Working from home – the challenge:

 

The Covid-19 pandemic is challenging us all. Keeping safe from contracting the coronavirus is paramount. While social distancing and lockdown policies adopted by Governments worldwide are helping to keep us all safe, they are challenging business continuity in ways never experienced before.

One of the solutions to keep businesses running, albeit in most cases when they are having to operate at a lower level of activity than usual because of coronvirus, has been to enable office staff, when and where possible, to work from home. Although home working has, in recent years, been a viable employment model, its adoption has expanded exponentially in recent weeks for obvious reasons.

A positive to been gained from the awful current situation, is that those businesses that have now taken the plunge into the previously unchartered waters of home working, is that they will be in a position to assess its benefit as an employment model and whether or not to carry on with it after the current crisis comes to an end.

Three of the potential business benefits to be considered by enabling home working:

 

  • Cost Savings: The more staff a business has that are working for the majority or all of their time from home/offsite, the less square footage of office space is required. Reducing office space brings with it a reduction in associated fixed and variable costs. Some businesses may not need any central office space at all, others may want to retain a central location but, perhaps, move to adopting a ‘hot-desk’ model that requires less square footage than at present.
  • Flexibility: Working in a central location brings with it rigidity. Office opening times not only curtail the ability to service the customer base but places restrictions on employees. Travelling to and from a central office can add hours to an employee’s overall working day, not to mention the hassles they encounter with public transport or finding car parking space. They also have to solve other issues such as childcare and/or the school runs. Flexitime may help with these issues, but that in itself is another business overhead.By working from home, employees will be fresher when they start work, can offer the employer a set of working hours that are not restricted by office opening hours and can take care of their family life requirements more easily.
  • Carbon Footprint: Quite simply, the fewer of your employees travelling daily to and from work, the smaller the carbon footprint your business makes. That can be turned into a selling point for your services/products.

How have business enabled home working during the pandemic?

 

The types of solutions I’ve seen businesses deploy over the past few weeks broadly fall into 3 categories, depending on their current IT infrastructure:

  1. Those businesses that run a server with domain-joined devices:

Employees have taken their office PCs/Laptops home with them. A VPN connection to the server has been set up and deployed on each of the devices. They use their home broadband to connect to the office server via the VPN and are able to work as they normally do. Communication between employees has been supplemented by deploying IM and/or video conferencing. I’ve seen a number of options such as Skype, Zoom, What’s App deployed as short-term solutions, but already and notably, a preference for a unified solution such as Microsoft Teams is being expressed.

2. Those businesses that have already embraced cloud computing, e.g. Office 365 and cloud-based line of business applications:

Once again, some businesses have asked employees to take home their office PC/laptop and to use their home broadband to connect to Office 365 and/or the cloud-based line of business applications. Other businesses have asked their employees to use their personal devices instead to connect to the various services. Once again, the employee has then been able to work as normal. Some of the Office 365 users have rolled out Microsoft Teams for IM, video conferencing and document collaboration.

I’ll have something to say about asking employees to personal devices later in this article.

3. Those businesses that just run standalone PCs/Laptops:

The challenge for businesses with this type of infrastructure has been to overcome accessing their data remotely and communicating with each other. I’ve seen quick short-term solutions deployed such as moving data into shared cloud storage and the use of Zoom for video conferencing.

How are employers and employees reacting to the working from home model?

 

I’ve contacted several of my Clients and the feedback has been broadly been:

Positives:

  • Not surprisingly, employees are enjoying not having to endure the daily travel to and from work.
  • Employees are enjoying the experience of communicating via instant messaging and video conferencing. I’m guessing though that there is an element of novelty that needs the test of time. Interestingly, the feedback from those using Microsoft Teams for the first time has been the most positive.
  • The reduction in continual disruption (e.g. ‘chit-chat’) from other employees has also been mentioned as a positive.
  • There has been an almost immediate shift to spreading workload over a wider daily time period than normal office hours. The 9-5 is becoming 8-7 for example, with more frequent breaks.
  • Employers have reported an increase in productivity, albeit with reservations about whether it is too soon to measure properly.

Negatives:

  • Employees with children, once again not surprisingly, have reported difficulty in getting the kids to understand that ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ are working. They recognize though that this wouldn’t be an issue though in normal times when the kids are at school.
  • Some employees have expressed difficulty in getting motivated without the discipline of working in an office environment. Interestingly, a feeling of isolation hasn’t been mentioned.
  • Issues with the speed of home broadband have been raised, along with some comments that the employer should be making a contribution to the cost.
  • Printing is an issue. Some employees have printers at home others do not. Some of those that do have already run out of paper stocks and have struggled with buying replacement.
  • Some of the employers have, quite rightly, raised concerns about potential security threats.
  • All of the employers I spoke to said that the working from home model is working for them at the moment and, as a result, some are willing to consider the long term / permanent options after a more detailed discussion and cost/benefit analysis.

What IT infrastructure considerations are needed for a long-term or permanent home working strategy?

 

It’s been a valiant effort by businesses to enable staff work from home. In most cases, businesses have had to move quickly to enable this. However, due to the need for speed of deployment, security considerations have often been overlooked. Home working has generally been viewed as a very short-term business continuity solution that has been forced on businesses by governmental lockdown and social distancing policies rather than a pre-planned strategy.

This short period to date of having staff working for home does offer businesses the opportunity to use that experience in deciding whether to deploy that employment model into the long term.

Here is a list of suggested IT infrastructure considerations to help businesses ensure that home workers are provided with a robust and secure home office:

  1. Broadband: First and foremost, home workers will need to have a broadband service in place that provides sufficient download and upload speeds to adequately connect to the business applications, data sources and communication services. Potential issues are:
  • The home worker may live in an area that where the required broadband speeds are not available.
  • The home worker will probably have chosen a broadband supplier because of the overall package they offer, including TV, phone etc. Businesses will have to accept that unless they are willing to finance and install a ‘business use only’ broadband service, and that the home worker doesn’t see that as an intrusion into the family home.
  • The router needs to be secure. Often, home routers have simplistic administrator usernames and passwords, weak wifi passwords, weak wireless security protocols and firewalls not activated. All of these security issues should be addressed along with, perhaps, remote administration being disabled and the default SSID name changed.

2. PC/Laptop: The temptation to allow home workers to use their own devices should be resisted, if not banned. Using the same device for business along with personal and family use introduces unnecessary and potentially disastrous risk. Business need to supply the devices to be used by home workers. BYOD (bring you own device) is a notion I have never subscribed to. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume the PCs/Laptops are Windows 10 computers, but the same principles apply to Macs etc.

  • Devices provided by the business to home workers should, when possible, be configured in the same way. This simplifies ongoing management and upgrading of the remote device fleet by whoever the business has nominated to provide those services.
  • Consideration should be given to deploying remote device management software (e.g. Microsoft Intune) enabling operating system updates, software & anti-virus installation and, when necessary, to wipe devices.
  • BitLocker should be turned on, encrypting all the drives.
  • Strong user passwords should be deployed and regularly changed.
  • The use of MFA (multi factor authentication) should be deployed where available. (e.g. Microsoft 365).

3. VPN (virtual private network):

For those businesses that run servers, VPN connectivity needs to be deployed on the servers. The PCs/Laptops provided to home to home workers can be domain joined with the VPN client on the device activated. This will ensure secure connectivity between the device being used by the home worker and the servers.

For those businesses that don’t have servers deployed, it is still worth considering deploying a VPN service to the home workers, securing their internet activity.

4. Communication & Collaboration:

Home workers will need to communicate and collaborate with colleagues. Deploying products like Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams provides an excellent solution.

Teams provides the ability for groups of employees, no matter where they are located, to communicate via instant messaging, voice and video calling. They can collaborate on documents, working effectively together. Video team meetings replaces the need for attendees to be in the same physical room. The home workers will feel much less isolated.

If there is need for the Home Worker to be able to make phone calls to people outside of the organization, call plans can be deployed to their Microsoft 365 plan, enabling VOIP PSTN calling directly from Microsoft Teams. This functionality can be extended to fully replace the business PBX system with a cloud based VOIP PBX system, connected to Microsoft Teams.

The benefits of deploying Microsoft 365 are far too many to list in this article, but it absolutely worth consideration as it all about enabling anywhere working. I strongly suggest that this be researched. Microsoft Partners, like myself, can help you with this.

5. Printers: 

Easy to overlook, but home workers will need a printer. This should be provided for them by the business, along with recompensing the ongoing cost of consumables. A small desktop MFD (multi-functional device) on service contract supplied to all home workers should suffice.

Let’s conclude. Is home working a viable long-term opportunity for your Business?

 

Well, that’s for you decide. What are your drivers? Cost savings, increased profitability, employee well-being, climate change etc?

I hope this article has helped with you kick starting your thinking. It’s not meant to be a definitive guide, nothing more than just a conversation starter. There are lots of other considerations that haven’t been covered, here are a few more to think about:

 

  • How to approach the cost benefit analysis
  • How to manage the change?
  • Business insurance implications
  • ‘Toe-in-the-water’ or ‘big-bang’
  • GDPR implications
  • Where do I locate my servers if I close my offices?
  • Employment law and HR implications
  • How is productivity measured?
  • Employee well being and duty of care.
  • What are the employee remuneration implications?
  • Should staff be a mixture of employed and self-employed?
  • Who do I need to partner with?

About the author….

Sean Warde

Sean Warde

Written by Sean Warde, Owner of Pennine IT Services and Microsoft Partner. Over 35 years’ experience of delivering IT solutions to the corporate, public and small business sectors.