By Jeffrey Schwartz, contributor
⏰ 12-minute read
- Over the past month, COVID-19 has resulted in more people working at home than ever, many unexpectedly and for the first time.
- Now that the initial office shuffle is over, it’s time to regroup and ensure your people have what they need to work at home effectively, long-term — and without straining your budget.
- A variety of cloud services are key to efficiency without compromising the security of sensitive data.
Supporting some remote workers is nothing new for most organizations. But supporting remote access for the entire workforce, for an extended and unknown period of time, amid office closures due to a public health emergency? That is new.
A recent survey by Procurify of 600 people now working from home shows that while 69% say their companies have offered no perks to ease the transition, most appreciate the flexibility. About the same number like the savings realized when they can skip the commute, lunches out and dry cleaning. It’s not hard to envision a “new normal” in which, when social distancing ends, employees don’t want to come back to the office, at least not full time.
Fortunately, a smart mix of technology and processes can make home workers productive now while also future-proofing your strategy.
Of course, remote work is easier for some roles than others; long-term feasibility depends on the nature of the business, the systems employees need to access and whether workers are dealing with regulated or sensitive data, where security and compliance considerations come into play.
One thing that’s uniformly true is that the more a company uses cloud-based resources, the better positioned it is to support people working at home with the least amount of disruption. Typically, only companies formed in recent years can claim 100% cloud-native status. But a vast majority have moved many core functions, including email, collaboration and select business applications, to the cloud.
Let’s look at the ten tenets of a comprehensive, affordable and durable remote work strategy.
1. Mind the hardware.
Employees who already use company-managed laptops should require minimal assistance in order to work from home. Those who work on desktops in the office, however, will need remote access to the applications they use, provisioned for the device they have on hand. More on that in Step 2.
Another option is to procure laptops for everyone. But a one-size-fits-all strategy might end up costing you in terms of productivity. Instead, go by role:
Typical knowledge worker:
Acer, Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo all offer laptops priced under $1,000 that will serve most users’ needs. Popular options include the Dell Inspiron, HP Spectre and various ThinkPad E Series laptops.
If you have employees involved in more complex work, say with CAD or graphics, higher-end PCs and Macs can scale up to $2,500 or more. Consider Dell’s XPS laptops or its Precision mobile workstations, higher-end ThinkPads, HP’s EliteBooks or Microsoft’s Surface line.
If your productivity software is in the cloud, consider Chromebooks, many of which cost less than $500. Some examples include HP’s Chromebook x360, which costs under $400, and the Asus Chromebook C523. Today’s Chromebooks deliver excellent functionality with the convenience and security of a virtual desktop appliance. Chromebooks are arguably much more secure than a PC or Mac because Chrome OS automatically updates at every restart, with no need to patch or keep security software up to date. And a lack of on-board storage means your data stays in the cloud, not on a local hard drive.
2. Decide who’s on the hook for setup and management.
It’s difficult to procure and provision company-owned Macs or PCs if you have more than a handful of people that need new hardware. It’s even dicier to keep them all patched, locked down and running smoothly over the long term.
If you have zero interest in being an admin, it makes sense to consult with a managed service provider (MSP). MSPs manage any or all of a business’ computing, security and communications needs. There are many local and national providers that can set employees up with a secure and controlled environment in which to work, whether on their own computers or a company device, usually priced on a per-seat, per-month basis. They do it remotely, so geography isn’t a big deal, and most will help choose hardware and ship it straight to you.
If you don’t already have a consultant who helps you select, provision and manage your company’s computers, peripherals and related infrastructure, ask around. Your peers likely have recommendations as MSPs tend to specialize in particular verticals. You can also consult industry lists, like this annual roundup of the top 501 MSPs globally. It’s always good to get estimates from a few different providers as bundles can vary widely.
If even that is just too daunting, there are virtual CIOs ready to help.
When employees work from home, identify a resource to field questions and issues. (credit: Getty)
3. Decide between managed desktops and virtual workspaces.
Presuming most of your employees own their own computers and are willing to use them for work — the ever-popular “bring your own device” model — there are quite a few options to provide remote access to the software, data and files they use in the office while segregating their personal data.
If you don’t want to create a scenario where employees can permanently store company data on their personal computers, or even print it out — and if you’re in a regulated industry or have sensitive intellectual property or customer lists, trust us, you don’t — you have some options.
One way to protect data is to standardize on cloud-based virtual desktops, a flexible alternative for employees who need general business applications. Companies that prefer not to make capital purchases can even set employees up with hardware subscription services, billed on a per-user, per-month basis, and including robust support. This unified desktops as a service (DaaS) model, which we cover here in depth, means employees may work on any device, even those that they own, without your company losing control over access and data.
You could also provide them with more traditional virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, setups, which essentially transmit a published image of what’s on each user’s office computer to the employee’s personal computer from your company’s data center or a cloud provider. This way, privacy remains within your control because the actual data remains in the data center or is hosted online. There are a number of VDI providers. Again, all are offered as subscription services that are billed on a per-user, per-month basis.
Note that while the latter option is likely less expensive, setting up VDI requires technical skill. DaaS is more like what most business owners think of as cloud — easy to set up, flexible and relatively secure.
Now that the computing environment is out of the way, it’s time to get people working.
4. Pick out productivity and email software.
The good news here is if you have Office 365 or a G Suite subscriptions, you’re already set. If you run perpetual Office Professional or Enterprise licenses, find out what those agreements allow regarding having employees use them from home. In many cases, it will be easiest to just set everyone up with Office 365 subscriptions.
Microsoft Office 365:
If your company has Microsoft Office Business Premium 365 subscriptions, each user is permitted to download the suite on as many as five PCs or Macs, five smartphones and five tablets. Regardless of how technical your employees are, or are not, this is very doable. They just need to go to Office.com and use their corporate email addresses and passwords to download what’s needed on their devices. Office 365 licenses come with most of the apps workers need, including Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint, Teams, To Do and Yammer.
Companies with 300 or fewer people who use Office and email can add licenses for $15 per month, if they are intended to be temporary. If the duration will potentially be a year or more, the monthly cost paid annually adds up to $12 per user. If you don’t need email, Microsoft offers a plan that costs $8.50 per user per month, but that requires a one-year commitment.
Larger organizations can purchase enterprise licenses starting at $20 per month; the highest-tier E5 license costs $35, but that includes added security and management features.
Google offers a viable alternative to Office 365, and while it’s easiest to choose one or the other — at least within specific departments or work groups — users can convert documents and spreadsheets from one format to the other. G Suite is available with three options: Basic, Business and Enterprise, which cost $6, $12 and $25, respectively, per user per month. If you are considering outfitting employees with Chromebooks, you can get a bundle deal with Chrome Enterprise.
Most remote teams decide between Office 365 and Microsoft Teams for their productivity software. (credit: Getty)
5. Get phone services to stay in touch.
Having the infrastructure and software for your employees to work is paramount, but you also want them to put their best feet forward to customers and partners. Rather than giving out their home phone numbers, allow employees to project a more professional environment: There are a lot of services that are relatively inexpensive and easy to set up and manage.
Companies that already use Microsoft Teams can add a phone number that supports inbound and outbound calling plans starting April 1. The new Microsoft 365 Business Voice service lets organizations port existing phone numbers or create new ones. It’s embedded in the Microsoft Teams app and starts at $20 per user per month.
Google Voice is an option for G Suite customers that’s available in a Starter edition for organizations with 10 or fewer employees for $10 per user per month. The next option is the Standard edition, priced at $20; unlike the Starter package, it supports desk phones and includes voice mail. The Premier version costs $30 and offers many other features including global calling.
If a more professional setup and additional call queuing and other features are needed, there are piles of cloud business phone services, also known as unified communications as a service, from providers including 8x8, Ring Central and Vonage, just to name a few, that are simple to set up. They’re inexpensive and often bundle videoconferencing, voicemail boxes and instant messaging for collaboration.
If you have a modern PBX from Avaya, Cisco or Mitel, they offer hybrid solutions that can extend their respective offerings into a cloud PBX service. Again, most will need some technical assistance here.
6. Desk phones. Yes, they’re still a thing.
Employees who have spent, say, more than 20 years in the workforce often rely on their tried-and-true desk phones for calls and audio conferences. In some roles, such as a receptionist or call-center agent, they’re required. Chances are your millennial workers will be just fine using the softphone capability on their computers or mobile phones.
For those that aren’t, most internet-enabled desk phones, like those from Cisco, Poly and Yealink, can be used by home workers and are available at your favorite electronics retailer. Poly recently refreshed its VVX line, starting with the two-line VVX 150 phone for under $75. For about twice that amount, the VVX 250 provides four lines, a 2.8-inch color LCD screen and a USB port. At the high-end for administrators and executives, Poly’s full-featured VVX 601 includes a webcam and will blend in even the swankiest home office.
When working remotely, some employees rely on desk phones to do their best work. (credit: Getty)
7. Make a way to see their smiling faces.
Now that everyone is working at home, videoconferencing use has surged. Among the most popular systems are LogMeIn’s GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts Meet, the meetings options for Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
As it became clear a month ago that people would be working remotely for extended amounts of time, many suppliers extended special deals:
Microsoft’s coronavirus-related offers:
Microsoft started offering individuals a free version of the Teams client, which is included in all business editions of Office 365. The company is extending use of Teams for collaboration and chat for enterprise customers with Office 365 E1 subscriptions and for teachers, students and school administrators through the Office 365 A1 subscription.
Google’s coronavirus-related offers:
In response to COVID-19, Google recently opened up access to its premium Hangouts Meet for all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers through July 1, allowing up to 250 participants per meeting with the ability to record and save the conferences to Google Drive. Google is also offering G Suite customers free livestreaming for up to 100,000 viewers per domain. And Zoom is giving its conferencing service free to all K-12 schools.
Almost all videoconferencing suppliers offer free trials, so your employees can try a few and see which works best.
8. Consider add-ons to make remote meetings even better.
Employees who aren’t used to spending the better part of the day on videoconferencing will tire pretty quickly of using a PC camera and microphone/speakers. Consider issuing, at minimum, headsets to drown out household sounds.
Those who opt to use the softphone on their computers, iPhones or Android devices can choose from numerous headsets that provide reliable noise cancellation and offer high quality sound. Among those that are worth considering:
Jabra is a well-known provider of earbuds for mobile phones. Its Evolve 75 is a reliable headset that can hold two simultaneous Bluetooth connections. It includes an Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) button that you can turn on to filter out low-frequency sounds, like a whining toddler.
Another option is Logitech’s Zone Wireless Plus headset, which connects to computers and smartphones simultaneously. Those who opt to use the softphone feature on their PCs or Macs can wirelessly connect to the headset via Logitech’s new USB Unifying Receiver. The dongle provides a 2.4 Ghz wireless connection, which provides a more reliable and higher-fidelity audio stream than Bluetooth.
Moreover, the dongle can support as many as six wireless Logitech peripherals, such as keyboards and mice. If you lose the dongle, a replacement costs only $14. The headset itself is comfortable, folds easily and comes with a Qi wireless charging pad. It’s certified for Google Voice, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, among others.
Another way to provide a more professional look during meetings is to use external webcams that offer enhanced resolution, filtering and zoom capabilities. Logitech’s Brio Webcam, priced at $199, offers 4K UHD resolution and HDR, plus it supports Microsoft’s Windows Hello authentication, which is handy for those that want to use facial recognition to login but also like to keep their laptop lids closed. Options for less than $100 include the Microsoft LifeCam Studio, Razer Kiyo and Logitech’s C920 HD Pro.
Consider getting headsets to trick out your employees' remote meeting experience. (Credit: Getty)
9. Get some external monitors, because eye health matters.
Employees accustomed to working in offices with big, or dual, monitors will find it difficult to be constrained to a markedly smaller display at home, especially if they are multitaskers who run multiple applications side-by-side. There are many suitable options for external monitors in the $100 - $200 price range.
The most important factor is to make sure the display you choose can connect to the computer. Newer systems tend to offer HDMI or DisplayPort connections, but even those are starting to shift to the USB-C connector system. For newer Macs, it’s USB-C, and to connect these to external peripherals like monitors, keyboards and a mouse, you’ll need to buy hubs. Popular ones include HooToo’s 6-in-1 USB-C Adaptor and the Satechi Aluminum Multi-Port Adapter V2.
Problems arise if one of the devices is older than the other and has only legacy VGA or DVI connectors.
Although a less technical issue, it’s also important to make sure not to choose a display that’s too big to fit on the user’s home desk — or kitchen table. If resolution and aesthetics matter, the top displays of 2020 include some that look more like sculptures than computer peripherals.
10. Lock it all down.
Last but most definitely not least is security.
Make sure employees watch for “HTTPS” when connecting to cloud services. If they need to connect into your network, consider a VPN. Many are available for less than $10 a month.
Public and unsecured Wi-Fi is a no go. Here’s a guide for employees to make sure their connections are secure. They can also check in with their internet providers.
Ensure that applications and operating systems are up-to-date. Use two-factor authentication and strong passwords (or get everyone a password manager), and make sure files are backed up. That’s not an issue for employees using Office 365 or G Suite, but if they are working locally on a hard drive, they need a remote-backup system, like Carbonite, which is available starting at $5 per month.
Unfortunately, phishing attempts, where would-be attackers try to trick people into downloading malicious files or click on dangerous links, are on the rise, significantly. The goal may be to get into your network to steal data, or it may be a ransomware attempt. Most problems arise when someone clicks on a link or downloads an attachment that looks legit but isn’t, so equip employees with an email security service. The more spam you can keep out of inboxes, the better. Here are more prevention tips and what to do if you end up ransomed.
Security awareness training is also useful. You can contract with a number of companies to test out how well remote employees spot attack attempts.
These are just the bare minimum. We like how a coalition of 13 nonprofits have banded together to offer a “Work From Home. Secure Your Business” plan that offers simple recommendations to keep remote workers safe. MSPs generally also offer security packages.
Happy (high-tech) working from home!