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How to efficiently manage PC refresh and data migration for a remote workforce

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

Even with stay-at-home orders and social guidelines easing in some parts of the country, companies are largely opting to maintain a work-from-home structure. The likely outcome looking past the Covid-19 pandemic is the advent of a more complex hybrid workplace, one where employees have multiple work locations and the need for a consistent computing experience regardless of whether they are logging in from home, a vacation home or an office location.

“The Covid-19 pandemic brought about a huge experiment in widespread remote working,” says Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice. “As business leaders plan and execute reopening of their workplaces, they are evaluating more permanent remote working arrangements as a way to meet employee expectations and to build more resilient business operations.”

The technology research and advisory company’s research reveals the rise of the hybrid workplace. A recent Gartner survey of company leaders found that 82 percent of respondents intend to permit remote working some of the time as employees return to the workplace. For IT teams responsible for providing the PCs and applications employees need to maintain productivity, the emergence of a hybrid workforce on a large scale is anything but good news.

In this more complex environment, IT departments will potentially have twice as many employee workspaces to set up and maintain, more or less equally divided between remote and office locations. For organizations with two- or three-year lease cycles on computing devices, a 2x increase in the number of upgrades is likely to represent a nearly overwhelming portion of the ongoing workflow for IT staff. To reduce the number of PCs, organizations may opt to outfit their workforce with mobile PCs, requiring more up-front investment and shorter refresh cycles compared to traditional desktop PCs.

Challenging migrations

Compounding the problem is the fact that many application and data migrations are done manually. Complex migrations from one device to another involves much more than just copying files to Microsoft OneDrive and dragging them over to a new machine. There are many specialized applications and PC settings crucial to a worker’s role that need attention. In some cases, an IT professional may need to coordinate with the employee to gain access to their system, change and update passwords and resolve any issues that may have arisen. The cost is more than just the hours invested in IT technicians – it’s many hours of lost productivity across the entire workforce.

For many larger organizations, the go-to tool for setting up remote workers and handling hardware replacements from lease rotations has been Microsoft’s User State Migration Tool (USMT). This tool captures user accounts, user files, operating system settings, and application settings and then migrates them to a new Windows installation. It can be used for both PC replacement and PC refresh migrations.

But as a global professional and financial services firm with over 100-years of experience and 200,000+ employees discovered, USMT fails to deliver the quick and easy experience needed to support thousands upon thousands of migrations. In this case, the firm developed an internal tool customized to fit its processes based on USMT. While this tool allowed users to complete migrations successfully, the process itself was long and tedious, taking at least 20 minutes of set-up before the process could begin.

Similarly, a local government agency in Australia found USMT to be highly technical and time consuming for its IT staff to manage and maintain. Migrations involved a labor-intensive process of customizing scripts, building PCs and migrating user information, data and applications. A recent move to Windows 10 was particularly challenging, consuming 25 percent of IT staff’s weekly time.

Mounting challenges

Another challenge is that data needed by users and applications isn’t always in predictable locations. For instance, a global manufacturer of specialty papers and engineered products found that it was unable to streamline migration processes because data was often saved in obscure locations. This created a need for manual intervention by IT staff.

USMT falls short in part because the list of what it does not migrate is nearly as long as what it does. A particular stumbling point is lack of support for migration of applications and programs themselves, even though it will migrate applications settings for certain supported apps. It also won’t migrate applications to a new version – the source and destination must be the same except for Microsoft Office applications.  A variety of operating system settings such as printers, hardware settings and permissions also are not supported. It also lacks support for migration between different language version of Windows.

Toward zero-touch migrations

Regardless of workplace location, deployments and migrations need a new approach. Employees need simple migration steps and the process should be as automated as possible – even to the point of zero touch. In this scenario, an employee kicks off a migration to a new or replacement PC with a few simple clicks and the rest of the process is automated with minimal oversight by a remote IT department. This type of simple and streamlined process reduces the need for employees to call into a help desk or submit a trouble ticket to IT. Such a process is exactly what’s called for as more businesses adopt hybrid workplace models.

To move in this direction, IT teams require more automation and control over the migration process than what USMT provides and without the need for labor-intensive scripting and testing. For this, enterprises should look for an automated tool that can move everything: applications, data, and settings, including user accounts, applications’ environments, application add-ons, background pictures, favorites and more.

While having an application that can move everything is a good baseline, the fact remains that every PC and user is different and requires different migration procedures. To accommodate these variations, IT departments must be able to predefine various rules and policies within their organization to fit a wide range of use cases.

A policy manager allows IT administrators to pre-check a variety of choices within the program to create a predefined version of the product that can be executed by a user or an IT engineer with minimal interaction. The experienced user might require a full range of options, but most users are better off with a no-touch or light-touch migration to drive down user errors.  A policy-based approach reduces complexity compared to developing XML scripts – a major obstacle even for a professional consulting firm – while providing the necessary levels of flexibility.

All indications are that the move to remote work is not only here to stay but will likely introduce us all to the concept of much more complex hybrid workspaces even after the Covid-19 pandemic is in rear view mirror. To be successful at supporting this model, IT organizations must find ways to automate and streamline processes while minimizing hands-on IT involvement in setting up and migrating PCs.

Thomas Koll, CEO, Laplink Software