By Derrick Wlodarz, FireLogic
When the COVID era lockdowns began, many Managed Service Providers (MSPs) scrambled to adjust to a new reality for the foreseeable future. These companies had their primary operations focused on physical offices, and staff made their way to said offices daily. Remote workers were the exception, not the rule, and most firms probably didn’t have best practices established for virtual-only operations.
When all norms got tossed by the wayside in March 2020, my MSP, FireLogic (Des Plaines, IL) was no exception. Almost overnight, we shifted to a virtual-first support model – turning our Microsoft Teams IM and phone system into the lifeblood of our existence for as long as necessary.
Within a few weeks, we successfully converted our entire workforce into a work-from-home support ecosystem. Here are some of the key best practices we settled on which allowed us not only to survive the lockdowns – but outright thrive as an MSP during the dysfunctional COVID era.
1. Hold A Weekly Team Meeting Cadence to Keep Staff Aligned
In the pre-virus era, many MSPs held infrequent team meeting schedules – for some, none at all. While this may have been workable when you had all staff within an earshot at the office, a majority-remote workforce is at a huge disadvantage without the comradery which companywide facetime affords. Many managers think that a successful in-office workforce easily translates into a remote-only environment, and this is rarely the case without rethinking the realities at play.
When everyone works in the office, you’re usually mere steps away from most other coworkers, and the friction for informal interaction is almost nonexistent. But in a work-from-home setup, the tables are completely turned. Communication is all done via email/IM/virtual meetings, and the open-door nature of “water cooler talk” is all but gone.
My MSP, FireLogic, has been holding weekly all-hands “Team Alignment Meetings” for a few years now, and upholding this for a work-from-home atmosphere took zero handholding. Not only did staff know they were still expected to be present, but they found the meetings to be one of the highlights of their week. We share important client and prospect updates, but furthermore, the banter and laughter that was missing from everyone’s daily work life were fulfilled. Each Friday morning, our team got back something we dearly missed: each other, in unfiltered form.
2. Uphold a “Cameras On” Policy At Weekly Meetings
Don’t hold virtual weekly meetings with a remote workforce if you have no plans on having face-to-face contact. It’s bad enough that your staff is secluded away from each other in the confines of their homes. But to merely associate coworkers with their Microsoft Teams avatars is emotionally demoralizing, especially for teams that will be work-from-home for extended periods.
At our weekly team meetings, cameras must be on, no questions asked. We didn’t uphold any strict home attire policy when most staff were remote, so this led to some interesting sidebars about dress decisions for the day. The bigger point here was that staff got a chance to see one another; shoot the breeze; and have some semblance of a traditional office environment. Not to mention, it forced team members to be accountable for attentiveness during team meetings, and not just simply “call it in.”
3. Your IM Presence Status Should Become Law of the Land
When everyone’s at the office, you can simply get up and walk by someone’s desk to get their attention. This isn’t so easy in a virtual-first scenario. We decided early in the work-from-home days that your Microsoft Teams presence status had to become always reliable as far as your reachability at any given time during the workday. Infractions on this policy were tracked and even denoted during staff reviews. If you’re giving staff the freedom of working from home, they need to know that expectations on availability will be strictly enforced.
In turn, this responsibility came with multiple benefits. It allowed support calls to be routed to technicians who were not working on something already. Staff was certain they could do virtual “pop-ins” on others and not have to worry that they were interfering with work in progress. And this also provided for an easy way to account for the timeliness of staff coming or leaving work for the day – something that is otherwise near impossible when staff is within home confines.
4. If You Need In-Office or Onsite Coverage, Use a Rotation To Uphold Fairness
Our company found out relatively early in the COVID era that we could sustain most of our usual support operations purely remotely. The keyword here is most. For an MSP like mine, there are some in-office activities we just couldn’t translate into a remote setup.
From simple things such as checking mail and cashing checks, to ensuring client drop-offs are tended to and keeping in-office repairs and project staging moving along. Sure, I guess the argument could be made that you could reinvent the wheel to handle these items purely remotely, but honestly, the practicality of having 1-2 staff in the office on a rotating schedule took far less effort.
We developed an in-office rotation for staffing coverage, and this worked wonders both to ensure office needs were being tended to, but more importantly, in as fair of a manner as possible. Of course, it was par for the course that pickups and drop-offs for clients were more delayed than usual. But honestly, clients were very understanding and appreciated that we didn’t shut down all office operations that required on-site presence, as some of our competitors had done. We successfully met client needs; staff safety needs; and company operational needs under a reasonable and fair framework.
Trial And Error Is Key to Remote-First Practicality
One thing that should be clear to readers is that we didn’t have any established SOPs around running a remote-first operation. While some of our norms easily translated to the COVID era, like weekly team meetings, many other practices simply didn’t.
But that was perfectly reasonable and we ran with the punches. We allowed room for policy adjustment, and trial and error was key to snuffing out expectations or practices that needed tweaking, or outright elimination in workflows. We allowed time for policy adjustments to “bake in” with staff and didn’t penalize anyone too quickly.
By the time our firm was readying for a return to the office, this past Spring, we were a well-oiled virtual workforce machine. But staff were yearning for a return to normal – to see peers daily; exchange laughs; and ditch the tiny bedroom offices they called their workdays “home” for far too long. Our experiences weren’t perfect, but then again, not much in the COVID era could be considered such, anyway.
About The Author
Derrick Wlodarz is President and Founder of Des Plaines, IL (USA) based Managed IT Service firm FireLogic. He has 15+ years of IT industry experience spanning both the private and public sectors. His firm specializes in providing SMB clients with managed IT support, consulting, and training. Derrick is a long-serving member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. In addition to being an IT industry speaker and author, his work has been academically published in The Journal For Social Era Knowledge. He is a court-approved technical expert witness in the State of Illinois. You can reach him via email at email@example.com.