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Boffins find COVID changed the way sysadmins work – probably for the worse

Crisis mode led to more formal meetings and lists, which just make more useless work

Researchers from Germany's Max-Planck-Institut für Informatik have studied how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way systems administrators work, and found the profession was negatively impacted.

Their findings are detailed in a paper titled "'I needed to solve their overwhelmness': How system administration work was affected by COVID-19".

The researchers spoke to 24 sysadmins hailing from 12 economies (eight European, two North American, plus India and Ghana) 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."

The researchers found that sysadmins face unique pressures in a crisis because it's their job to keep everyone else working – even as they have to adjust their own practices.

"The ability of sysadmins to adapt to a crisis then has a cascading effect on other workers' ability to adapt."

The study found sysadmins mostly just did whatever it took in the early days of lockdowns, before their organizations moved "from implicit to explicit coordination, and from informal to formal interactions."

That was a good thing in some ways – one of the interviewees said that lax security practices like password sharing didn't survive the early days of the pandemic. Others said remote work meant the pressure to do things because someone was waiting for them to happen was not felt when they worked from home.

"We see a connection between the lockdown forcing a formalization of coordination activity and a decline in perceived micro-management; spontaneous and chance interactions are replaced by asynchronous communications and planned meetings," the researchers write.

While sysadmins appreciated the fact they were just left alone to work through lists of required activities, some found the need to prove they'd done their required tasks was more onerous than just talking to colleagues to let them know a job had been done.

The researchers argued that loss of spontaneous integration was not good for sysadmins or their employers, because organizations have come to expect that their techies are available to help, and sysadmins see it as a part of the role.

"The informal aspects which were integral to sysadmin work (spontaneous conversations, helping each other etc.) have been replaced by formal communication or were otherwise replaced with ill-fitting approaches," the paper states.

The researchers make three recommendations:

  1. Minimize formal work styles that just make extra work for sysadmins;
  2. Adopt tools that let sysadmins do what they do best while reducing the need for formal coordination of remote work;
  3. Ensure that system administrators have sufficient authority over their work and responsibilities to shape and implement working processes that aid them in accomplishing their tasks.

The Register spends a lot of time pondering the lot of a sysadmin. In your correspondent's opinion this paper has useful insights into the profession and may open your eyes to how sysadmins are regarded inside organizations, and how the world of work works. It’s worth a read. ®

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