Companies are sending employees home to work in large numbers to curb the transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus. These dramatic moves mean many employees will be working remotely for the first time. SHRM Online talked with experts about software, data security practices and "group cohesion" techniques that employers can apply to ease the transition and ensure that workers remain productive and engaged.
First Determine Bandwidth Levels and Home Office Needs
Don't assume all employees have the same Internet connectivity and bandwidth at home as they do in the office. Survey workers to determine their home technology capabilities and needs.
"Bandwidth requirements will vary depending on work-related activities such as file upload and download," said Mike Fasciani, senior research director for Gartner, a research and advisory firm. "Considering the variances for high-quality group video calls, it's recommended to have an Internet service that can deliver download and upload speeds with a minimum of 1.5 mbps."
Some experts say companies should consider funding bandwidth upgrades as well as furniture or equipment needed to help employees establish home offices. "Will people have the chairs, desks, separate keyboards and equipment they need at home to meet ergonomic needs and ensure high productivity?" asked Corey Williams, vice president of marketing for cybersecurity firm Idaptive in Santa Clara, Calif. "There's a question as to whether companies should allocate stipends to set these things up for workers at home."
Provide the Right File-Sharing, Conferencing and Collaboration Tools
Employees need access to the right software and conferencing tools to be as productive and efficient from home as in the office. Experts say it's also crucial to deploy easily accessible training tools so employees can quickly get up to speed on unfamiliar technologies.
"People may have participated in teleconferences for years, but have they ever run one before with multiple participants around the world?" Williams asked. "HR needs to collaborate with IT to find ways to ensure employees know all the tips and tactics of using these tools effectively."
Experts recommend creating a library of short training videos or frequently asked questions that remote employees can access when needed. Chris Dyer, a remote working expert, suggests using tools like Vidyard that can create tutorials showing computer screens with video or voice narration to demonstrate how to use features or conduct tasks.
For videoconferencing, experts suggest using Zoom, Cisco WebEx, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans or LogMeIn's GoToMeeting. "The ability to see the faces of your colleagues has always been important to create a sense of connectedness and camaraderie for remote workers but will grow even more important as many more people work from home," said Paul Pellman, CEO of Kazoo, a technology platform in Austin, Texas.
Some of the industry's larger vendors are making it easier for employees in small companies to transition to home environments by offering discounted or free trials of their products. LogMeIn has an "emergency remote work" kit available at no charge for three months that includes many of its videoconferencing products.
Other are making their applications free to use for the next six months and expanding the capabilities to meet the needs of most businesses around the world, Fasciani said.
For sharing files, documents, spreadsheets and presentations, experts say remote workers should have access to tools like Box, Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive.
"Sharing files via e-mail has never been a good practice and will only get worse with more people working remotely," said Williams, who works remotely and manages virtual teams from a home office. One problem with file sharing via e-mail is version control, he said, creating frustration and inefficiencies when people find they're working on different versions of documents. "All remote file sharing should be in a managed business environment with file syncing and sharing software," he said.
To help remote workers collaborate more efficiently, provide platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams or Workplace from Facebook. These tools allow remote workers to communicate instantaneously or pose questions to colleagues without having to wade through threaded e-mail exchanges.
Plan for Technical Support
Information technology help desks and resources will become strained as more telecommuting workers require troubleshooting, equipment set-up advice or other technical assistance. Experts say HR should work closely with IT to provide training videos and support tools that can help employees self-diagnose problems and resolve challenges without IT's help.
Other steps can ease the burden on IT support staff. For example, Williams said many employees may forget passwords or lock their active directory accounts. By deploying cloud-based password reset and account unlock solutions, workers can take advantage of self-service options to reset passwords or unlock accounts.
Limit Increased Data Security Risks
Employees connecting to corporate networks from home can create new data security risks. Many companies install virtual private networks (VPNs) on corporate-owned devices to create more secure connections for employees.
Employees who won't be using corporate-issued devices at home will need to have corporate VPN software installed on their home PCs or laptops, Fasciani said. "Many companies do not currently support use of personal PCs to access corporate networks, but that restriction will need to be amended to allow more users to access their work applications and data."
Companies might find it difficult to quickly scale their VPN infrastructures to support the influx of new remote workers, Williams said. One option is to create cloud-based "application gateways" that limit corporate network access to the select needs of employees. Such gateways create a secure, behind the firewall access to on-premise applications.
Williams said companies also should implement "adaptive" multi-factor authentication (MFA) tools as a security step. Rather than simply requiring a user ID and password, MFA requires two forms of evidence to confirm a user's identity. Adaptive MFA ensures users who attempt to access corporate networks in nonstandard or suspicious ways receive stricter oversight than those accessing in standard ways. For example, a user attempting to access a network from a new location in the middle of the night would prompt more factors of authentication.
Striking the right balance between ensuring remote workers have a good user experience and keeping data safe is vital, Williams said. "If someone meets too much friction in the user experience, they'll simply go get a cup of coffee or be tempted by other distractions at home instead of doing their work."
Create a Sense of Connectedness
One of the biggest challenges for new stay-at-home workers is dealing with feelings of isolation. To address that, companies should make ample use of videoconferencing for employee "drop in" hours with managers or peers and consider using virtual workplace technologies like Sococo or Mural that recreate office settings online and help spur team brainstorming and creativity.
Recognizing peers also is important in virtual settings. Kazoo, for example, is one of many platforms that help organizations create a sense of connectedness among remote workers by allowing them to reward and recognize each other online for good things they've done.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.