Enabling 5,500 remote employees in one weekend: How one CIO was already prepared for COVID-19

Published on August 25th, 2020

Imagine how easy the transition to remote work would have been if one year prior to the pandemic your IT team had begun building a work-from-anywhere platform for your company. Call it a lucky break, pure irony, or simply uncanny timing to be leaning into the trends of the future workforce, but this seemingly “unbelievable tale” is my true story.

I am Joe Gracz, an experienced CIO/CISO of a Fortune 1,000 company, and I share my experience to help other IT leaders empower their remote workforces. Here is how I was proactively prepared to enable 5,500 employees to work from home–all in the matter of one weekend.

It started with an HR vision

Rewind to 2018, when the head of our Human Resources department discussed an initiative to offer more work-from-home options for our 5,000+ employees. As a global manufacturing company, we were stuck in the traditional brick-and-mortar mentality, and we knew we needed to digitally transform. The only problem was we did not have the technology in place at that time to support our employees at home. It was up to my team and I to solve that problem with a work-from-anywhere IT platform. So, we started designing the strategy–not knowing just how relevant and critical it would later become.

We spent a year planning and implementing the technologies, services, and processes. In November 2019, I presented the update to the board of directors, stepping through the entire scenario of where we were with all our work-from-home capabilities. We had built in the versatility and the flexibility of the global IT infrastructure, and we had the tools and services we needed to monitor and manage our remote users. At the time, it was a lot of head nodding and a great deal of “yeah, yeah, sounds good.”

Like a light switch, all of that was about to change.

The pandemic came on so quickly that we did not have a chance to fully test everything. And under the pressures of the spreading virus, there was a lot of disbelief. When no one could have ever seen this coming, could our company really be proactively ready for this? I certainly understood how and why our preparation felt unbelievable at the time. Our executive leadership team began asking me for reassurance, so we initiated a series of tests during the first weekend in March. Ultimately, there was not time for thorough testing–we had to just do it. With a bit of blind faith, the executive leadership team had to trust that what we built would work. I remember a lot of people holding their breath when I said, “Yes, send everyone home, and we’ll be fine on Monday.”

We closed all our offices down on Friday, March 20th and immediately went back to work. Following the sun, the IT team prioritized providing capabilities for our employees in Australia and New Zealand on Sunday, and then the rest of the company was set up by Monday morning. This trial-by-fire weekend was the opportunity to fully prove that what we had built was correct.

And correct it was–we encountered little to no glitches at all. Our biggest challenge was ensuring employees had the hardware and equipment they needed at home, and it turns out we had an automated solution for that too.

Building a work-from-anywhere strategy without the pressures of the pandemic

At a time when every IT leader is busy transitioning their makeshift work-from-home solutions into semi-permanent and even permanent solutions, I had the luxury of building a remote work program strategically rather than trying to solve an urgent problem. That is quite a different experience than most. My strategy was built from the ground up to be sustainable and cost-effective, which is what many IT leaders are now looking for. Here are some of my insights.

Establish one platform for both the network and security

In talking to several of my peers, a great deal of CIOs and CISO’s biggest concerns are first providing the network capacity for remote work. Very quickly, they then realize that they do not have the security measures in place to support their employee base in working from home. The first step in my strategy was to tackle those two challenges together, in a SASE-based approach. Transitioning to Masergy’s software-defined network services and using their built-in security functions and managed security services was the answer for us. The following features and capabilities were essential in enabling our IT strategy for remote work:

  • VPNs and Masergy’s “burstable circuits” provided the rapid deployment we needed for scalable remote access. Beyond this it was simply a matter of crunching the numbers to anticipate our VPN usage and workloads. We knew we had about 2,000 people that needed daily access to our critical applications/systems, and we understood how that demand changed around the clock and across our global footprint. This allowed us to reassure executives that we had plenty of connections to deploy during our trial-by-fire weekend.
  • Real-time analytics and on-demand bandwidth controls allowed us to increase bandwidth at key access points where individuals were logging in. If we saw any bandwidth limitations or issues with the number of users logging in, our team could quickly and easily handle these spikes using the online portal. This provided a huge flexibility for us that a lot of other organizations do not possess. After the first two weeks, we clearly understood the network demands of our remote workforce, and we were able to program the network to deliver scheduled bandwidth boosts when and where they were needed.
  • Now that we had all these additional remote users accessing our network, security was paramount. Multi-factor authentication and 24/7 security monitoring services provided by Masergy’s SOC were essential. With our security scanning in place, I was comfortable that I did not have to worry or focus on remote access–we had certified security analysts monitoring the system with granular per-user visibility and cloud security tools like CASB. This allowed our team to focus on the bandwidth capacity, ensuring our network was adequately serving the needs of our remote users.
  • Technology flexibility and vendor neutrality was of utmost importance. Building scalable and innovative business solutions requires integrating several diverse technologies across multiple vendors, and I wanted to build a platform that would not lock me into specific vendors or prohibit me from integrating emerging technologies. Masergy takes an agnostic approach to network design and integration, allowing me to design solutions on my terms and build APIs with the technologies and partners I need. While most organizations get nervous about that, Masergy has been phenomenal to work with.

Layer in AI to automate the IT service desk

With the foundation set for remote work, we began connecting our business-critical applications and AI tools for automation. Unified communications and Microsoft Teams were applications already in our suite of business-critical tools, and supporting them with Masergy’s SD-network service was simple. Bigger challenges came from the need to support a growing number of remote workers and their IT help desk requests. I prioritized the development of a completely automated service desk for IT tickets that empowered employees to self-serve.

When the pandemic hit, employees were ordering the hardware they needed, watching our VPN video tutorials, and getting help with their passwords and cloud applications much on their own. When employees used the automated self-service system to order a new laptop, the security systems told us when they had used their new equipment to log in, and we could recognize who they were because everything was working on an integrated platform. Achieving all of this was made possible by the work we had done on the backend. We integrated our network and security functions with the corporate SAP system and our IT service desk application. The results were beyond what we had expected.

Take a holistic approach

My best advice for IT leaders today is to take a holistic approach to remote work. It is not just about trying to find a single technology or a point solution, it is about creating an end-to-end solution, building an architecture and an enterprise-wide approach for remote capabilities. Do not try to be focused only on being prepared for the next unknown–no one can manage effectively moving from one problem to the next.

We succeeded not because we viewed this as a pandemic problem, but because we viewed this as a business need to provide more flexibility in the way our employees work and in the way in which our IT infrastructure and IT operations support those business needs. Review the point solutions you may have rush ordered in during COVID-19, and then take a step back now to think about how those fit into the bigger puzzle and where they make the best sense in your IT foundation. You can overcome anything when you design an IT architecture that can flex, adapt, and automate whatever challenges the world presents next.

Joseph Gracz

As the CIO/CISO for a fortune 1000 company, Joseph Gracz is an accomplished career IT leader who aligns his organization to targeted business outcomes. With over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology space, Joseph has been responsible for building end-to-end automated IT solutions, integrating and aligning ServiceNow, AI, and networking/security technologies. His background includes experience in energy, manufacturing, healthcare, financial services, and consumer packaged goods.

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