Over the last couple of weeks nearly all of us have adapted our ways of working.
I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what to do right now or have all the answers. Any one who does is either lying or deluded!
What we can do is apply the lessons of what worked in other crises. We must also learn as we go along from what’s working right now and share that with each other – which is what I’m doing in this post.
I have already seen enough self help posts about how to manage yourself when working from home, so I’m going to avoid this. (If you are looking for this type of help see this blog from Claire Boscq-Scott aka The Busy Queen Bee.)
What I will do is provide examples of my experiences through the lens of a typical Operations Manager, responsible for providing and managing remote working in a small to medium sized business. As you would expect from a Solitaire Consulting blog, I will focus on the technology.
I hope this helps.
My own situation
Before I do this, I’m just going to describe how I am working. To be honest not a huge amount has changed because I regularly work from home and support my clients remotely. It matters not whether these clients are local to me in Jersey, or elsewhere in the world. In this respect Coronavirus has been a great leveller.
My office is a garden summer house, separated from the house, but with wired internet, power, heating and carpet. It is not well insulated so my main problem is being cold first thing in the morning and too hot in the afternoon if the sun has been out.
I am now working from 2 laptops. A Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is my main device connected to a Surface Dock with two 22″ monitors, wireless keyboard and mouse and Plantronics wireless headset. I also use a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 which I switch to depending on the task I’m doing.
I use Office 365 for my own business and for some of my clients. This makes multiple devices signed into different Teams accounts really handy. I can receive messages and calls on either device without having to keep logging out and back in again.
Technology to enable a remote workforce
Without the right technology your staff will not be as productive as they are in the office. Even with the right technology, don’t expect to get as much out of your teams as you normally would. I am hearing of drops in productivity of up to 30% at the moment. Hopefully this will improve as new processes and work patterns bed down.
Laptop/desktop & phone
The ideal is for everyone to have a company owned laptop with all the right software and security that will enable them to connect to your network remotely.
This is not always possible so we have to think of other solutions. I am aware of one business that has had desktop PCs dismantled from the office and shipped to employees homes, because they couldn’t get hold of enough laptops.
You may already have a BYOD (bring your own device) policy in place, enabling staff to use their own hardware. This can create security and support issues unless it is setup correctly. Ideally, you will have your staff logging in to a remote or virtual desktop. This is configured to prevent access to local laptop storage and USB ports to prevent ‘data leakage’. You could also be using a VPN, but this is not advisable for non-company controlled devices.
The other essential piece of hardware will be a smartphone. The majority of employees will have their own, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Why a smartphone? The reason this is essential is because apps are likely to be required to deliver access codes for connecting to the company network remotely. The alternative is some form of hardware token.
Effective communication with a remote workforce is essential. Mandate the use of video calls where possible. This ensures your team stay more connected with colleagues than is possible with just audio, or text based updates.
Don’t just rely on company resources for communication. What happens when there is a connection issue or the VPN isn’t working?
WhatsApp is an effective and secure tool for both one to one and group messaging. Several of my clients have setup group chats on WhatsApp to cascade important information to the workforce. One word of warning though, try to discourage replies and random chatter on the main team cascade group. This should be reserved for important information from senior management only.
WhatsApp can also be used for audio calls too. This is secure and avoids potentially costly phone calls.
As stated above, maintaining some form of face to face contact is essential during a crisis. As a manager, you can check the well-being of your team (as well as making sure they are not working in their pyjamas!)
There are plenty of tools available for this, but these are the ones I use regularly and would recommend.
Teams is part of the Office 365 suite and has many features for team collaboration. It can be used for one to one or group audio and video calls, as well as text based chat and document sharing. The host needs to have an Office 365 account, but guest access can be enabled for external parties.
Teams can be quite complicated. If you are not using it already I would not advise trying to implement it during a crisis.
Zoom has become very well known in the last few weeks and is being widely used across many sectors. We’ve even been advised that our daughter will be continuing her piano lessons over Zoom after Easter.
Zoom is easy to use and caters for video and audio conferences. The free account permits unlimited meetings one-one. For more than two people the meeting time of the free account is limited to 40 minutes.
The paid accounts include dial-in options, meeting recording and much more.
Lifesize provide ‘proper’ video conferencing including all the hardware for kitting out meeting rooms. However, they have a free account for personal use. At the moment they are also offering free accounts for all businesses. This allows unlimited numbers of people in meetings up to 90 minutes.
In common with other solutions mobile and desktop apps are available so you don’t need to use their specialist hardware unless you need to for a meeting room.
Lifesize are one of the only providers to offer 4k call quality, but this does require one of the paid subscription plans.
Other apps like Skype and FaceTime are fine for ad-hoc calls but not suitable or recommended for business use.
Data storage and sharing
Once your communication technology is sorted you need to think about how to manage documents and data storage. If you are using remote desktops for your employees to access company resources, then all data should be retained within the boundaries of the company network.
Check you have locked down access to local (i.e. home PC) storage devices from the remote desktop to avoid data leakage.
What about if you are using Office 365 with OneDrive, SharePoint and Teams, or the Google equivalents?
The benefit of these tools is they can be accessed from anywhere. But you need to make sure they are properly configured to prevent download of your company data.
If your systems can’t prevent data leakage onto non-company controlled devices, then you need to think about other tools to mitigate against this. Just because we are in a crisis and all working from home, it doesn’t mean legislation such as GDPR has been put to one side. There are also plenty of cyber-criminals out there who are very active and looking to take advantage of the situation.
One tool to consider is Cubeitz, a new unified data management system. It uses military grade encryption and integrates with all common file sharing platforms (OneDrive, GoogleDocs, DropBox etc) or you can use with its own cloud storage. It offers significant benefits over products such as WeTransfer and other free file sharing platforms.
Despite having all the right technology, you may still be let down by your business processes. I have seen several clients over the last month, struggling with processes that require paper to move between people, usually with signatures needed.
Coping with paper at the start and end of a process is usually not a problem. We can all put in processes to scan the post and email it to the right colleague. Printing letters to send to clients if they don’t have electronic forms of communication is also easy with a printer at home.
What is less easy to put in place is where part of the process in the middle needs to be paper based. I have seen examples of processes involving multiple iterations of email, print, sign, scan and email being used.
Electronic Signatures are an easy to deploy way of solving this problem. DocuSign is the market leader in electronic signatures and another I have worked with is OneSpan Sign.
I have seen 3 clients implement electronic signatures in the past 2 weeks and all have seen immediate benefits. Look out for another post where I will describe the benefits of electronic signatures in more detail.
If remote working becomes normalised then more adventurous measures can be taken to achieve more efficient business processes. I will provide further advice on this in future blogs.
Other factors to consider
In this blog I have just focused on the technology to use when managing a remote workforce, but there is a lot more to getting the most out of your staff.
It is essential to have a robust plan. I am indebted to my colleague and associate consultant, Tim Rogers for providing this 20 point checklist to help analyse the risks and minimise the impacts of the pandemic on your business. He produced this a couple of weeks ago so many of the earlier points should already have been enacted.
1.) Prepare for the potential loss of 50% of workforce over one or more waves of a pandemic each lasting 12-15 weeks and occurring weeks or months apart.
2.) Allow for relocating staff to other sites or home to avoid crowded situations where infection rates will be greater.
3.) Identify scenarios, e.g. working normally as far as is practicable, taking account of staff shortages and other related pandemic issues; or “shutting up shop” as far as possible.
4.) Identify the Pandemic Incident Management Team (and a ‘back up’ team in the event of team members becoming unavailable).
5.) Develop a Pandemic Operating Regime which should become operational during the Pandemic Outbreak phase (or earlier).
6.) What will the trigger point be? Identify when the Pandemic Operating Regime will come into play. This could be when a previously determined number of staff become absent or when the government officially declares a pandemic.
7.) What are the company’s critical processes that will need to be sustained throughout?
8.) Who are the critical personnel whom the company cannot do without?
9.) Can other staff be cross-trained to take over in an emergency situation?
10.) Communication – ensure staff, customers and other interested parties are kept informed of the company’s preparedness planning for a pandemic situation and updates are issued regularly.
11.) Staff welfare – refer to Government guidelines and establish a policy on staff welfare during a pandemic such as how to deal with infected staff, when to quarantine and offering counselling in the event of bereavement.
12.) Review HR policies with regard to absenteeism, compassionate and sick leave, wages, etc.
13.) Monitor events as they happen and be aware of government measures such as travel restrictions or quarantines.
14.) Identify staff who can work remotely, either from home or another location.
15.) Review IT and telecoms networks to allow for usage by remote workers (and increased customer usage).
16.) Video-conferencing and other communication alternatives can be used to allow essential staff to continue working productively.
17.) Supplies – how will critical functions be maintained if essential supplies are disrupted? Check suppliers have pandemic business continuity plans and make sure they are tested regularly.
18.) Stakeholders – ensure they are aware of your pandemic preparedness planning.
19.) Travel – establish how travel restrictions could affect productivity and how to deal with employees ‘stranded’ in other countries where a pandemic has been declared.
20.) Test and test again – test plans frequently and as they are triggered by alerts. Review during each phase and update as necessary.
Get in touch
If you need help with your technology or any other aspects of your pandemic planning then please get in touch. We are happy to answer your questions and provide basic advice free, by email or video conference. Use the comments below or Contact form for further information.
References and Links
Zoom – video conferencing
Lifesize – video conferencing
Cubeitz – unified data management
MBS – digital transformation including DocuSign, Lifesize and Laserfiche