Is your business prepared for a pandemic? Find out how to keep your business productive and your team connected.

What can you do to help your employees work remotely until the COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease) pandemic is over? Having the flexibility to work from home as-needed helps employees create better work-life balance in normal situations. In instances like the current Coronavirus pandemic, this flexibility allows businesses to continue routine operations when employees cannot physically be on site. Here is what you need to do to get a sound system in place for your employees to work from home effectively.

1. Your Business Backend Requirements 

Before an employee can work from home, they need to be able to securely connect to the files and software used by their organization.

Secure Connection with VPN

The first way of doing this is to connect directly to the organization’s systems via a firewall-based remote access virtual private network (RA-VPN). A VPN allows remote users to transfer data via the internet into a private network as if their machine was directly connected within the office, while the firewall (whatever size is needed to support the number of remote users) adds security and restricts access to the company network. Two different types of VPNs are available depending on what kind of working situation is required. For instance, if the employee does not often work remotely and doesn’t need to transfer a lot of data, a virtual, software-based VPN is sufficient. If the employee is permanently off-site any/or transfers a lot of data, a physical VPN connection creates a faster, more reliable connection. The other benefit of having a physical VPN connection is that a work phone can be plugged directly into it. In either case, your MSP can guide what kind of technical setup you need by examining your workload and understanding what kind of bandwidth will be required to provide the performance you expect.

Cloud-based Applications

The second way organizations provide access to remote employees is by utilizing cloud-based applications. Many enterprise resource planning (ERP), primary business applications (PBAs), and communication tools like email have enterprise-level applications equivalents in the cloud. Cloud applications allow employees to securely connect and collaborate with their colleagues, no matter where they are in the world, as long as they have a reliable internet connection. Flexibility is one of the primary reasons why utilizing the cloud, whether it’s software or migrating from on-site servers to cloud servers, is such a benefit for many businesses.

2. Home Office IT Needs

Laptops Are a Must

The minimum tech setup required for working remotely is a portable device, aka a laptop. Unless you are working in an industry that requires resource-intensive applications that only a larger, immobile computer can provide, there are plenty of laptop options available today that cover the computing needs of most jobs. The benefit of having a laptop is that the employee can work wherever there is a reliable internet connection, whether it’s at home with a traditional internet router setup or on the road with a portable hotspot.

Typical Office Devices at Home

Remote workers with a permanent home office often mimic the complete cubicle setup, with a laptop docking station, monitors, and even a desk phone. We also recommend adding a decent webcam and headset into the mix so your off-site employees can have effective online video conferences with your team.

3. Remote Worker Security 

Cybersecurity while working from home

Watch these cybersecurity tips for work-from-home employees to find out out some of the top things to watch out for. Whether it’s system related, like having a secure internet connection, or best practices like keeping your personal work and your job-related work separate. For even more tips check out SANS Security Awareness Work-from-Home Deployment Kit.

Physical Security at Home

Some business facilities utilize key-card access, entry control systems, and additional private locked offices for HR or accounting staff. Consider the type of work your employee is doing and provide her with the appropriate security setup at home. This might include having a physical lock and key for the room where the business devices are stored, as well as lockable filing cabinets or storage systems for equipment and any printed materials. Device hard drives should be encrypted and access to networks protected by multifactor authentication (MFA), with best-practices, like geofencing, implemented if it makes sense for your organization.

Equipment Security while Traveling

When traveling, always keep your device on hand or within arms reach. If traveling on an airplane or vehicle where there is a choice between carry-on and checked baggage, always carry on vital equipment and all necessary cords to reduce the possibility of damage or theft.

4. The Work From Home (WFH) Workspace 

Let’s face it — the real challenge with working remotely is not technology. The real challenge of working at home is constructing an effective working environment that is conducive to collaboration, productivity, teamwork, etc. — all of the things your facility manager spends money daily. Now that employees are out of your office environment, what kind of environment do they need at home or at their remote site to continue being productive workers?

Productive Workspace

First and foremost, the remote workspace needs access to an isolated environment that encourages productivity. The type of isolation depends on a person’s personality and preference. Where Jane might enjoy a silent home-office setup void of interruptions, John might concentrate better working near people to have the white noise of conversation in the background. Figure out what works well for your employees and suggest they try a few different environments to find what optimizes their productivity.

Separate Work & Home Life

For those who do set up a permanent office at home, setting up a working schedule and space that ensures a clear separation between work-life and home-life is critical. Focus on establishing habits that minimize the need to go places that might cause distractions during the time you have identified for office work, and having clear boundaries in place to prevent office-related activities from crossing over into personal time. Be sure to turn off notifications if your job requires intense concentration and educate the rest of your team about your schedule, so they don’t expect you to respond during your pre-scheduled blocks of concentration time.

Is your home workspace too distracting?

As well as having a physical and mental separation of your work and home environment, give some thought to designing your space to be comfortable during a typical 8-hour workday. Purchase an ergonomic chair, make sure there is decent lighting in the room where you work, and set up a temperature-controlled environment with appropriate ventilation.

5. Prioritize Facetime

The old proverb “out of sight, out of mind” is an excellent starting point for any discussion about the importance of facetime for remote workers. In the words of one of our team members (who works 100% remotely from his home office in Indiana), “facetime helps you not get forgotten about.” Studies have shown that it’s easier to get responses from other people when proximity increases. Since humans naturally communicate with a combination of spoken language and body language, misunderstandings can increase when a conversation is held primarily via text-based chats or emails. 

Enter video collaboration tools, an excellent resource to put facetime back into the communication equation. Popular tools include Cisco Webex Teams, Microsoft Teams (through Microsoft’s O365 platform), Zoom, and Slack, to name just a few. During the current coronavirus pandemic, many companies are also offering short-term solutions for video conferencing to connect people who have been asked to isolate themselves to avoid contraction.

Most importantly, especially for the social extraverts out there that prefer working close to other people, video collaboration tools help people feel more connected to their co-workers and less isolated in the remote environment.

6. Shift Your Communication Culture

If you are communicating using different tools, by definition, your communication style needs to change to maximize your effectiveness. Here’s what we’ve discovered works the best for our team.

  • Instant messaging: Accessed via a platform like Cisco Webex Teams, instant messaging/chat is best to quickly connect to see if people are available, get fast responses, and to send images or pictures to describe a situation. The other benefit of chat is many programs show if the recipient has read the message. Plus, it can be accessed either through a desktop or phone app.
  • Emails: The email communication method is preferable when contacting multiple people, if you have a long subject, you need to send a message to people outside of your organization, or you need to keep a record of a conversation chain. 
  • Voice: Voice is preferable for more complex conversations where immediate back-and-forth conversation or collaboration is required 
  • Video Conferencing: Video conferencing allows participants to gain valuable facetime during their remote discussions and is an adequate substitute for face-to-face meetings.

Are you tired of too many emails? Fun fact: When centrexIT implemented a chat feature, our email traffic was reduced by 80%.

One of the most significant shifts we made when increasing collaboration with remote employees (we have many technicians who travel to different clients daily) was to set up a consistent cadence about when the entire company met.

How often do we meet as an entire company?

Every day. We meet every day at 8:00 am, sharp, to discuss updates or developments from the day before so that priorities are set immediately across all departments.

For more tips on shifting your communications culture, take a look at how HackerOne approaches keeping over half a million remote workers on track and productive. GitLab also has an excellent Remote Manifesto that has some great tips on how to integrate remote work as part of the long-term version for your workforce.

Final Thoughts

Effectively working from home is a combination of having equipment that can provide the required functional performance, as well as having the collaboration tools necessary to collaborate with other team members remotely. 

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