Fears of COVID-19 are already changing the way we work, act, and play. The need to keep safe social distances means that many people will be working from home at least for the near future. Fortunately, the internet makes it all possible.
In order to help, Southwest Cyberport offers a few thoughts on how to set up your business to keep on working when your workers are all at home. Each business and situation is different, so be aware that some things will be easier or more effective for you than others. The basic goal here is to lessen face-to-face contact to prevent infection. We’re all in this together (but not too close).
Basic internet services for home offices require high speed connections, security, and back-ups. Here’s a breakdown of what that means:
Your employees need to connect to the office network. This means a having a VPN server at the office to allow and regulate those connections. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) securely extends your office network across the internet to your employees, so that, while working apart, it’s as if they are still together in the office.
Connectivity Technical concerns:
- Each remote worker needs a decent internet connection.
- The office (central location where the VPN server resides) needs a good internet connection with higher upload speed. Many Internet connections have a fast download speed, but slow upload. That is usually fine for most uses, but if you suddenly have a lot of remote users connecting to an office file or application server, it can swamp such a connection. Check with your ISP to see what options are available.
- Configure the VPN to only send office-bound traffic over the VPN. You don’t want your Netflix stream to go through the office connection.
Be mindful of the need for new communications strategies. Email will be useful, as always, but you will want to augment it. When we’re all in a shared space, the water-cooler conversations and spontaneous hallway meetings that happen every day help boost information flow within the organization. A good way to approximate that is a group messaging platform, and there are many to choose from.
- SMS (text) messaging: the most basic option, good as a fallback, but lacks the features needed for effective group communication.
- Slack: The free version of this commercial service is sufficient for many organizations. There’s no limit to the number of users or number of messages, just a limit on the number of messages saved in the system, 10,000, after which older messages are deleted as new ones arrive. Slack is grouped around “channels”, virtual meeting rooms, so people can self-organize into the groups they are interested in to keep on top of the topics related to their job functions.
- Other messaging platforms are available, each with different features. Slack seems to be the one most focused on business needs, but some prefer the features in others such as Discord, Telegram, Viber, WhatsApp, and Zello.
- In general these modern messaging platforms work on most or all devices and computers, so you don’t have to worry about whether someone has an Android or iPhone, or if they use a Mac or Windows.
Voice and Video
- Sometimes a face-to-face meeting is really needed to communicate effectively. There are various one-to-one options available such as FaceTime and Skype. Some of the messaging platforms mentioned above also support video calls (Slack and Viber, most of the others as well). Zello is is like group chat for voice. It’s easy to have an open group voice chat available that doesn’t require a lot of setup overhead for every meeting.
- You might also want a more full-featured video conferencing solution for larger group meetings. Zoom is a popular solution. It’s a commercially licensed option, with more advanced features, such as recording meetings for later playback or sharing with people who were unable to attend.
- A good pair of headphones and high-quality microphone for all the users can make these meetings more pleasant.
General advice for being a remote worker and/or managing them:
- It’s a good idea to set specific times for people to check in on the messaging platform every day. Don’t let people feel like they’re isolated on an island for days at a time. Working from home has a lot of advantages, but many people are surprised at how much they miss having regular human contact throughout the workday.
- Over-communicate and over-clarify things. When you’re all in an office together people can ask their coworkers to clarify things that were said in meetings or come to you later for more information. Encourage people to ask questions. It’s even easier to direct-message someone than it is in real life, if they are timid about asking for clarification in front of others.
- From Kurt Schrader (@kurt on twitter): “When we were first getting started as a remote team we found it helpful to let people know (in a dedicated slack channel) if we were away from our keyboard during the normal work day. (This becomes less important as your company adjusts to async communication.)” What this means is keep your fellow workers informed about what’s up with you, even if it’s just your break or lunch schedule.
- During this period, don’t forget to protect your computers from the kind of virus that attacks them, too. Keep your workers’ computer antivirus protection up-to-date. Remember that spam artists have found a huge new vein of anxiety to mine, so make sure everyone is aware and cautious of phishing attempts. You can forward them to email@example.com if you need them checked out.
- Also, consider your back-up strategies. In these trying times, it’s best to make sure everything is covered – and that means backing up all your data. If your company is moving to remote working in an ad hoc way (as many are), people may be doing more work on their individual machines, so make sure those are backed up, and/or stress the importance of saving files on the office file server where they will be backed up. If your current backup strategy requires physical intervention (like swapping tapes) you may want to augment it with an online backup service such as SWCP BUS.
Finally, throughout this period, try to maintain your patience and a sense of humor. We may indeed all be in this together, but this is all new territory, and so everyone everywhere is experimenting to find out what works and what doesn’t. We will keep you posted on what we find out, and continue to offer and improve our services to help keep you connected safely.