man working remotely with a sleeping baby strapped to his chest

Telecommuting Basics for the Newly Remote Workforce

March 18,2020 Collaboration and Productivity
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Most enterprises already had employees who worked remotely before the COVID-19 crisis hit. According to a Global Workplace Analytics report, the number of people who work from remote workplaces has grown 173% since 2005, 11% faster than the rest of the workforce. At this point, telecommuting may be the only option for keeping certain businesses operating in these uncharted waters.

As more and more businesses move employees to remote working (where possible), home offices will become the norm. There are practical considerations when employees are working from a remote workplace, and ensuring they are safe, prepared and operational is the goal. In this article we’ll look at a few of the essentials you'll need in place to support remote workers.

First Things First: Do You Have a Remote Work Policy?

Businesses who previously had a substantial number of remote workers have a leg up on their peers, as they likely already have a remote work policy in place. For those who don't, it’s an important to establish one to help employees make the transition from business workplace to home office without major hurdles. With it, employees will know what to expect from the business, and what is expected from them as a remote worker.

What should be covered in your remote work policy? Obviously you should consult your business’s legal council before implementing any policy, but it should address the following issues:

  • Work hours and schedule: How many hours are workers expected to work? Or will you focus on output instead of hours?
  • Ongoing training and classes: Just because someone works remotely doesn’t mean  they don’t expect the same considerations as other employees, including ongoing training and classes.
  • Safe work environment: Remote workers are still your responsibility, and their health and safety still falls on the employer if they work remotely from home.
  • Work holidays and closings: If the business is closed for local employees, do remote workers still have to work? Address this point in advance.
  • Productivity and general practice: Remote workers are still required to be productive employees, and must follow the same guidelines as local employees.

Workable has a Remote Work Policy Template to use as a starting point if your business needs some inspiration.

VPN Anybody? VPN Everybody!

According to a report from Research and Markets, the Virtual Private Network (VPN) Market is projected to reach $50 billion by 2024, largely because of concerns about cybercrime and data breaches. A Juniper Research report suggests the annual cost of data breaches worldwide will be over $5 trillion by 2024 — most of which will occur in North America. To stay on top of increasing cybersecurity crimes, many enterprise businesses have turned to VPNs to keep data secure.

In many industries, a secure, robust, fast VPN connection is an essential tool. Many enterprises already use a VPN, and likely have VPN clients (the desktop/smartphone software used on remote computers and devices to allow access to the corporate VPN) for their employees. Using a VPN from a home office is a simple matter of installing the VPN client software, logging in using the credentials supplied from the business, and then working as you normally would.

VPN software is fairly mainstream these days. Some web browsers, notably Opera, provide a free, fairly robust, speedy VPN as a part of the browser — no add-ons or plugins required. This is a great move towards security and privacy, but enterprises require enterprise VPNs, as well as VPN access for applications.

Quite a few VPN packages are deemed enterprise worthy, including Cisco’s AnyConnect, Citrix Gateway, Google Cloud VPN, Microsoft’s Web Application Proxy and Enterprise Application Access, and others.

Related Article: 6 Ways to Keep Employer Data Secure When Working Remotely

Finding the Right Collaboration Software Fit

Once the secure connection to the company is established via a VPN, it’s time to get down to work. The first thing to do is have an agreed upon means of communication with other team members and employees. As with VPNs, most enterprises already have collaboration software in place, and most employees are already familiar with it.

James Kies, TEDx Speaker and remote workforce consultant, said the collaboration package a business uses for remote workers should be defined by the goals of the business. He stated that “depending on what your goals are, such as helping teams and teams-of-teams host remote daily stand-ups, daily company all-calls, end of week demonstrations, celebrations, retrospectives, and planning multiple sessions, then Google Docs, for instance, would be a poor choice as a collaboration tool.” Kies believes that in the end, choosing the wrong collaboration software can be the difference between success and failure for a remote workforce.

He cautioned that the wide variety of groups using the software — each with their own requirements — will compound the requirements. As he said, “This gets even worse when you start to reach for the best solutions for collaboration software for individuals, teams, leadership, product orgs, process orgs, and executive orgs that need to all work together in a highly effective way.” Choosing the right collaboration tools for your remote workers should be defined by the goals you have for your remote workforce. Kludging together a solution just won’t work, and as Kies said, “The invisible costs of Frankenstein solutions are just too high.”

If your business doesn’t already have collaboration software in place, you have choices, including many you are already familiar with, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Workplace from Facebook, Monday.com, Flock, Trello, Basecamp, Asana and others.

Related Article: A New Generation of Collaboration Tools: Is it Really Different This Time?

Use Conferencing Software You Can Count on

Remote workers can often feel left out and disconnected from other employees and the business as a whole. A recent Gallup report reported that loneliness and isolation are a struggle for 21% of remote workers. Loneliness isn’t just an issue for remote workers, but working remotely can enhance the feeling. Isolation refers to a lack of access to materials or information, or a feeling of being cut off from the business. Since there is a connection between isolation and loneliness, by working to remove the barriers to access to materials and information, leaders can be proactive in reducing the loneliness that remote workers can feel.

Kies noted that, as the Gallup report suggests, remote workers experience “loneliness, feeling disconnected, lack of knowing how to pursue value, endless pointless status meetings. None of this is what healthy remote teams look like.” These issues can be solved, Kies suggested, by creating “healthy, trained, and powerful autonomous cross-functional teams.”

As such, it is even more important for remote workers to stay connected via regularly scheduled meetings to continue to feel connected and engaged. For the remote worker, even the pre-meeting small talk is a valuable part of the discussion — it’s a way of making a connection with the team.

Many conferencing software packages are available that have voice, video and web-sharing functionality. Some of the most commonly used packages include Skype for Business, DialPad, Zoom, Google Meet, GoToMeeting and others.

Related Article: The Loneliness Epidemic Revisited: A 2020 Update

Do Not Assume People Know How to Work Remotely

Most IT workers have worked from home at one point or another in their careers, but it's wrong to assume all employees will automatically be able to move from the workplace into their home office and begin immediately being productive employees. Like anything else, there will need to be training, a settle-in period of adjustment, and a lot of open communication for things to get back to “business as usual.”

Remote workers tend to work longer hours, and often even on weekends, because the office is right in their home. While that may sound good for businesses, it’s bad for employees, as they will burn out, eventually lowering productivity and engagement. Remote workers should be encouraged to stick with a set schedule, which is often the schedule of the business itself. At a time like this though, flexibility should be the norm as people being forced to work from home with children out of schools, external concerns and more will need (and appreciate) the leeway. 

Managers should take the time to call remote workers, to see if they have everything they need to effectively do their job, and to find out how they are doing with the change. Team leaders will need to be more attentive to remote workers needs, and will have to make sure work is being done according to schedule, and to work out any bottlenecks that come into play.  

Kies said for remote working to succeed, leaders need to put serious consideration and preparation into the process, because as he says, “No one has or is training in remote work .... the leaders who don’t understand how to lead-remotely, and the workers who have never had basic remote-worker success training put their companies and teams at a huge disadvantage.”

Final Thoughts

Remote workers are not new, and telecommuting has been an effective way of reducing business costs, increasing ROI and employee satisfaction for the last two decades. The current crisis is forcing many businesses that previously didn't allow remote work to reconsider that policy. The guidelines in this article offer a starting point for leaders to help ensure  their remote workers can be safe, productive and continue to be assets to the business.

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