How to provide IT support to a dispersed workforce

IT manager Colin Phelps' compact team at PowerServe has to deliver support to a 300+ workforce spread across eight offices

It's hard enough providing IT support to the business when it's easy enough to walk from one end of the office to another. But if you're the IT manager of small- or medium-sized organisation with a workforce that isn't in the same city, let alone the same state, it can be test to deliver the kind of technical support the business expects.

However, it is possible – according to IT manager Colin Phelps. Phelps heads the IT team at construction company PowerServe, a business that helps deliver infrastructure for electricity distribution and communications (including laying optical fibre as a subcontractor for construction of the National Broadband Network).

The power side of the business is concentrated in New South Wales – PowerServe's head office is at Thornton in the lower Hunter city of Maitland. The company's communications head office is in Sydney.

But the company's workforce of 300 is split between eight offices in five states. And Phelps and his compact IT team of four people, including him, is in Thornton. It's a setup that can make delivering IT support services interesting to say the least.

However, Phelps hasn't been fazed, he says. But when he came in as the company's first IT manager (it had an IT support officer and a part-time consultant previously) the approach to technical support did require a substantial overhaul. When it had been one full-time IT staff member, the company had relied on a single spreadsheet for issues tracking, such as desktop PC failures.

"That sounds rather old school, and it was," Phelps says.

If IT support had remained the purview of just one staff member, it might have been viable, but with the team growing to four "you can no longer track work effectively, even just break/fixes, let alone handling change management, release management, problem management," Phelps says.

"We went out looking at solutions and along with that came a culture change within the business as well as to how IT offers the services that it has, or needs to provide, to the business," he adds. The went from a spreadsheet to a rather more modern approach: Cloud-based IT service desk software offering from Wellington-based startup Beetil.

"Beetil was a nice low cost but effective solution that we could bring into the business that would allow us to, firstly internally within IT, manage the business that we do and handling requests to make sure they weren't forgotten."

"When I joined the company it was about 230 employees with about 150 computers – with one person doing that not everything got captured in the spreadsheet and we needed to make sure that did," Phelps says.

"Some of the complaints about IT's service was that things got forgotten." Employing Beetil's SaaS offering fixed that, however.

Beetil was a SaaS offering that meant the whole team could keep abreast of what was happening.

After Citrix's acquisition of Beetil in 2012, the software was rolled into GoToAssist, which meant that, as PowerServe stuck with the product, the company was also able to use it for remote support as well as tracking support tickets.

Previously remote technical support had been delivered over VPN connections – which was fine, as long as an employee didn't have a problem connecting to corporate network in the first place, Phelps says.

"If an employee is relying on a VPN connection and that VPN connection doesn't work, how do we assist that employee? We're basically relying on that employee's ability to talk to us technically and correctly communicate and then we're relying on the IT officer's ability to mentally picture what that person is communicating... as you can understand that is very rarely effective."

PowerServe has been using the remote support capabilities for around a year, Phelps says.

"It's absolutely vital when you've got that guy out in the field, he's having a computer problem, and he can't clearly communicate it. I mean if the computer's dead, well of course it doesn't help.

"But if an employee is having a problem in Word or Excel or can get access to the Internet but can't access their email, it's absolutely critical for us to help that person. That guy is out on a construction job, he's got minimum time to handle emails.

"We, as an organisation, need him out on the job as quick as we possibly can. For that, GoToAssist's remote assistance has been absolutely vital to us."

Finding an effective solution for tracking IT requests and delivering remote support has "absolutely" had a positive impact on IT's perception within PowerServe – and as a consequence, increased the business' expectations of what the IT team is capable of. "When you bring new technology into the business you do the risk analysis," Phelps says.

"Part of the risk analysis I did is – what if this goes well? What if this Beetil offering gives us what we need and then we start getting more demand from the employee population? That is exactly what happened."

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