Remote management: sensible or intrusive?


Terri Hickman of Intergas Boilers discusses the pros and cons of remote management in the Covid-19 era.

Working from home, such an alien concept at the start of lockdown, is now a much-loved (or tolerated, depending on your point of view) way of life. But, accessing the company servers from your spare room or kitchen is far from alien to the army of consultants and freelancers who’ve been working remotely in this way for years.

The ‘must have’ is just a fast, stable and secure internet connection. How productively you’re working however is important to know, and a hard one to gauge in many industries, but there is a lot of software out there that makes managing, rather than monitoring the whole process as efficient and as accountable as it can be.

The remote management of boilers in social housing began in the Netherlands over a decade ago. The objective was to gain data on boiler performance and usage, and to understand how and when problems might develop, so they could be averted, often by changing parameter settings remotely. The quality of this information helped manufacturers improve products and customer service. This system reached the UK in 2014 and, while this technology is unrivalled in the HVAC industry, the UK was way ahead in the sophistication of its remote management systems in every other regard.

Take social landlord United Welsh, an organisation that manages 6,000 homes across 11 local authorities. It’s been running a smart home pilot scheme at a supported living property accommodating three young men with learning disabilities. A range of mainstream Smart Home devices (Intelligent Personal Assistants, lighting, music, kettle), as well as home safety devices and sensors, were installed. The aims were to enable the tenants to perform more tasks themselves, increasing their sense of well-being and their independence and, gradually, staff support could be reduced in areas where the technology kicked in, so they could be used in more creative and productive ways. But it didn’t stop there. Information received would indicate if tenants were at risk of fuel poverty, prompting a visit by the Neighbourhood Officer or Money Advisor. The data would assist United Welsh in being more proactive with property maintenance, minimising damage, costs and accidents too. Its mission is to make a difference to its communities and to create the best working environment for staff, so service excellence can be delivered, helping residents live their best lives. Technology, in the hands of organisations like United Welsh, is a force for good.

In the wrong or inexperienced hands, however, using even the simplest of remote management tools could take a sinister turn. Is it OK for someone else to judge or rate your work by taking screenshots of your computer screen, logging your keystrokes, tracking mouse movements or counting ‘idle time’ (that’s the time the mouse isn’t moving and the keyboard isn’t being used)? Unless you’re an automaton, you have to get up and move around occasionally, and you need to think. But can thinking time be gauged or will it just be penalised? And what if employers start using algorithms, as out of touch as those used by the Government to deliver GCSE and A-Level results this year, to judge your performance? This hasn’t happened yet (or maybe it has), but it will help if we’re all aware of just how close to Big Brotherhood we actually are.

Some boiler Remote Management systems are currently being used, on a small scale, to help people safeguard their vulnerable relatives without being intrusive. If it’s a freezing cold day for example, and they can see from their phone, tablet or laptop that the heating’s not on, there could be a problem and they can investigate. In this case, Remote Management provides peace of mind. On a much larger scale, housing associations can install smart boilers and activate a Remote Management facility that can link up to 240 properties in a single network; contractors can monitor and change the parameter settings of one or all of those boilers to prevent problems from developing. The performance data delivered provides the evidence to carry out proactive service and maintenance, rather than relying on an arbitrary date in the diary. And, should a fault develop, the contractor will know in advance what it is and is more likely to effect a first-time fix.

Of course, in the hands of the unscrupulous, certain parameter settings could be changed that do the opposite of help, but any company worth its salt has built in fail-safes to prevent anyone from taking extreme actions, such as shutting down the boiler remotely. Responsible companies are always looking at the ways in which they can not only improve, but police the integrity of their systems. In this world full of scams, phishing and provocative media content, we need to take the high ground, never stop being the guardians for good. To do this well, we need to understand how the guardians for the downright evil operate. It’s unlikely we’ll ever stop them, but we can play them at their own game.

Terri Hickman is marketing communications manager at Intergas Boilers