December 5, 2018
Setup Employees to Work from Home or Remotely
As winter sets in across West Michigan, some businesses in our area, especially lake shore communities of Muskegon, Grand Haven and Holland, seek advice on allowing their employees to work from home. As a pretty nice perk, this not only removes the need for employees to slip-n-slide on ice covered roads, but can also attract a younger workforce accustomed to location flexibility.
Snow, ice and risk
Auto insurance companies know, the more snow an area gets, the more likely accidents are, so they raise rates in those areas. We can learn something from that: being on the roads, especially during winter months, is risky. It is also stressful. So, if better IT systems can be implemented that allow your employees to skip the commute and start working from home, it might be time to start offering that option.
24% of weather related accidents occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement, and 15% happen during snowfall or sleet. Let’s look at how that could impact your business. If an employee is involved in an auto crash, the best case scenario is that they may need to miss work to drop off and pick up their car from a body shop. The worst case scenario, as tragic as it is, not only affects the person’s friends and family, but now your business has a gap to fill both from an emotional standpoint and a skills one.
To contrast that, by skipping that risky commute, studies have shown that workers are happier, and actually more efficient working in their homes. The study, from Stanford University, showed employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off.
Of course, telecommuting isn’t a magical solution. There are certainly distractions at home, and employees must be emotionally mature enough to separate their work-life environments. A dedicated office space, and an understanding from one’s family is important. A barking dog or crying baby in the background certainly detracts from the professional decorum when on the phone with a client.
There is also the risk that when someone is “working from home” it is code for playing hooky from work. While we’d like to think everyone is adult enough to live up to their responsibilities, the temptation to take an old-fashioned snow day is ever present. Fortunately, this can be addressed with technology.
Probably one of the largest drawbacks of remote work, is the lack of community. An office provides a place to meet with your coworkers and share ideas in a very natural way. That in-person environment, where it is easy to pop into someone’s cube and get their opinion on something, fosters impromptu collaboration much better than shuffling emails around. Again, as remote work has gotten more common, tech has popped up that helps us with this too.
So how do we enable remote work?
Let’s assume you’re aware of the benefits, accepted the drawbacks, and are sold on the idea. Great! How do we make it happen? We need to address how your workers will be connected, what applications they’ll need to use, how to replace the office experience, and finally, accountability.
When your workers are not in your office, in order to get work done, they’ll need to be connected.
At a minimum, they’ll need an Internet connection. The best case scenario for a business-use home internet connection is a fiber optic connection, but in West Michigan, those are rare. The second best is cable Internet, usually provided in our area by Comcast Xfinity or Charter Spectrum. For real business use, DSL from the phone company barely makes the cut. A cellular data plan is really only a last ditch option, typically used when folks are actually “on the road”.
A reliable Internet connection is an absolute must. Not only does this ensure cloud-based services such as Office 365 or G Suite work as designed, but also the VPN connection to the head office is solid.
If your company has been around for a while, and isn’t a millennial-run startup, it probably has a physical office. You also probably have servers that run your ERP system, and other centralized resources your people need access to. Enter the “VPN”.
A virtual private network, or VPN, establishes an encrypted connection between two computer systems over the Internet, providing all the features of a private, point-to-point connection without the setup time or cost. It is used to connect, say, a user’s laptop to the company network so that they can login to your ERP system or retrieve files from the server, while protecting that information from the rest of the Internet.
The best way to establish a VPN between two points is with hardware-based routers that are setup at both locations. This, however, isn’t cost effective if you have a number of single remote workers at a variety of sites (or homes). The balance is struck by having that hardware device at the “head end”, or your office, and software that connects to it loaded on each remote device.
Of course, it is critical to set up the VPN correctly so that it not only keeps your data secure, but also offer fault tolerance so that the connection is up when people want to use it. It is surprising the variety of weird network configurations at hotels, coffee shops and other public venues and making sure the chosen VPN technology will work at each is no small task.
When your users are remote, they’ll need access to various applications to get things done. For the sake of this article, we’ll break the applications into two categories.
When we talk about cloud-applications, we’re referring to G Suite, Office 365 online application such as Sharepoint, and online ERP systems like Dynamics 365.
Cloud-based applications are hands-down the easiest to use as a remote worker. They are designed with that usage pattern in mind, and usually don’t require a VPN to use. Sometimes, they’re even designed with poor Internet connections in mind and are resilient to disconnections.
A typical benefit to cloud applications is that very little data is stored locally, on the user’s device. That means that if their device is lost or stolen, the risk of data loss is much less.
There’s really not much to talk about here as cloud applications are “easy” in this context.
Conventional applications are much more difficult to use as a remote worker. More modern applications, while still not run in the cloud, have been designed to be used as if they were cloud applications, so that helps some.
For those applications not targeting a modern design, we usually end up hosting them on terminal servers and/or using virtual desktops. The data remains on company hardware, and the processing happens there too, but the display information (literally just what is on the screen) is sent over the Internet via VPN to the remote workers’ devices. The display information requires much less bandwidth (Internet speed) to transmit, thereby improving the user experience.
By architecting the solution this way, it also protects company data by keeping the bulk of it on the company’s systems, behind the firewall, and not exposed to the larger Internet. This solution does require some extensive setup though, as the servers and software that support it must be licensed properly and configured for optimum security.
Replacing the Office Experience
Once users have access to the applications they need, we still need to replace the lost parts of the office experience using technology. We’re not talking about a system to ask users if “they’re having a case of the Mondays”, just the actual useful parts of the office experience.
Real time chat
Quick, impromptu chats are a valuable part of the office experience. Even just saying “good morning” to someone in the hall is surprisingly essential. It’s also a great way to get updates on projects or jobs when all that is needed is a quick response.
For these needs, real time chat is a great solution. The industry leader in this, Slack, offers a free plan that fits a lot of use cases. It is a cloud service, so there very little setup involved. It even offers different “rooms”, allowing users to segregate conversations into logical working groups.
A more novel take on this is Sococo, where users visit a virtual office online, complete with offices, conference rooms, and break rooms laid out on a virtual floor plan. Seemingly over the top at first, think of the value offered by being able to shut your virtual office door, yet still be available for escalated issues. It is a superior solution to simply going offline.
Probably more important for customer facing communications, voice calls are still a necessary part of business. However, having a distributed workforce makes transferring between extensions or conferencing in someone more difficult. Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, again leverages your remote workers’ Internet connections to extend that virtual office experience.
Advanced VoIP services, such as our Cloud PBX, tear down barriers associated with a standard desk phone. Instead of a call coming in to just your physical office, the call could instead ring your office desk phone, VoIP phone in your home office, and finally the app on your smartphone. Additionally, outgoing calls from any of those devices also bear your company caller ID, keeping that cohesive company image in front of your customers.
Intra-office calls also benefit from VoIP, as someone’s extension follows them from device to device and from location to location. In other words, if you need to dial your supervisor for an answer, dial her extension, and just like the example above, the system tracks her down. Using technology, gone is the game of dialing three or four different numbers to find someone.
While the technology mentioned above helps with knowing if someone is “in” the office, there will always be the need for accountability. Whether driving payroll, or quarterly reviews, managers need to know how well people are doing their jobs.
Punching the Clock
A continuing reality is the need to punch a clock. Of course, we’re not talking about acutally punching a time card before the steam whistle blows like the factories of old, but simply accounting for time. This is not only important for business accounting functions such as payroll, but in many service businesses, we need to know what client to charge with how many hours. It is also a useful tool for employees to know where their day went and what jobs took the longest.
A favorite of cloud-first professional service providers, Toggl, is a seamless time tracking tool that integrates into many software packages. They offer many free features, and paid ones as well, but most users find the free version perfectly acceptable. Their free plan also includes API access, which we’ve used to integrate their service into existing ERP and payroll systems.
Probably one of the most important parts of accountability is setting expectations. Often, with a professional workforce, it is the last step in accountability necessary. It is often overlooked though, and while not specifically a technological issue, we felt it worth mentioning as it is critical to a successful remote workforce.
Do you expect your remote workers to show up in the “virtual office” or log into chat at a certain time? Is home-life background noise acceptable on company phone calls? Are lunch and break times rigid, or does it really not matter? Is remote work always an option, or, as an example, only when area schools are canceled?
The answers to these questions are probably simple once considered, but try to keep in mind that things that are automatic in the physical office might not be so in a remote or virtual office. Setting those expectations before the fact can eliminate many misunderstandings.
If you’re considering offering remote workablity to your workforce, or already offer it and are having a hard time implementing it, we can help. Contact us and share your work-from-home challenges.