Dispatches from Afar: Building and Managing a Distributed Desktop Support Team


by Michael Fisher


 

In companies with multiple regional offices, it’s the nature of desktop support that the team is going to be widely scattered. Regardless of how effective your service desk’s remote support tools might be, the reality for most organizations is that for any facility over a certain number of employees, you’re going to need “boots on the ground” to handle on-site IT support, which means having desktop support staff in remote locations. Building and managing these distributed teams has long been a troubling challenge for IT support.

Bringing everyone to a central location for in-person bonding and team building is a good solution, and an effective way to bind the team into a functioning whole. If you have the budget to do this, it’s by far the preferred solution. But where ten years ago IT departments had the budget and resources to do this kind of team building, today such gatherings are a thing of the past. In the current climate of reduced staff levels and nonexistent travel budgets, how do you build and maintain a functional distributed desktop support team?

What Does Desktop Support Do?

While distributed teams can be found in any kind of professional activity, the desktop support role brings unique factors to the equation, and it’s worth spending a little time examining these factors and how they affect the dynamic.

In many cases, your desktop support resource in the field may be the only IT person on-site. As the on-site, hands-on IT resource, the field desktop technician has routine contact with a wide variety of operational tasks and responsibilities. These can include: 

  • Employee moves 
  • Break/fix 
  • Hardware deployment and recovery 
  • New hires Inventory management 
  • Physical security 
  • Liaising between IT and the local business 
  • Supporting other IT teams, such as networking, infrastructure, etc.

Also, because any organization will have unexpected situations that fall through the cracks, it is often the field desktop resource who winds up holding the bag and handling whatever else needs to be handled.

The danger here is that, without a strong sense of connection to the larger team and organization, a desktop worker in the field can develop a Lone Ranger mentality. The rogue IT cowboy who feels isolated and alone can create all manner of problems, which can be prevented by building a tightly-knit distributed team.

The key to countering this isolation and building an effective team comes down to a single word: connections. The more connections you can foster among your team and with the business, the better your distributed desktop support team is going to function.

Here are five essential steps that you can use to connect those scattered resources and knit them into a cohesive, effective distributed team.

ESSENTIAL STEP #1: Get the Right People

Successful remote desktop support technicians possess a unique combination of traits. Chief among these is assuming a high degree of ownership for their site’s IT environment, deeply inhabiting their role as the “face of IT” on-site.

The ability to make connections is also important. The ideal remote desktop support technician will be a good, proactive communicator, someone who readily and easily forms relationships with colleagues both near and far.

Another important quality for a good remote desktop employee is organizational maturity, or the ability to deal effectively and diplomatically with the variety of traits and personalities they will be called on to balance in their field role. Look for people who enjoy people and can handle themselves in tough situations.

You also want technicians who are self-motivated and can work independently, but who respect the organization and will work within its parameters. You want technicians who will take initiative for their sites, but who will also communicate about those initiatives.

And, of course, all the standard staffing rules apply. We all inherit good employees and not-so-good employees. Nurture and cherish the good ones; develop or replace the not-so-good ones.

ESSENTIAL STEP #2: Establish Standards

A very important factor in building any team, distributed or not, is having everyone do things the same way. For a distributed desktop support team, this is all the more important because of the operations aspect of their roles. If each field desktop location has its own methods and standards for supporting the business, those desktop employees are much more likely to view themselves as Lone Rangers, rather than a part of a team.

Uniformity and standardization are the keys here.

Standardized Tools
Provide your team with standardized tools and procedures for performing their work. Well-designed computer imaging and software deployment tools can be used to create an easily duplicated process that has everyone imaging and deploying computers the same way.

By establishing these kinds of standardized tools and procedures, you can ensure that desktop staff across the country (or around the world) are following the same methods and processes. This helps create a strong sense of solidarity, too.

Documentation
Create a single reference library for your team. Build it in a common, easily managed platform, like SharePoint, and refer to it regularly in team communications. Make it a go-to destination for team members with technical, procedural, or organizational questions.

Uniform standards are essential for creating a coherent team. Start by leveraging any standards your company has already established; if your company lacks this kind of standardization, create your own. You can’t afford to be without it.

Personnel Metrics
For a scattered team, it’s important to make sure that you’ve got solid, well-selected personnel metrics in place to ensure that everyone is being evaluated by and held accountable to the same standards. A good set of performance metrics, applied uniformly across the entire group, can go a long way toward creating the sense of consistent organization that comes with being on a team.

All the basic rules for metrics still apply. The most important thing is to make sure you’ve got a variety of metrics that examine your employee’s performance from different perspectives, to provide a three-dimensional view of their performance. Don’t rely solely on quantitative measurements, like the number of incidents closed; look at qualitative measurements too, like customer satisfaction ratings or ticket documentation quality. When you do use quantitative neasurements, try to find ways to compare production to levels of business activity.

One-on-One Meetings
Another good source of standardized contact is a recurring, structured one-to-one meeting with each team member. Establish a defined format for these meetings. Create a form for the meeting, which can be used to document key personnel metrics (and the factors contributing to those results), celebrations and challenges, topics discussed, and action items to be pursued. These meetings should be part of a consistent and regular routine. As the manager, you should be a solid, predictable foundation for your remote team members.

ESSENTIAL STEP #3: Build Relationships

Relationships Between Yourself and Your Team Members
First and foremost, as manager you have an obligation to form a relationship with each of your team members. The manager/employee relationship is part of your supervisory role, but that by itself is not enough. You don’t need to be your employees’ best friend, but a weak relationship with your team will be a severe obstacle to building an effective, functioning unit.

There are countless books and articles that go into deep detail on how to build and strengthen bonds with your employees. But what it ultimately comes down to is being interested and involved in who they are and what they’re doing. You can express this interest in many ways: informal “check-in” calls, acknowledging birthdays and family milestones, learning and asking about family and personal interests, etc. Let them know they are important.

Relationships Between Team Members
Just as important as the manager/employee relationship is fostering strong relationships between your various team members. This is where the group goes from a bunch of individual contributors to being a strong, flexible, interdependent team.

In an IT support environment, an excellent way to build these links is make your team members each other’s technical resources. Create an email distribution list for the desktop support team and encourage them to send technical questions to that list. There is an amazing amount of technical expertise that can be mined from your team’s “group mind.” As team members tap that resource, their interdependency will grow and draw them more tightly together.

Relationships Between Yourself and the Local Business
It’s not enough for your remote desktop staff to create bonds with the local business. As manager of the team, you also need to get to know the key people at each remote location and learn about their specific needs and concerns. The benefits of this bond go beyond the simple imperative of understanding the business you’re supporting. For one thing, you will be in a position to intercede and advocate on your staff’s behalf in the event of the event of discord with the local business. Conversely, the local business can be your on-site eyes and ears in case you have problems with a remote team member.

Relationships Between Yourself and Organizational Resources
As a manager, you can seek out and create relationships with the go-to people in the corporate departments that serve your employees, such as HR, facilities, finance, and procurement. Learn how things work: how to get payroll questions answered, how to get expense reports processed, how to get a table and chair for the local server room, etc. This will not only help you establish visibility in the organization, but it will also empower you to move into Essential Step #4.

ESSENTIAL STEP #4: Be a Resource

Become the go-to resource for your team’s questions. Good managers are always a resource for their people, and this another method of strengthening their relationship with you. In the case of a distributed team, the opportunity is enhanced because a remote desktop worker is, by definition, a satellite of the corporate “mother ship.” By leveraging the relationships with “action people” in other departments (the ones you built in Essential Step #3) and your knowledge of how things work, you can become a liaison between your remote team and the “mother ship.”

ESSENTIAL STEP #5: Create a Team Identity

A key component to building a solid team is establishing a team identity. This identity has two main components: outward (branding) and inward (team culture).

Branding
Branding is about creating outward symbols of your team’s identity. Creating a brand for your team will help establish and maintain the team culture, making it a self-propagating entity. Fortunately, IT people tend to be a creative lot, so chances are you’ve got some talent on your team that can help with the ideas and execution of your team-branding exercise.

The specific elements you use to build your brand will vary depending on your organization’s culture. Develop a consistent, catchy email signature. Give your team a name. Get someone on your team to create a team logo, and get the logo printed on t-shirts, hats, and mouse pads.

Team Culture
Your team’s identity will be defined internally by its culture, which can perhaps most easily be summed up as “how the team thinks of itself.” A culture is a shared set of stories, values, and ideals. Establishing a culture takes time, but you can plant that culture’s seeds.

The great civilizations have all had their own shared legends, myths, histories, and traditions. So should your team. Tell your team’s stories. Identify and celebrate your “team heroes.” Tell the tales of extraordinary things team members have done in response to trying situations. This history will help create a culture that team members will want to identify and be associated with.

Technology
Today’s workplace is filled with a wide variety of methods for remote contact. You should leverage these as deeply as your organization will permit, recognizing that all channels may not available to you.

Regular team conference calls – The all-hands team conference call may be a corporate cliché, but it is a cliché for good reason. There are several things you can do to make the best use of this time. For example:

  • Maintain a tight focus on the call’s content. 
  • Shoot for shorter calls (a thirty-minute call twice a week may be more productive than a sixty-minute weekly call). 
  • Ask different team members to present “cool geek tricks” on the calls.

Video conferencing – If your video conferencing equipment is available in remote locations, this can be an effective tool for making your team feel more connected. Even if you don’t use it for every meeting, a periodic video conference can help your team put a face to remote voices and break the monotony.

Social media – Social media policies vary widely from workplace to workplace, but it is undeniable that social media can be a hugely effective tool in creating a sense of community among widely scattered groups. Create a team Facebook page, a Twitter feed or a team hashtag, or even a team wiki. Ask your team for ideas.

*    *    *    *    *

A team is a living organism, and as long as the team is together, it will require continual care and attention. Tailor your methods to what’s appropriate in and for your organization, and know that there is no “magic bullet.” By putting the right people in place, creating effective tools and standards, and building connections between yourself, your team, and the business you support, you can create a dynamic and effective distributed desktop support organization.

 

Michael Fisher has been providing IT support for twenty-five years, building widely distributed IT support teams in the publishing, media, and healthcare fields. He currently supervises desktop support for Molina Healthcare, overseeing a team of thirty-four technicians spread across nineteen locations in fourteen states. Michael is a certified HDI Support Center Manager and is the president of the HDI Orange County local chapter in California.

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