System administration work during the COVID-19 lockdown: Insights and practical recommendations

By on 8 Nov 2022

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On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Office workers worldwide began to adjust to a ‘new normal’ of working from home wherever possible and the IT infrastructure supporting their work had to keep up with these changes.

While these changes were disruptive for most, for system administrators (sysadmins) the effects were compounded. This is because sysadmins are generally those running and adapting the digital infrastructure for users and clients. Therefore, not only did sysadmins have to adjust their own work to the remote working conditions but they also had to help others in adjusting, both technically and socially.

My colleagues and I at the Delft University of Technology and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics spoke to 24 sysadmins hailing from 12 economies (eight European, two two North American, India and Ghana) working within different sectors such as education, IT, finances, telecommunication, NGO, healthcare, and manufacturing.

We asked them about their day-to-day sysadmin work before, during, and after the lockdown was enforced to better understand how their work was impacted by the lockdown and the ways in which they managed this. Our main findings were the:

  1. Invisible care work done as part of sysadmin work
  2. Increase in sysadmin tasks pertaining to supporting others and formalization of their coordination processes
  3. Impact of these effects in terms of changes in expectations, and changes in perceived micromanagement and security

Below are some of the insights and practical recommendations we submitted in our paper “I needed to solve their overwhelmness”: How System Administration Work was Affected by COVID-19.

Audit formal processes

During the lockdown, we noted an increase in the formalization of work processes. This was because existing informal processes were formalized such as ‘coffee break talks’ being turned into planned meetings.

“… human to human communication has degraded while the engineer to engineer communication has increased.”

In addition, existing formal processes, such as routine system updates, were formalized even more due to added coordination steps. This increase in formalization had mixed effects on perceived micromanagement and system security.

“I need 5 minutes to look at the system […] there were some kind of extra security hurdles and steps that I needed to do to just get inside of the systems […] since I wasn’t able to travel to our customer.”

We recommend taking a structured look at the processes that used to be informal but became formal due to the lockdown. This is important to examine the effectiveness of newly added formal processes and assess their benefit and burden on sysadmins. Formal processes that were newly enforced during the lockdown were sometimes managed informally by the sysadmins prior to the lockdown and therefore, suddenly formalizing them can burden the sysadmins.

To identify these formalizations, together with sysadmins, we must dig deeper into the tasks that involve coordination with others and investigate the added tasks and steps that sysadmins now perform but didn’t pre-lockdown. Once identified, together with the sysadmins, we can assess which formal processes help and which hinder.

Maintain common ground

Communication and coordination are central to sysadmin work. This involves creating and following plans with others, adjusting these plans during unexpected/uncertain times, and maintaining common ground with collaborators. These coordination processes need to be supported, especially during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I kind of felt even more caught-out… out of the work… after the initial rush. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know who is doing what. Sometimes I was in a meeting and then I heard, ‘yeah okay, we’re getting this project or that project’ […] and I didn’t know anything about it. And it was a bit depressing. And it was the same with my direct IT colleagues. […] A job that’s lonely anyway or more on the lonely side… was even more lonely.”

We recommend supporting sysadmins’ coordination using tools that help establish common ground without adding coordination efforts. Such tools (both communication tools and configuration tools) can support sysadmins, for example, by sharing their analysis, plan updates, and task progress updates with their collaborators.

Defer to the expertise of sysadmins

Sysadmins tend to be invisible in organizations and, subsequently, their work is largely not well understood. This can give rise to a work environment where sysadmins feel micromanaged and overburdened with their work. This added task load of sysadmins then hinders them in performing their work.

“We get a lot of perhaps obvious questions to us, like, hey, is this secure? How is this secured? How is that secured? And it’s like, well, how it’s always been […] But we do a lot more of soothing for these people […] we’ll do another pen-test if you want”

It is important to highlight the issue of ownership in system operations work and introduce questions that managers and sysadmins can ask themselves to figure out if they have an issue in that area. Some examples include:

  • Am I (the sysadmin) doing tasks to appease the management that distracts from my sysadmin work?
  • Am I (the sysadmin) obstructed from making changes to systems because management doesn’t want to break things that are already working fine?
  • Am I (the sysadmin) asked to account for and report all my daily tasks to a manager?

Performing extra tasks, being prevented from updating system configurations, and reporting all daily tasks to make management feel comfortable (especially when a notable part of sysadmin work is difficult to account for, see below) do not enable sysadmins to do their work. Since sysadmins are the experts in their work, it is crucial to defer to their expertise instead of trying to micromanage them.

Acknowledge care work

Sysadmins perform care work in the form of helping users and colleagues and ensuring continuous system operations. The care aspect of sysadmin work tends to be invisible and underappreciated (in addition to the general invisibility mentioned above). However, sysadmins are contacted when someone needs something and are expected to fix the issues quickly.

 “if you are not very careful with your time, you can go a whole week without having anything to account for because you are spending your time trying to help other team members.”

It is important to acknowledge the invisible care work performed by sysadmins for the well-being of operators and users alike and to combat the aggrieved working attitudes (for example BOFH) that exist in the sysadmin community. The under-appreciation of sysadmin work can foster an uncaring/resentful work environment for sysadmins. To break this cycle, it is important to acknowledge the scope of work performed by sysadmins.

Please refer to our ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) paper to learn more about this work.

Mannat Kaur is a PhD researcher at TU Delft, the Netherlands.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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