It’s important to know How To Implement A Remote Workforce, especially since Covid-19 has created a lot of uncertainties. In order to help prevent the spread and keep employees safe, many companies have asked their staff to work remotely. While almost 25% of the U.S. workforce already works from home at least part of the time, these new policies leave many employees — and their managers — working out of the office and separated from each other for the first time.
Although it is always preferable to establish clear remote-work policies and training in advance, in times of crisis or other rapidly changing circumstances, this level of preparation may not be feasible. Fortunately, there are specific, research-based steps that managers can take without great effort to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees, even when there is little time to prepare.
Common Challenges of Remote Work
To start, managers need to understand factors that can make remote work especially demanding. Otherwise high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training. Challenges inherent in remote work include:
1. Lack of face-to-face supervision
Both managers and their employees often express concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors worry that employees will not work as hard or as efficiently (though research indicates otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). Many employees, on the other hand, struggle with reduced access to managerial support and communication. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers are out of touch with their needs, and thereby are neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
2. Lack of access to information
Newly remote workers are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from coworkers. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions can feel like a large obstacle to a worker based at home.
This phenomenon extends beyond task-related work to interpersonal challenges that can emerge among remote coworkers. Research has found that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers translates to a lower willingness to give coworkers the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations. For example, if you know that your officemate is having a rough day, you will view a brusque email from them as a natural product of their stress. However, if you receive this email from a remote coworker, with no understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take offense, or at a minimum to think poorly of your coworker’s professionalism.
3. Social isolation
Loneliness is one of the most common complaints about remote work, with employees missing the informal social interaction of an office setting. It is thought that extraverts may suffer from isolation more in the short run, particularly if they do not have opportunities to connect with others in their remote-work environment. However, over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their organization, and can even result in increased intention to leave the company.
4. Distractions at home
We often see photos representing remote work which portray a parent holding a child and typing on a laptop, often sitting on a sofa or living-room floor. In fact, this is a terrible representation of effective virtual work. Typically, we encourage employers to ensure that their remote workers have both dedicated workspace and adequate childcare before allowing them to work remotely. Yet, in the case of a sudden transition to virtual work, there is a much greater chance that employees will be contending with suboptimal workspaces and (in the case of school and daycare closures) unexpected parenting responsibilities. Even in normal circumstances family and home demands can impinge on remote work; managers should expect these distractions to be greater during this unplanned work-from-home transition.
Now that you understand some of the challenges your staff can run into while working at home, let’s talk about how to handle them.
How to Manage a Remote Team
To lead a remote team well, managers may discover they need to loosen their reins a little while finding ways to continue to hold employees accountable.
Without the ability to continuously monitor employees in a shared office space, they may find success by focusing more on what gets done and whether it meets well-defined quality standards. It’s helpful, too, to be willing to experiment a little with technology and how meetings are conducted.
In other words, successful pivots to virtual work – whether planned months in advance or in response to a natural disaster or a global pandemic – require that managers be willing to recalibrate how they lead their people.
They also must become familiar with telecommuting best practices and expect a certain amount of trial and error.
To get you started, below are seven basic tips to help business leaders when it comes to managing remote workers.
1. Understand common teleworking challenges.
Typically, there are three main challenges supervisors and business owners encounter when managing a remote workforce.
Lack of face time with coworkers and supervisors
Humans are social creatures, so face-to-face interaction is vital to our daily exchanges. This includes our workplace encounters.
As mentioned earlier, supervisors often rely upon workplace encounters as a means of tracking productivity and dedication. It’s also easier to track moods and address mounting frustrations proactively in shared work spaces.
Meanwhile, people unconsciously scan faces and body postures to “read” reactions to things we say and do. So, employees are conditioned to pick up on cues through routine interactions with managers and coworkers. This is as true for constructive feedback as it is for friendly reassurance.
The absence of in-person communication can be strongly felt by mobile team members – perhaps more so during times of stress or change.
Communication breakdowns and bottlenecks
When working remotely, we can’t peek over the cubicle or slip down the hall to see if a colleague or supervisor is around to answer a quick question.
Plus, for all their convenience, digital messages (email, texts) can go unnoticed. And a pileup of unanswered messages can slow progress and frustrate teammates.
At the same time, subtlety and nuance found in interpersonal interactions can be lost in hasty digital replies between teleworkers. People who are otherwise pleasant and cordial in person may come across as brusque and insensitive in emails.
Managers can help address these issues by modeling effective communication strategies.
Whether it’s another coffee shop customer accidentally spilling sugar on a remote worker or a cheerful toddler giving a mighty shout from the living room during a conference call, distractions seem to come with the telecommuting territory.
Assuming such incidents don’t become routine, patience is helpful – especially when remote work is a temporary solution to a short-term event, situation or crisis.
2. Set clear remote work productivity standards.
Some productivity standards will vary with the job; others may be standard across the company.
A company-wide policy may be that all customer emails get answered by the end of the day, or that everyone is available for meetings and calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Individual standards must be analyzed and documented, however informally. For example, you and your teleworking team may decide that any developer assigned a project must deliver code ready to be tested in five working days, and if a deadline won’t be met there must be 48 hours’ notice.
Meanwhile, a call center employee may need to resolve 10 client calls an hour while ensuring there are no crying babies in the background. A recruiter may need to conduct 20 phone interviews and fill five positions a month.
While some managers may see documentation of productivity standards as extra effort, it may help you spot trends that need to be addressed.
For instance, after 90 days of tracking a call center employee’s work, you may discover the need to extend customer service hours or identify a bottleneck that impacts productivity.
3. Identify and provide the right tools.
An important aspect of successfully managing remote employees is to make all necessary tools easily accessible as needed. To meet that need, leaders and teams may have to puzzle through what should be put in place to ease a telecommuting transition.
Remote employees need the same access to things utilized by onsite employees, which may include (but are not limited to):
- Policy and procedure manuals
- Presentation templates and supplies
- Mail supplies and stationery
- Software programs
- Corporate credit card
Most remote work can be conducted with little more than a computer, internet access, a phone and a headset.
Whether digital tools are provided through a shared drive accessed by a secure VPN, or via Dropbox folders, should be determined by your company’s needs and security standards.
Depending on the work being produced at home, you may want to provide a small printer. Alternatively, you may decide to set up an account at a local copy shop or mail services center, all with clearly communicated spending limits.
Consider carefully whether remote employees are provided company laptops or can use their personal laptops. Cyber security and data safety are important, obviously, when considering hardware, software and where employees may access central servers.
You may also need to verify bandwidth and the reliability of internet connections, and whether the person works from home or from a co-working space.
Digital video conferencing providers can be useful to small and large teams alike.
Remember: You and your remote employees may find that some tasks must be conducted in the office for security reasons or because it’s simply more efficient to meet in person. Be ready to accept the limits of remote work for some portions of a job or for individual units within a larger division.
Transitioning teams to remote work
In a perfect world, new teleworkers would train to use relevant remote technology and protocols six months before implementation.
Yet, even if a shift to remote work is anticipated to take place in a matter of weeks (or days), a four- or 24-hour trial run may reveal unanticipated shortcomings to a seemingly workable remote plan.
Depending on your circumstances, you might have the whole team participating or only one or two members.
Practice helps make perfect.
4. Set aside specific days, times and methods for team interaction.
As mentioned earlier, casual workplace interactions foster collegiality and teamwork.
For remote teams, it may take a little extra effort to recreate such communication. And when there is a mix of off-site and on-site employees, wise managers seek opportunities to include everyone in team activities and discussions whenever possible.
It may seem artificial or cumbersome at first, but encourage your remote workers to contact you and other team members regularly – and vice versa. What constitutes “regular contact” depends, of course, on the job and the tasks telecommuting employees must accomplish.
How to foster connections and interaction
Obviously, email, instant messages and phone or video calls are essential for remote interaction.
When possible, it’s helpful for employees to keep their workday calendars up to date on a centralized platform or application. Also useful are “away” notifications on software and out-of-office email replies during normal work hours. These seemingly little things help minimize the risks and frustrations associated with those dreadful communications bottlenecks.
For wholly remote offices, encourage team members to pick up the phone or schedule short video calls to cut down on the back and forth.
To monitor progress and foster collegiality, it’s helpful to establish a set time for group online interactions. Brief daily check-ins or staff meetings help leaders and project managers to assess situations and identify roadblocks.
It may be helpful to revisit how to run a successful meeting. There’s not a huge difference between remote and in-person meetings, but generally it’s helpful to:
- Have a clear agenda
- Call roll at the beginning of large meetings so that everyone knows who is present
- Encourage everyone to mute themselves when they’re not speaking
The agile process, developed within the software community but now applied in several industries, can be useful when managing teleworkers. Many remote teams find the process helps nurture accountability while also helping managers monitor projects.
At the very least, everyone should share a weekly email that outlines what they’re working on, noting any upcoming deadlines and concerns.
5. Follow up with remote employees regularly.
As with the rest of the advice here, there’s no one-size-fits-all for how often a manager should reach out to remote workers.
Yet the most effective one-on-one calls aren’t just about monitoring productivity. They can also be powerful means of keeping remote employees motivated and engaged.
Ideally, regularly scheduled one-on-one calls – whether daily, weekly or biweekly – can help a manager:
- Determine if the employee is doing well overall.
- Work with the staff member to identify and eliminate bottlenecks.
- Discuss plans for the employee’s professional development.
- Answer a range of questions relevant to the employee.
Depending upon the employee and the nature of their job, more or less routine interaction may be required. For example, Amanda may need a call once a week while Matthew may require daily calls.
As much as is reasonable and schedules permit, supervisors should be adaptable to staff needs and calendars.
6. Create a video or tip sheet with other remote employees’ suggestions.
Staff members (or trusted industry peers) who have traveled the remote road before may have advice to share, including what software is most helpful or what’s required to set up a home office.
These insights can be shared via PDFs, short videos or informal question-and-answer video calls.
Other valuable telecommuting tips may include:
- How to manage the ebb and flow of ordinary days (and peak periods)
- Favorite local eateries that deliver
- Maintaining work-life balance while working remote
- How to incorporate healthy behaviors
- Time management ideas
- Personal strategies for staying on task and organized
7. Remember, remote doesn’t mean cheaper.
Budgets play an important side note when talking about remote workers. Some business leaders may assume that instituting remote work and cutting office space by 50% equals a 50% reduction in the expense of housing employees in a traditional office.
However, the formula isn’t so straightforward. Yes, your company will probably spend less on physical office space, but those savings are likely to be spent elsewhere, depending on the remote work that needs to be done.
For instance, your travel budget may increase if remote workers in other states need to travel to the main office once a quarter or more. Or, you may need to invest in new or upgraded software or additional hardware, such as headsets, to properly outfit remote employees.
Remote workers can be just as productive, if not more so, than in-office employees. You just have to set them up for success.
Wondering About IT Security & How To Implement Your Remote Workforce Securely?
How do I maintain my cyber security when my employees work remotely?
Whether you have one employee working on a mobile device while on a business trip or your entire staff telecommuting from home, your cyber security shouldn’t be sacrificed for convenience. By understanding your options and working with a quality IT services provider, you can safely navigate the cyber world and keep your business protected.
Cyber Security and Telework
Maintaining your cyber security while allowing your employees to work remotely can be a challenge, but it can be accomplished with minimal risk if you plan ahead and choose the right options for your business. If you don’t expect someone to infiltrate your network, you won’t be protected when someone tries. Always prepare for the worst-case scenario.
How Do You Prepare for Telework?
Start by choosing the best telework option for your business’s needs and budget. There are four basic ways to secure your network while allowing remote access to employees.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) gateways create secure access from the employee device to the VPN gateway and onward to your internal network. In this way, your enterprise-level cyber security measures are extended to the VPN, which acts as a secure tunnel for employees to work through. Some VPN gateways can even extend your business’s firewall rules to the employee computer no matter where they are working through the use of a portable device—a great advantage when travelling on business.
VPN gateways offer several great telework features, but while communication is protected through a VPN gateway, the employee’s computer could still be at risk of transmitting infected data if the computer itself is compromised. VPN gateways should only be used in conjunction with properly configured, company-owned hardware to maintain high security standards and minimize the risk to the internal network.
In this method, telework employees access company data and applications through a browser-based webpage or virtual desktop. All applications and data are stored on the portal’s server and cannot be downloaded or saved on an employee’s device without permission. This is a good way to keep control over who is accessing your data and how it is used.
The danger with portals depends on what permissions the employee has while accessing the portal. If the portal allows an employee to access other areas of the internet while connected, it could provide an unintended avenue for criminals to access your network. It’s safer to restrict employees’ access to other programs while the portal is in use. The more access an employee has, the less secure the connection becomes.
Remote Computer Access Service:
Remote computer access services allow an employee to remotely control a computer physically located at your business via an intermediate server or third-party software. When the two computers are connected, applications and data remain on your office computer, and your network’s cyber security measures are enforced. Your remote device acts as a display for the work performed on your office machine.
Due to the direct access, remote desktop connection is considered high risk in cyber security terms. Proper configuration is critical. When set up correctly, communication between the two computers is encrypted for the data’s protection, but it is also encrypted from the organization’s firewalls and threat detection. No matter how good your cyber security measures are, if the employee’s home computer doesn’t have the same protections as the office workstations, malicious data can slip into your network unnoticed during a remote desktop connection.
Direct Application Access:
Direct application access is probably the lowest risk to your cyber security measures out of all the remote access methods because it is best used only with low-risk applications. In this method, employees can remote into a single application, usually located on the perimeter of your network, such as webmail. The employee doesn’t have access to the entire network, allowing them to work on select applications without exposing your internal network to danger.
Though there is much less danger posed by direct application access, it generally doesn’t allow for extensive work to be done. There is very little connection to data on your network, and little ability to take data to another application if needed. It is best used when traveling or on a mobile device where complete access to the network is not necessary.
The type of telework you offer may also depend on governmental regulations requiring a certain level of security. Those working in the healthcare sector should consult with their HIPAA Security Officer to make sure any telework is performed according to HIPAA guidelines.
Using company-owned and maintained hardware is the best option when working from home or on the go. Properly-maintained company laptops reduce the risk of unpatched or out-of-date software connecting to your network and often have more robust anti-virus/anti-malware protections than personal computers.
For many small and medium businesses (SMB) though, providing all employees company devices is not financially feasible or practical, especially if the need for remote work is temporary. The best choice for SMBs is either establishing a site-to-site VPN connection or using a secure remote desktop service to connect to their office computer. SMB should be aware of and willing to accept the added cyber security risks of using personal devices before implementing this type of work-from-home policy.
Telework isn’t the only way employees access your network. Mobile devices have become ubiquitous for work on-the-go, but if you fail to protect these devices, your business and clients may suffer. There are basic security recommendations for securing any mobile device, including thorough employee training in cyber security, strong encryption, keeping software up-to-date, and supplementing your security with third-party anti-malware/anti-virus software. While these fundamental methods keep the average device secure, if you’re dealing with sensitive or confidential data on your network you may need additional safeguards.
NIST’s Guide to Enterprise Telework offers detailed suggestions for protecting any business when it comes to mobile and telework access, including:
- Turning off networking capabilities (such as Bluetooth) when not necessary for work.
- Turning on personal firewalls, if available.
- Requiring multi-factor authorization before accessing your business’s network.
- Restricting other applications allowed on the device.
Since loss or theft of hardware is far more likely with mobile devices, it is beneficial to use a mobile device management (MDM) solution to maintain control of a mobile device in case of theft or accidental loss. With an MDM, you can locate, lock, or remotely destroy any data on the mobile device. This way your sensitive information won’t fall into the wrong hands, even if the device itself can’t be recovered.
Best Practices for Maintaining Cyber Security
Regardless of the type of remote access you decide on, there are a number of opportunities to shore up your cyber security defenses:
- Establish a separate, external network dedicated solely to remote access. If something does infect the server, it won’t spread to other parts of your network.
- Establish a site-to-site VPN connection or use a secure remote service.
- Use encryption, multi-factor authentication, and session locking to protect your data.
- Keep your hardware and software patched and updated, including your employees’ remote computers.
- Enforce strong password policies and have employees use a password manager.
- Set up session time out on all teleworking connections and automatic screen locks on all computers.
- Manually configure employee computer firewalls and anti-malware/anti-virus software.
- Add additional security authentication layers to company data on mobile devices.
- Set up restrictions to keep unknown or unnecessary browser extensions from being installed. Many have tracking codes the user doesn’t know about, while others are used to spread malware. Stick with trusted and needed browser extensions only.
- If possible, physically secure computers with locking cables in any untrustworthy place, such as hotels or conference areas.
- Consider providing company-owned devices for employees to use that can be maintained and secured by in-house IT-staff or your MSP.
- Consider end-point detection and response or remote access logging to monitor what is happening on your IT systems.
Privileges, Privileges, Privileges!
No telework operation should ignore the danger of not setting the correct privileges on employees working from home. This step is essential to maintaining a secure, partitioned IT environment.
Implementing accurate and reasonable privileges provides two major benefits to your company.
- It keeps employees from accessing data or programs that they shouldn’t have access to.
- It keeps cyber criminals from infiltrating your entire network through a single compromised machine or account.
There is no reason a sales rep needs the same access to your company data as the CEO, so why would you give them unrestricted access? Job-specific privileges keep company data safe from insider infiltration while providing each employee with the tools and data necessary to complete their work. The Zero Trust IT model utilizes segmented permissions as the core tenet of its security architecture.
When creating user privileges, keep in mind:
- Never allow users admin access. The only people who should have admin access to your systems are the IT personnel who maintain them, and even then, they should use an admin account only when performing work requiring it. All users should have a standard, limited user account that cannot alter system settings or privileges.This is especially important when employees work from home on their personal computers. Without the security of an enterprise hardware firewall and business-grade cyber security protections, employees’ personal computers are at a higher risk of being compromised. If their computer is infected and they have admin level access, cyber criminals can use that unrestricted access to infiltrate your entire system, change permissions, and steal or encrypt data for ransom.
- Need-to-know access only. It takes a bit of technical know-how to set up appropriate user access privileges, but it’s worth the effort. Besides keeping data secure within the company, segmentation of privileges also means that if a computer is infected with malware or an employee account is compromised, the access cyber criminals have to your company and its data remains limited.
- Use multi-factor authentication. It’s not enough to limit permissions, you need to verify the person signing in is who they say they are. A quick visit to Have I Been Pwned will show how many accounts are already compromised. Multi-factor authentication prevents a compromised account from being used by cyber criminals to access your systems. While security tokens and third-party authenticator apps like Yubikey or Google Authenticate are preferred, any type of multi-factor authentication (email, SMS) is better than no authentication.
Employees need to know more than just how to use the telework programs. Train your employees on cyber security before they go home to work. This is especially crucial if they use their personal computers to telecommute.
Employees should know how to spot and respond to unusual computer activity, which can be an indicator that malware is present. They should also be prepared for phishing and social engineering attempts to gain user account access. Train them on who to contact for IT support and how to verify the person asking for access to their computer is the correct person.
Your employees’ home computers will be the weakest link in your cyber security, so verify they know how to keep their computer safe and how to securely access your systems. Doing so protects them and your business from malicious actors.
Telework comes with risks, but with strong security policies and the right cyber security in place, it is worth the investment. A good managed IT services partner can walk you through the process and make sure your business is safe and productive anywhere. For help setting up a telework network, contact the experts at Anderson Technologies by email at JoeL@progressiveitservices.com or by phone at 713-291-6349.