"I needed to solve their overwhelmness": How System Administration Work was Affected by COVID-19


The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic made working from home – wherever working remotely is possible – the norm for what had previously been office-based jobs across the world. This change in how we work created a challenging situation for system administrators (sysadmins), as they are the ones building and maintaining the digital infrastructure our world relies on.

In this paper, we examine how system administration work changed early in the pandemic from sysadmins' personal perspectives, through semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis. We find that sysadmins faced a two-sided crisis: While sysadmins' own work environment changed, they also had to react to the new situation and facilitate stable options to work online for themselves and their colleagues, supporting their users in adapting to the crisis. This finding embeds into earlier work on the connection between IT (security) work and the notion of ‘care’, where we substantiate these earlier findings with results from a repeatable method grounded in coordination theory.

Furthermore, while we find that sysadmins perceived no major changes in the way they work, by consecutively probing our interviewees, we find that they did experience several counter-intuitive effects on their work. This includes that while day-to-day communication became inherently more difficult, other tasks were streamlined by the remote working format and were seen as having become easier. Finally, by structuring our results according to a model of coordination and communication, we identify changes in sysadmins' coordination patterns. From these we derive recommendations for how system administration work can be coordinated, ranging beyond the immediate pandemic response and the transition to any ‘new normal’ way of working.

ACM Conference On Computer-Supported Cooperative Work And Social Computing