Ben Cormier has heard it all. He remembers, for instance, working in tech support at an Internet advertising company and getting a frantic call from a woman who was “completely flipping out.”
“She felt her computer had been possessed,” he says. “Those were her words.”
Every time the user opened a window on her machine, it would immediately close again. Cormier found the alarmed user at her desk. It did not take long for him to diagnose the problem: her desk was outrageously messy, buried in stacks of files. One of them had slid onto the keyboard and was holding down the Escape key.
Chris, an IT worker who still works in the government sector in Toronto, has seen worse. He tells the story of an employee who, having summoned the tech to fix a balky printer, demanded the IT guy fix his glasses, too. “The individual had popped the lens,” says Chris, still sounding a little chagrined. “His attitude was, ‘You guys have tools. You can fix anything.’”
Then there are the employees who think Chris can “hook them up” with bootleg software they figure he has sitting around. And users who think that he makes up rules just to spite them. There are many of those.
Providing information technology support—maintaining office computers, running networks and manning the helpdesk that takes frustrated user calls—is a fraught endeavour. IT workers sigh that they’re supporting “1,000 idiots using computers.” Users complain that they’re tired of being talked down to, tired of being made to feel like idiots, tired of absurd rules, tired of machines that break, tired of IT support that cuts out at 5 p.m.—when they’re expected to work around the clock.
Any discussion of office IT quickly turns into a ritual airing of grievances. An entire cultural marketplace of IT humour has sprung up. A British sitcom, The IT Crowd, exists on the simple premise that everything about the basement-dwelling IT department is so miserable it’s inherently humorous. (“Hello, IT. Have you tried turning it off and on again?” its protagonists recite when they answer the phone.)
The IT department elicits such strong feelings because it’s as indispensable as it is insufferable. Traditionally, it’s been a monopoly provider: the only way that data got into the company, and the only way employees could get that information at their desks.
No longer. Companies now face a landscape that has vastly changed from the cookie-cutter desktop-and-BlackBerry regimen of a decade ago. When employees bring their own devices to work—whether bosses like it or not—it forces companies to reconsider their locked-down technology policies. When online services envelope the corporate world in a cloud of computing, alternatives emerge to cumbersome old software. And with the arrival of social networks, the idea that users can help each other is gaining currency. All these ideas have pushed the helpdesk into uncharted territory—and, in some case, oblivion. There is hope for a better, less frustrating world, for both users and support staff alike.
Why can the IT department be so frustrating? Try to see it from their perspective for a second. They see the world through the prism of security. Before the first employee shows up for work in the morning, office computers are already under attack. They’re being bombarded by pieces of software that want to infect them, steal data, steal money or all of the above. Windows, far and away the most common operating system in the corporate world, is such a complicated and ornery thing—“a giant minefield of conflicts and problems,” says Cormier—that hackers are always finding new chinks in its armor to exploit. So, on the second Tuesday of each month, Microsoft will send out the latest security patch, which needs to be installed, and hopefully doesn’t lead to further incompatibilities.
And those are just the headaches that exist before anything goes and breaks. That’s when people start calling in with their own problems.
“It’s always a five-alarm blaze. Everything is crashing, and the world is coming to an end,” says Chris, the government tech worker. “For IT people, it’s hard to juggle all that, because you’ve got your normal priorities that need to get fixed, and then there’s always someone who needs something right away.”
And yet, their departments are often chronically understaffed and underfunded. Since they don’t bring in any money, CEOs can see tech support as a black hole on the ledger when recessions hit. “A lot of budgets were cut to the tune of 5% to 7% in the last three or four years, and have remained fairly flat since then,” says Ross Armstrong, a lead research analyst at Info-tech Research Group.
Frustration on all sides can lead to a toxic atmosphere. Nicole Haggerty, an associate professor of management information systems at the Ivey School of Business, listened to hundreds of support calls while researching corporate helpdesks. She can rattle off users’ complaints about their IT departments—“their tone of voice was rude; they were being superior; I waited a long time; they passed me to different people”—but her research suggested a different reality.
“Listening to calls, I rarely heard that,” she says. “What I heard was a tendency for users to see support staff as servants, and then to treat them in a fashion that wasn’t as partners. Just servants.”
The best IT staffers, she found, were the ones who were able to field the calls that start with “I don’t know anything about technology,” offer reassurance and empathy, and then walk people through the learning process—the ones, in other words, who offer the users some empowerment.
That is, assuming you even need an IT department at all.
Bob Maurin has no IT department. He is OK with that.
It’s not that the company he works for is small, or short on technology. Wave Accounting, a burgeoning Toronto firm that offers free online accounting software to small businesses, is loaded with technology, from top to bottom—developers, support staff, videographers, marketers, administrators; the quintessential startup crew of mostly millennials sharing the requisite Ping-Pong table in the requisite post-industrial loft.
What Wave doesn’t have is a single go-to person to keep its gadgets running. It’s nobody’s job to buy computers—every employee brings her own, with a help of a $500 annual stipend from the firm. It’s nobody’s job to manage 100 Microsoft Office licences and installations—everyone just uses Google Docs, which practically sets itself up. It’s nobody’s job to set employees up with external monitors, which are about the only piece of hardware the company itself supplies. Employees can grab one for themselves. “They’re in the supply closet,” notes Maurin, Wave’s vice-president of community relations.
What’s happening isn’t really an elimination of IT—someone still has to replace the toner cartridges. Rather, the tasks that a centralized IT department once took on are simultaneously getting pushed down to business departments, and up to software vendors. The in-house basics, like ensuring Wi-Fi coverage, have become basic office-administration tasks—after all, you don’t have to be a gearhead to maintain a printer anymore. Similarly, the basics of IT infrastructure, the printers and routers, have become throwaway commodities, designed to be replaced rather than repaired.
Meanwhile, the “cloud services” the company uses are supported by the companies that created them, be it a product called ZenDesk that runs its customer-support apparatus, or their software-development tools. There are fewer problems in the first place, because online applications—which make their money from subscriptions, not support contracts—tend to have modern, easy-to-use interfaces.
But could a big company really work without an IT department in practice? As Maurin led a tour of the offices, every visible piece of technology posed the question of who looked after it. With 77 employees, there was quite a bit of tech. Turning a corner into a room whose walls were covered in whiteboard markings, we came across a man fiddling with the bits and pieces of a video-conferencing setup. (The company was preparing for an all-hands meeting later in the day, and was trying to do a better job of linking in their satellite offices in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Rochester, N.Y.)
What about this?
“I suppose in another world, this would have been an IT task,” says Maurin.
In this world, it’s the company’s videographer, Jude Haines, who takes on the task. He does the company videos; he has the video know-how and all the equipment. So now he’s the video-conferencing guy.
“It just seems so natural,” says Maurin, “but if I throw back to the corporate environments I’ve worked in, it’s a completely different scenario.”
Even where traditional IT departments are an immutable fact of life, the changing working world is forcing more flexibility. Unstoppably, the mentality of the consumer marketplace has come rushing into the office.
The gadgets came first. After the iPhone emerged in 2007, employees suddenly had a phone in their home lives that was more appealing than their expensive, work-issued BlackBerrys. Soon, they started asking why they needed two phones, and started taking their home phones to work. Ditto their tablets, and ditto their laptops. A “bring your own device” revolution was afoot.
This was an immediate headache for IT departments. Suddenly, their carefully controlled workplace was crawling with all manner of different devices, each with their own particularities, each with an owner asking why it won’t connect or work or print, and each liable to have sensitive work information transferred onto it before being forgotten in a cab somewhere. The warier departments reacted in time-honoured IT tradition: they said no. Short of frisking employees at the front door, however, there’s no way of keeping these gadgets out of the building.
Besides, companies are quickly learning that gopher-bopping unwanted phones as they’re detected might not be the best way to go. “In a weird way, mobile is forcing the hand of IT, to be more co-operative,” says Nigel Wallis, a research director at IDC Canada. According to IDC, 69% of Canadian companies are providing an allowance of some sort to employees so they can bring their own devices, but only 30% actually have a policy. (Another 26% plan to have a policy, if we’re counting good intentions.) In this case, a policy can mean a set of rules for employees to follow. A policy can also mean consenting to software that would remotely wipe personal phones—nuking them, personal data and all—should the device get lost. The upside to companies is happier staff, who can keep using the gadgets that are as familiar to them as appendages.
Another thing that IT types want to minimize is what they call “helpdesk friction”: the amount of needlessly irritating contact employees need to have with busy IT staff in order to solve a problem.
There are a few ways to reduce friction. Last year, Facebook’s CIO set up vending machines full of accessories in the company hallways. Instead of filling out IT requisition forms, anyone needing a new keyboard, cable or screen wipe need simply swipe their badge, and the item is delivered.
In RIM’s heyday, employees could amble up to one of a series of 24/7 helpdesk kiosks, and have any tech needs met on the spot without an irritating wait or phone call. (“It was open Christmas Day,” marvels Armstrong, a former RIM employee himself.)
Alas, the service was axed as part of RIM’s cost-cutting; the company pared its tech support down to business hours, with “business-critical” after-hours support.
Some companies now use social networking to get users talking straight to one another. TD Bank Group, which embraces TD’s operations in the U.S. and Canada, noticed that their 86,000 users weren’t exactly leaping at the chance to engage with its corporate intranet; the words “intranet” and “excitement” seldom have much to do with each other. So late last year, the bank rolled out an in-house social network; a suite from IBM that offers a kind of hybridized LinkedIn-Facebook-Wikipedia mashup. For instance, TD employees from across the corporation can make “friend”-style connections, work collaboratively on documents and take part in discussion forums.
The program has proven well-suited to helping users provide tech support to one another. The forums are already being used to let users answer each others’ questions about the social software itself—a tactic that Apple has deployed with success in the as a first line of customer support.
“This is a terrific thing, because once that question is asked and answered, it’s searchable,” says Wendy Arnott, TD’s vice-president of social media. “Moreover, the person who answered it only has to answer it once.”
The helpdesk is not going away. Companies can reduce friction, and some smaller ones might cut out the IT department altogether, but the dance between the employee with a critical deadline and the IT worker with 1,000 computers to maintain will play on. Chris, at the governmental IT support desk, knows that some of his colleagues will never achieve the tech-guy ideal and become an all-in-one fixer, guardian and teacher. At the same time, he has a plea: understand that his department is under financial pressure. Understand that if someone in IT says no, there’s probably a good reason for it. Finally, “Realize that IT is a thankless job.”
Office workers hoping for a better tomorrow, take heed. Also, turning it off and on again first is actually pretty good advice.