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In pretty much any IT dept that manages a network, you have to find a way to balance time between Helpdesk calls (frequent, simple things like 'I cant print') and longer term infrastructure projects (re-organising mailboxes, upgrading software and hardware, adding new capabilities to the networks and systems, keeping up with security and disaster recovery planning, etc).

The problem seems to be that the Helpdesk part of that equation will always grow to fill all available time if you let it. But if you don't look after the infrastructure then everyone suffers.

What are good ways to manage this?

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5 Answers 5

SvenW has solid recommendations in his quality answer. If you manage the support properly, you should be able to eliminate the majority of support within the organization. It may take a year or two to get to this point but is something I have consistently been able to do when necessary.

Nevertheless, the ideal situation is to separate the helpdesk and production infrastructure functions. The helpdesk should still be under IT but have a separate structure within IT. I typically support having a helpdesk supervisor or manager as well, which would report to the IT Director or CTO. If you have a large intranet, you will probably have administrators responsible for that infrastructure. In that case, they would be the escalation point for the helpdesk. There are variations of this theme but the key here is that the senior staff should not be the primary point of contact for support.

In even smaller companies, once you have your support responsibilities more structured, there is absolutely no reason why an hourly role cannot be established to serve as a primary contact point. Having highly skilled and highly paid employees swapping out mice simply does not make business sense.

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As pointed out by others, the answer to this depends on how IT is viewed within the company. In most companies IT is seen as a necessary evil, and consequently understaffed.

In that situation you need to sit down with your boss and present him with a list of all the stuff that needs/wants doing, complete with priorities from your point of view. This must include an allowance to deal with helpdesk issues (which you should arrive at by measuring how much time you are actually spending on it).
The list should also have estimates on how long all the other things need to implement or complete.
You know how much time you (and your team mates) have, so from there it is a simple exercise. Cut the allowance for helpdesk stuff out from the available time, which gives you remaining time. The boss provides the priorities and from there you can see how long it takes to implement the rest.

By the sounds of it, the picture will be extremely ugly. Which is exactly what you want, because that is then the time to say to your boss: "Well, if you want me to deliver more, then I need more resources. Of course, if IT cannot have more resources, then we will follow your priorities, which means that the entire bottom of the list never gets done.".

And now to the question of balancing helpdesk vs. infrastructure projects: In any engineering discipline (and IT is no different to that) there is well proven motto: Fix your problems twice.
First you fix the problem at hand, which is generally a symptom of something else being wrong. This makes sure the user is happy and goes away.
Then you fix the underlying root cause of the problem. That makes sure the symptoms don't come back.

If you do this with perseverance and consequence, you will end up in a situation where the helpdesk calls get less and you have more time for other stuff (until your bosses decide that you are overstaffed and cut your team size down).

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+1 Good advice for managing a high workload and working with management. –  Warner Sep 2 '10 at 15:42

Part of this has to come from management - how is the position seen in the company. Is the sysadmin seen as someone who "manages the network, including fixing client issues" or is the sysadmin seen as "the guy who fixes our computers".

If the culture of the place and the expectations of the business managers don't include the sysadmin having the time to do these projects then you'll struggle to persuade the users to give you the time.

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I think the best way to solve this and, unfortunately the most unlikely to actually be possible, is to hiring additional support techs. Especially easy things like "I can't print" is good stuff for entry level positions.

That aside, you will need to think about streamlining your support. Some random tips:

  • Creating good documentations for users takes time, but will save you much more time in the long run, especially the self-suppport sections.
  • If you have good documentation, create templates for replying to mail with references to said infos.
  • Same is true for phone calls: Instead of walking the caller through the steps, tell him that you will send him a link via mail. Do so.
  • If you don't already have, set up a trouble ticket system like RT or OTRS. It will help you track your support requests and will send out acknowledgment mails. This is good for users because they know their problems will be handled even if you don't reply immediately. It can also help you to get a picture about general problems with your setup and where you can improve your documentation. It also helps you to document your workload to your bosses.
  • Create a policy about what are valid support requests and clear this with your bosses. Enforce this policy. This makes it easier to deny requests for helping with users home DSL lines or iTunes setup etc.
  • Create "call free" time blocks where you don't handle suppport except in real urgent cases. This should be part of your policy and strictly enforced. Again, you bosses must back you on this.

As I said this are just some random tips. Much more incredible helpful tips you will get from Tim Limoncelli and his books The Practice of System and Network Administration and Time Management for System Administrators. Especially the first one is a must-read.

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Time management and scheduling are key here. I used to simply allocate several hours every day for HD stuff (usually afternoon, because that's when it's easier to send users away from their laptops for maintenance), and several specific hours every day or week, for infrastructure, projects, testing interesting new ways o doing things etc.

The timing should be agreed upon with the management, so that if a user complains about lack of attention, you can send him/her to the manager without fuss.

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That only works if management really cooperates though, and doesn't honour every request from "important" users. –  JanC Sep 2 '10 at 11:08
    
I've been lucky to have management that appreciated my work up to now,in all the 18+ years I've been doing IT related work –  dyasny Sep 2 '10 at 12:48

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