to COVID-19 and the future of the new normal.
The Early Days of COVID-19 Presented Challenges
We at SD-WAN Experts assisted with KEMET’s SD-WAN evaluation in late 2018, long before COVID-19 stuck. At the time, the company had a global MPLS service spanning 50+ locations and was looking to transition to an SD-WAN. Remote access relied on firewall appliances. After evaluating the SD-WAN market and security offers, we helped them select a managed, Secure SD-WAN service. The timing worked well. With the outbreak of COVID-19, KEMET, like most companies, made big changes in how it worked. Users shifted to work from home, a big change for a company where remote workers had only numbered 200-300 per week and then only due to travel or family needs. COVID-19 changed all of that. Suddenly they had to support five times the number of remote users on a daily basis. “For the first week or two, there were hundreds of e-mails from users. Constant messages every day with emails and Yammer. As we learned about problems that some users had, we communicated this along with advice to solve problems by themselves, if they were inclined, or we solved it for them. At least people felt like they knew that the IT department cared and understood the challenges they were having to adapt. Paying attention to the users was the priority, so communication was key.”
As for IT operations, Hall made sure to address internal collaboration. “To keep us in sync, I set up a daily call with my infrastructure team on Microsoft Teams.”
SD-WAN Made Work-from-Home Possible
It was during this period that Hall and his team rolled out VPN clients with Microsoft MFA, a feat only possible without legacy technologies. “It would have been a nightmare getting 1,500 to 2,000 users set up with remote access,” he says. The recently adopted managed SD-WAN service made all the difference in the world. “The SD-WAN installation couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Hall, “It made the move to remote workers easy.”
His managed SD-WAN service was already integrated with his Active Directory. He was able to use those identities for remote access. The managed service provider issued VPN licenses with those identities to let users tunnel back to their respective offices. The whole process was relatively painless, according to Hall.
Is Work-from-Home The New Normal?
Over time, Hall and other IT leaders are wondering whether the shift to work from home (WFH) is here to stay. “Some people will have to come to the office because of the home situation: kids at home, lack of privacy, and the like. We’re starting to see a larger number of people working at night since kids are home. So far, we haven’t seen a loss in productivity, but if they are blowing off customers that could be a problem,” he says.
Hall started to do some analysis, building the necessary KPIs and analytics to measure work-at-home productivity. “Microsoft 365 helps you get a lot of data “for free” using free data tabs and building correlations,” he says. But KEMET is considering licensing MS Workplace Analytics, since it makes this task much easier. KPIs and the general ability to measure user productivity in aggregate is critical to providing a productive balance between WFH and office work. Some KPIs being considered include the ability to see what user groups are active and when (are they working after hours), what user groups are collaborating and which groups aren’t talking, and if these group patterns will change while in the office.
The granularity of these metrics might concern some — including Hall. “There is a fine line here, from a data privacy perspective. Microsoft, by default, protects the specifics of user identity, which is fine. We’re not interested in individuals; we’re looking at the workforce as an aggregate,” he says.
“It’s imperative to look at how to manage the new normal or it will start to manage you.”
And what did he find? In short, little has changed. Users continue to work effectively. As we go back to work initially, only 50% of the workforce is allowed in the office and any meetings must abide by social distancing guidelines, so meeting rooms will remain closed for a while “It’s not that big a deal, we’ve learned that collaborating on Teams works well.” he says.
In fact, so effective has been remote work that executives across the world are asking if this will become the new normal. “Now that we’ve proven working from home is viable, it’s going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” he says. Perhaps this will become the new normal for enterprises.
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