Updated: Aug 15, 2020
COVID‑19 and the shift to remote work
As the pandemic forces many employees to work from home, can your organization stay productive – and safe?
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has officially been categorized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a pandemic, meaning infection is accelerating in multiple countries concurrently. The United States of America has declared travel bans on 28 European countries, many countries have closed schools and universities, and large gatherings of people have been stopped.
High-profile companies such as Google and Microsoft are encouraging or mandating that staff adopt a work-from-home policy. For modern tech companies, the infrastructure and policy needed for remote working are unquestionably already in place and the vast majority of staff members are probabaly already laptop users.
For many smaller companies and organizations, however, the situation is likely to be very different. Remote working is probably limited to a few, and realistically mainly for email and other non-operational systems. The education sector is a good case in point: universities have been delivering distance learning as a feature for some time, while high schools and others are mainly dependent on staff and pupils being on-site to learn. The school’s operations and administrative teams also need to be considered, as they are unlikely to be mobile workers and may be using desktop devices rather than laptops.
Breaking the organization into just a few groups with differing requirements and dealing with the needs of each to affect the mass exodus may seem a simplistic approach, but is probably essential given the urgency in some cases. Using education as an example, there are students (the customers), teaching faculty, administration and operations. The school can’t run without significant student engagement, teachers at least need virtual conferencing facilities and the administration teams need network access, and this is the minimum.
In order to be productive, there are common requirements that all remote workers need. As someone who has worked remotely for the majority of his working life, we can attest to the last two:
· A computer
· A good internet connection
· Chat and conferencing applications
· A dedicated workspace (preferred)
· Optionally, a phone
· Self-motivation and discipline
· A strict routine
Why is the phone optional? In today’s environment it may not be necessary, especially as most chat applications allow direct calling. The need for a phone may be a business requirement rather than an essential device.
Importantly, companies and organizations also need to prepare themselves and their employees for the increased cybersecurity risks associated with remote working. What are some of the challenges that may need to be addressed?
Physical security of company devices:
Employees will be exposing company devices to greater risk as they leave the safety and security of the workplace. As a remote employee, I often take myself to the public library to work; there are shared and individual workspaces and it’s a form of socialization. Devices need to be protected against loss and theft with options such as:
Full-disk encryption ensures that even if the device falls into the wrong hands, the company’s data is not accessible.
Log out when not in use – both at home and in public places. An inquisitive child accidentally sending an email to the boss or a customer is easily prevented, as is limiting the opportunity for someone to access the machine while your back is turned in the local coffee shop.
Strong password policy – enforce passwords on boot, set inactivity timeouts, and ban sticky notes with passwords on them: people still do this!
Never leave the device unattended or on public display. If it’s in the car, then it should be in the trunk.
Beyond technology and functional processes, there are other key factors to effective remote working:
· Communication – Consider having team calls once per day, brief people on the status, and give everyone the opportunity to share experiences and issues.
· Responsiveness – Remote working is not the same as working in an office environment. Establish clear guidelines of how quickly a remote worker is expected to respond to a request depending on the communication type, email, Slack, calendar invites, etc.
· Reporting – Line managers need to implement procedures that allow them to ascertain whether the remote workers are getting the job done: mandatory group meetings, team collaboration, daily/weekly/monthly reports.
· Working schedule – Agree a method of clocking on and off, even if it’s as simple as a team group chat and members saying good morning when they start their day.
· Health and safety – Do the ergonomic keyboards in the office need to be taken home to provide the same comfort employees are used to? Working from home does not remove the responsibility to provide a good working environment.
· Liability – Ensure coverage for the company assets while in the employee’s possession.
· Tech support – Distribute the contact details: all remote workers need to know how to get help when needed.
· Socialization – Bring remote workers together, particularly virtually. Social interaction is an important part of motivation and increases productivity. Consider a buddy or mentor scheme so that every employee is paired and can problem solve, vent, share or socialize virtually.
· Accessibility – Establish a virtual open-door management policy, just as there is in the office. Make sure people are accessible and can be easily engaged.