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"Being Accessible" in IT

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Does "Being Accessible" mean open floor-plans & revolving doors?

open sign in clothing store window

The "accessibility" debate has been particular showing it's face every now and then for the last couple of years. As companies modernize and go to more managed services your local techs and engineers have less responsibilities (and in some cases become more of a "break in-case of emergency item) what do you do with them? Other times it's just a rogue facilities manager, with a budget that needs to be spent, who thinks the company would be "hip & cool" if everyone followed an open floor-plan with an open door policy that comes with it. Either way more and more managers are considering moving away from the current system of segregating local support away from the rest of the company (no more safe spaces.) Is this truly an idea worth considering though? Let's analyze the question posed.

First things first, a bit of background on myself. Since college I've worked in high-end corporate environments for enterprises ranging from 1,200 employees to over 95,000 employees. Depending on the location, sometimes within these huge enterprises you'll have acquired smaller companies still operating as a separate entity or just doing their own thing as they are in completely different worlds when compared to large markets like Chicago (ie: South Carolina.) In these smaller companies it's still a small business environment so I have experience from that vantage point as well. Being a contractor has also given me the chance to experience many different environments and processes around the world as well. For the most part, I've worked in a traditional secured environment or "dungeon" for IT. That system has worked extremely well with the only issues coming from a terribly outsourced help-desk in some cases.

So what makes the idea of having IT "accessible" sound appetizing? Well there's usually the idea of IT building a better rapport with other departments or at least looking like they're "open" or "welcoming" (pretty much the same as modern day virtue signaling that the world has become consumed with.) I've also heard some managers say they think more tickets will be entered because people will know exactly where IT is as they will be literally sitting right next to them. If you think those reasons sound off then you're not the only one (myself included.)

man sitting on tree stump in forest

If people aren't entering tickets because they either "don't know how or don't know where IT is" then that's a communication failure on IT's end. In my experience having a good rapport and being physically accessible are two things that don't correlate as well. On this particular issue there are also numerous articles and studies detailing how open door policies absolutely destroy efficiency, even more so for support staff which heavily rely on being efficient to get their jobs done. If you're working on an issue and are constantly being interrupted then it can take more than 3 times the normal length of time it usually takes to fix that issue. This also ties into the negatives of the myth that is "multi-tasking." You see when you multi-task, you're splitting your focus between multiple tasks. This means you're working at 50% efficiency at best on a particular task, which lowers the quality and increases the time it takes to do said task. When local support has to answer phones, emails, tickets, as well as handle walk-ups, this is a recipe for disaster. As indicated by multiple articles, the most successful people don't multi-task. They focus on one task at a time, completing it to the best of their ability then moving on to the next. Multi-tasking is a proven hindrance so why incorporate a system that is nothing, but multi-tasking?

For almost 4 years I worked at a company where the executives thought it would be a good idea for support staff to be completely accessible to the entire office during business hours. This meant a never closing door as well as at least one tech sitting directly with users and an open floor-plan. The problem with the decision coming from managers and executives is that they usually have no idea what the support staff's job entails. Not only that, but it's hypocritical as they don't keep their doors open 24/7 nor do they have to deal with the constant foot traffic. If an executive or manager actually had to deal with people constantly coming into their office then this wouldn't even be a decision worth discussing. As much as we love to romance the idea of a manager being a person who moved up through the company ladder starting as an engineer, the truth is that is hardly the case. Directors, Managers, Executives, etc. typically are hired in with a pure experience in management usually with an MBA or some degree relating to the matter as a manager only needs to know how to manage people, needing to know what exactly what their employees do or have a background in it themselves isn't necessarily a requirement. On top of this you have the insulation that forms between the people at the bottom and upper-level management. A good example of this is me having a conversation with some of the top brass at Comcast years ago and none of them having any idea that the technical support agents didn't know what the Xfinity hot spots were at all even though there were literally hundreds of hot spots around Chicago and even more being implemented daily. After they were made aware, they personally ordered all the support agents to be trained on it.

My time in a non-secure environment made me completely miss a traditional/standard setup for IT. The support staff tends to be on the phone a lot so it gets real awkward hearing everybody's conversations and it makes it hard to hear users over the phone when there's chatter in the background. It also gives way to unnecessary office politics as techs can see when another tech is goofing off instead of working. Trying to have meetings becomes an issue too when you have people constantly interrupting (at one point we started closing the door during meetings and some brilliant person then decided it was nice to POUND on the door for 10 minutes before leaving, this happened a few times.) It also was an issue trying to get major projects done like implementing a new ticket system or refreshing machines since those required a considerable amount of exclusive time to do because we were understaffed as well as users having unfettered access to IT (coupled with the fact that telling users "No" or "Go through the help-desk" was discouraged.)

Not to mention when you have a computer issue it is frustrating, giving people with anger issues or frustrated people unfettered physical access to IT can be have dangerous results (such as the time when a guy punched our door and subsequently bled all over the place upon entering the office or the several times when someone threw their laptop through the doorway into our office, potentially injuring someone, because they were frustrated.) I've also had people completely abuse the open door policy as they stalk me coming from lunch, the bathroom or wherever and essentially "hold me hostage" until their issue gets fixed (one of these times ironically happening during a company "Employee Appreciation" day party when I wasn't even supposed to be working which I reported to HR.)

Having users go through a tiered system starting with a separate help-desk is optimal (I take umbrage with companies combining levels 1,2&3 which are multiple 40 hour work weeks in themselves then just calling it a single "help desk" or "local support" position as in enterprises that combined position is a nightmare for the poor soul who is hired into it.) I'm willing to bet almost no company with more than 2,000 employees in one office has IT sitting in an open area or allows walk-ups and there's a reason for it. Funneling users through the help desk provides IT with the stability of a single focal point which is much easier to manage and puts less stress on the support teams.

It makes no sense to be "radically" different. IT evolved to the traditional system as that's what was found to be the most effective. No need to change the system, change the tools within to be able to provide better support. Being "physically accessible" doesn't correlate with having great support or a good rapport with the other departments at all. My support team can be just as warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable over the phone while still inviting users in for physical issues. Ask your users would they rather have fantastic support, but have to follow a process or would they rather have mediocre support, but have 24/7 physical access to IT? The choice is easy, if someone can fix issues very quickly and still hold a conversation I'm sure the user will not only remember that tech's name, but will gladly go through the process every time so long as the level of service remains consistent.

Now this isn't to say having an revolving door as far as IT goes doesn't work. In small business where the office is less than 100 people yes this system of support can work since the workload isn't necessarily going to be huge. As a company grows though and the number of tickets increase exponentially, having an open door policy becomes a nightmare since you're talking about hundreds or even thousands of people constantly knocking at your door. At one of my former companies, a company that at one point over 95,000 people called their place of work, we received 300 tickets a day for Illinois alone! Now imagine 300 people strolling into your office constantly throughout the day and realize hectic that would be. Luckily at that company we were in a secured area.

Overall the loss in efficiency alone is a major reason to not implement an open door policy for IT, more specifically local support & application support. Coupled with the nuisances of office politics, frustrated employees, and the fact that "accessible" and "personable" can be easily achieved with a good support system makes this an easy decision to make. The arguments for it are very flawed in this aspect. Hopefully managers & executives will realize what the support team's job entails and act appropriately.



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