Cisco, as one of the first few technology vendors to cancel events in the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, shared how it gradually transitioned its staff to work remotely and what it learned along the way.
Cisco vice president for customer and seller experience Bailey Szeto addressed participants at the Cisco Live APJC virtual event, saying that the company was surprised with how quickly it had to react to what was unfolding.
“It initially started off with just, ‘Hey IT, can you get Asia to work from home?’ as we thought there might be some declarations of Asia working from home,” Szeto said.
Szeto added that what really surprised Cisco was the speed at which the company quickly escalated and had other locations to be mandatory work from home.
“On March 4th it just started with Australia [in addition to Asia], but then five days later there was a significant increase in locations that we had to get ready for — San Jose, Italy, Washington — and a few days later, ‘Can you get the whole of US ready to work from home?’”
A few days later when its employees in India were asked to work from home, Cisco ultimately decided that all of its staff globally should follow suit.
“It was certainly a challenge for IT to get ready for that amount of scale to be able to enable our employees to work from home during the situation,” Szeto said.
Cisco had to get 140,000 employees and partners that needed to connect remotely and be able to be effective while being remote, which meant preparing 130,000 corporate devices, as well as 55,000 employee-owned devices.
“And of course, we had to get ready for more than 490 offices that we had around the world to get them ready to be basically shut down.”
Ensuring business continuity
Szeto then outlined what Cisco needed to accomplish to ensure business continuity, specifically to ensure everyone had basic connectivity and basic collaboration capabilities.
“We did this for two reasons, not just because obviously it's important for Cisco to want to continue this business,” he said.
“But we knew we had an obligation because most of the gear that we make is really centered to other companies — our customers — being able to enable work from home for that for their companies as well.”
Cisco also wanted to be available for support as its customers also transition to working remotely, and that it would be able to answer any technical support questions that may come up.
Szeto said Cisco found load balancing to be “extremely useful” by routing traffic to other VPN concentrators that may be at a less busier time and get more capacity there.
Split tunnelling was also emphasised to let known good sites like Salesforce, Microsoft, Apple and Windows updates bypass Cisco’s security, while everything else would still be sent through Cisco’s network.
With basic connectivity done, Szeto said collaboration among employees was the next priority.
“We are primarily a company of knowledge workers, which means that most of our time is spent on either WebEx meetings, or instant messaging,” she said.
With the split tunneling enabled, services like Webex teams and Office 365 didn’t need to be accessed through VPN as they’re included in the “known good sites” that can be easily accessed.
After getting collaboration set up, Cisco had to ensure that business functions remain productive during the period. “There has to be a partnership between IT and the business functions, and so we've partnered with all our business functions to ask them, ‘Okay, I know that you have basic connectivity, but can you be effective in the business processes that you have to do?’”
Szeto cited use cases including call centres, finance and engineering Cisco’s IT team learned what each business function needed, as well as some cases involving legal matters, like when equipment taken out of the office may be illegal, especially when leaving a city or country.
Cisco also produced what Szeto described as “a single source of truth” which included tips for working from home and using the VPN.
He said this was to prevent the spread of misinformation caused by everyone “trying to be helpful” sending out emails with information that may be have been incorrect.
Finally, Szeto highlighted the importance of video.
“At Cisco, we've always been big proponents of video and we continue to use a lot of video,” Szeto said. “It makes a big difference to see someone versus just kind of talking to them either through instant messaging, or even voice,” he said
“Video adds that next layer of connection that people need to have and see each other.”