Organizations are continuing to ready themselves to send workers home for the next few weeks yet keep them working, productive, and servicing their clients’ needs. Finding relief from COVID-19 imposed disruptions is an enormous challenge and for many it hinges upon how well their technology will transition from main office environments into scattered remote home offices. During this scramble, it is easy to forget some key considerations when sending workers home and setting them up for success. We have identified six main areas to address to get your employees on their feet while protecting your company during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 outbreak. These six areas are:
- Employee Communication
- Phone Communication
- Computer Equipment
- Remote Access
- Security & Compliance
- Client Communication
The toughest part about having remote workers are the extra steps it takes to keep them coordinated and in communication. In an office environment, getting a co-worker’s attention can be as simple as walking down the hall or leaning into the next cubicle, but with remote staff it is disconcerting not having a colleague around the corner.
Rebuilding communication in your remote staff is a high priority. We recommend Microsoft Teams with Office 365 for your online collaboration tool. Teams will provide your people with:
- Video and audio meeting spaces
- Instant messaging
- Team chats
- Desktop and document sharing
- Collaboration workspace
It is best to run Microsoft Teams on your local computer and it also has a nice smartphone application. To get access to Microsoft Teams you need the proper Office 365 license for each employee.
In addition to Teams, make sure employees can remotely access company email. With company email, you should have a company email policy in place that prohibits employees from emailing confidential files or information that contains Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Despite being in a difficult situation, any relaxation of email confidentiality and security policies can result in loss of PII, financial data, passwords, or other data breaches that can be catastrophic to your finances and expose you to legal action. Maintain your email security policies.
Finally, make sure your HR has good contact information for all your employees. This should include their mobile numbers. You can use an inexpensive online mass texting service to send text blasts to your employees to supplement company email. These can be setup in minutes and provide another method to keep employees informed about company changes.
If you have an analog phone system and not a VoIP system, then you have more limited remote phone capabilities. You will want to talk to your phone vendor about options, but you may be left with only having remote call forward capabilities from your dial tone provider. This would be something akin to having AT&T (or your dial tone provider) forward all calls on your main number to an employee’s cell phone.
If you have a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) system, then you should have a lot more call routing options at your disposal. You should be able to do things such as:
- Install phone software onto computers and use computers as remote phones
- Install softphone software onto employee smartphones and use their smartphones just like phone extensions
- Have individual’s setup their voicemail to email them messages
- Have individual’s setup find-me/follow-me on their phone extensions to forward all their calls to cell phones
In many cases, even phone system behaviors such as ring groups and call queue systems can be mapped to accommodate remote workers with smart phone software.
Your employees with company laptops should already be set and ready to work from home. If they have multiple monitors at the office and a docking station, carefully consider if you should let them take those home or work at home without the setup. The risk of allowing staff to remove company equipment is damage and loss. Weigh this against any concerns in productivity loss.
For organizations relying upon employees to work from home using personal equipment, the main concern is security. Personal computers aren’t likely to be secured as well as or updated as carefully as company owned equipment. Personal equipment may also be in public viewing areas and shared with family members. All these concerns present jeopardy to protected data and should be carefully weighed before allowing personal equipment to access company data.
Another complication with using personal equipment is the need to install software applications onto home computers. Challenges with distributing software to personal computers include:
- License agreement violations
- Compatibility of software
- Reliance upon servers
- Act of distributing software
Carefully consider the ramifications of permitting personal computer access to company data as it can do more harm than good.
Once computer equipment is sorted, beefing up the home office is the next step. We want employees to not only be able to work from home but to be able to thrive. The best way to do this is with a multiple monitor setup. When lugging old monitors out of the storeroom or buying new monitors for key personnel, ensure that their computer can support additional monitors and be especially aware of what type of monitor connector it needs. There are many options for connectors such as: VGA, HDMI, DVI, or DisplayPort. Each requires a different connector. In many cases, you can get adapters to go from one output to a different input, but these typically aren’t easy to find at your local box store. When distributing equipment don’t forget to confirm those connectors.
Finally, let’s think about printers, faxes, and copiers. Do you really need them? It is a good time to reassess how files are stored and can a printout or paper copy be replaced with a PDF or digital file? There are many printing options available to print to a digital PDF file rather than generate paper. The digital file can then be stored on network drives, OneDrive, SharePoint, or many other digital storage repositories.
If you need to print paper checks you may still need a printer for your accounting personnel. With pre-printed checks you should be able to print to any home printer. But if you have a magnetic check printer, you might need to send some equipment home or purchase additional printers for accounting. Don’t forget to get a spare magnetic printer cartridge and to lock those checks up at the house.
For faxing, consider eFax. It is possible to use eFax for complex fax routing scenarios such as department distributions, OCR, and digital repositories. These systems can be setup to securely send and receive faxes thereby eliminating the need for phone lines or analog fax machines.
Look at your company software inventory. It is likely that some key applications are already Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) meaning they are web-based and hosted from the software vendor. These can be accessed from any web browser so it is possible you can access these key systems from anywhere. For other applications and data, you may need company servers and network drives which are possibly only accessible from the physical office location. This can create remote access hardships. And even with SaaS applications, it is possible that compliance concerns prevent your organization from giving remote access to personal devices. To address these concerns, the best method is use of the virtual desktop.
A virtual desktop includes Citrix virtual desktops or Microsoft Remote Desktop Services. These two application delivery methods are VDI solutions where all company data and applications exclusively reside on protected company servers or in provider managed data centers. Applications and data may be viewed and accessed on remote or personal devices, but the data and programs solely exist on the corporate controlled servers at all times making them secure and simple to distribute. A virtual desktop solution can be built by migrating company data and applications into a secure cloud, such as Microsoft Azure, or can be setup in the main office with the addition of Citrix or RDP servers on the office network environment.
A lesser used and sometimes more complicated alternative is a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. With a VPN, remote access for employees can be provided to main office network resources but the applications to access the data must be installed on the home office device. If this is a personal device, this can create security concerns and installation problems as noted above. VPN’s also have performance issues as the entire file stream must run over the Internet during all file access and save events. A VPN may be needed in specific scenarios, but it is a poor substitution for a virtual desktop environment.
Security & Compliance
The COVID-19 crisis is no time to relax security measures to allow remote work. In fact, we are now at our most vulnerable with so much chaos surrounding organizations. Data ex-filtration, password compromise, and employee workarounds will present great challenges over the coming months. Strongly worded reminders from company leadership for employees to obey all company policies and IT procedures is appropriate.
Furthermore, management should require that all changes to IT procedures, data management, data security and home office deployment status be submitted to and approved by administration. Even the most innocent changes to technology processes could involve exposure of company data. Administration should consult with Information Technology to help identify unintended consequences during their approval process.
The main areas of security concern are:
- Company and employee passwords
- Exposure of data to include:
- Personal data (PII)
- Customer data
- Company confidential data
- Data loss and ex-filtration
- Financial and payment approval processes
- Backup loss
- Compliance violations
The best ways to mitigate against loss of control of company protected data are:
- Provide company owned and managed equipment
- Use virtual desktop solutions such as Citrix virtual desktops or Microsoft Remote Desktop Services
- Require all changes involving technology to be approved by IT and administration
No doubt your organization has been busy notifying clients of how your services are impacted and how you will continue to provide services, but there is some important information you will want to share with your clients to help protect all parties during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 outbreak. This isn’t a new message but one that will face heightened exploitation during this crisis. Be sure to communicate to your customers how you will communicate to them any changes to billing and payment procedures.
Make sure you have established client notification procedures that cannot be spoofed, hijacked, or duplicated by bad actors through fraudulent or compromised emails. We expect to see criminals aggressively seek to inject themselves into payment exchanges to divert funds and steal payments during Coronavirus Disease 2019 confusion. Consider preemptively notifying your clients that you will not solicit billing or payment changes over email and that you will contact them by phone or other acceptable means such as registered mail. Now is the time to tighten up your payment processes.
Your business will undoubtedly face many challenges in the coming months. The pressure Coronavirus Disease 2019 will put on the U.S. economy is going to be great and unfortunately some businesses are going to struggle to survive. It is highly likely that the organizations with the best chances to not only overcome this trying time but to possibly even flourish, are the ones who most successfully address their technology disruption without losing control of their security and resources. Game plan all environment changes and seek new ways to address the challenges that will arise. Stay flexible and understand that Week 1 remote worker problems can be overcome with new technology and create Week 2 opportunities for your organization to thrive.