IT Advice for Working Remotely
As many practices start shifting employees to working from home arrangements, Peter Johns offers comprehensive advice on all things tech, from computers, software, internet and email to useful apps and file storage solutions. He also offers some terrific tips on ergonomics, team morale and using that downtime productively.
As days pass, COVID-19 is starting to affect the way we live and work. Some or all of your employees may be required to work from home at some point over the next few weeks or months. The following information covers some of the key things to consider when transitioning employees to working from home.
These boxes of bits and bytes are now indispensable tools in business. If everyone goes home to work, can their desktop computer and screen follow them?
It may be impossible to move desktop PCs out of the office, due to the way they are networked, or because staff need something more portable in their home environment.
This might be the time to buy or lease some laptops, and set them up with the software required, perhaps transferring licences from desktop PCs.
Rather than having a desktop computer in the office and a laptop for roaming and taking home, many workplaces now use a laptop with a dock and an external monitor in the office, which means you can have one machine to use everywhere. Top of the range laptops are now powerful enough to run CAD, video editing and other processor-intensive software.
For designers, laptop screens are rarely suitable, but they can connect into much larger ones with the right adapters.
It may be impossible to have every staff member at home working on office computers. If a staff member is working from their own computer, how secure is it?
Is this computer shared with flatmates or family members? Make sure that your staff member has set up a separate, password-protected user profile for their work.
Their operating system and browsers should be fairly up to date, and they should be running current antivirus and anti-malware software.
Depending on the OS and age of their home computer, they may not have the capacity to achieve what they can in the office. And they may not have the software, or be able to run the software you use in the office (for instance, if they use Windows at work and Mac at home).
Setting up a business VPN
Most large offices will already have a VPN set up, but smaller practices may not have needed that option – until now.
A VPN extends a private network across the public internet, and is effectively a secure tunnel between two computers. There are two flavours.
Consumer VPNs are used to increase privacy and make you appear as if you are in a different country to allow you to bypass geographical content restrictions.
A business VPN allows you to connect your home computer into your office network, allowing you to work with all your work files from home just like you were in the office. It goes a step beyond the file-sharing tools offered by third party companies such as Dropbox.
The business VPN needs to be set up on your office network in your office router. Then each home user is added to the VPN and their home computer is set up to connect to the office.
If considering a VPN for the first time, you need to determine if your office router has the capability of hosting a VPN. Simpler domestic grade ones probably won't cut it. You may need to replace your office router.
You will also need to either upgrade your ISP account to get a static IP address, or sign up to a dynamic dns service. This is needed to allow remote connections to find your office.
You are likely to need professional help to establish a VPN for your office. As demand will be high at the moment we can only advise you to act quickly and consult your IT support provider.
The setup at home is simpler as modern computers have built-in software to connect to VPNs. Find out more information from Guides for Macs and Windows.
You can also read more about VPNs at: Sumac, Welivesecurity and The Verge
VNC might be all you need
If you just want to be able to "dial-in" to an office server occasionally, to control it remotely, then VNC (Virtual Network Computing) may be all you need.
It allows you to open a window on your home computer that is identical to your office server's screen. You can then use your mouse and keyboard as usual, to operate your server.
It is useful for operating programs on a remote machine – offline accounting software for instance – or for viewing files. It gets much clunkier if you try to use it to transfer files between home and office.
For more on the pros and cons of VNC and VPN: Comparitech
Secure fast internet
If staff are transferring private data, they need to try to keep that transferral secure from point to point. Home WiFi routers should be set up with strong passwords.
We take connectivity for granted but some areas still don’t have the NBN, and the best ISDN broadband available may not be fast enough to use virtual machines, access large files remotely and participate in video conferencing.
If you expect staff to be flexible and do their work at home, you need to provide them with the resources they need to do their job. This may mean paying for an upgrade to their broadband plan to match the speed you have in the office.
Depending on the needs of the work being done, residential and mobile ISP internet plans may need to be upgraded to cope. It seems likely that data caps will be extended for free by many Australia ISPs for the next six months.
This communication tool is as vital as it is antiquated. How effectively can your staff access their work email if they are not at work?
There is usually some form of online webmail available to you. If you use gSuite or similar, you can already access all your email via any browser. If you use local installations of Outlook, Thunderbird or MacMail, you’ll need to confirm how this email can be accessed remotely.
If your email resides on the same server as your website, it will probably be available at www.yourwebsite.com.au/webmail. Try it out! The amount of email stored in webmail varies, from a few weeks (POP) to all of it (IMAP). This depends on how your email has been set up within the office. Visit those settings and increase the amount of time email is left on the server before it is cleared. If a staff member is trying to work from home, and you haven’t checked these settings, don’t open their email program as doing this will probably delete emails from the server.
If you have staff members using your business email addresses from home, then the choice of outgoing ‘SMTP’ server becomes important. If mail is sent out through their ISP’s mail server, rather than the usual work mail server, their email is twice as likely to be marked as spam.
Email accounts should be set up to use the secure SSL mail server rather than the insecure alternative usually provided.
The email itself should be encrypted, but this is hard to implement and at the moment is only practical if you have knowledgeable IT support. For now, we advise against transmitting sensitive information via email.
In the office you may have a shared spreadsheet on your server of passwords to social media accounts, software and other digital assets. This is not an efficient or secure way to manage passwords, and it becomes more precarious when you have multiple staff logging into business assets from their homes.
Files and folders
If you don’t have an online shared file storage solution working soon, your staff will be reliant on emails and USB sticks, resulting in all manner of duplication and omission errors. Look at the capability of your server to share folders and files over the internet. If it doesn’t have any, start looking around for one.
We’ve had the Dropbox App installed on our computers for years both as a secure network and backup solution. There are many others out there – Box, Google Drive, OneDrive and more. You can fine-tune who can access what, so sensitive folders can remain visible only to you.
Many people print out dgocuments to make corrections by hand, before passing them back to staff. This cycle will be affected, but there are ways to achieve a similar process online. We frequently use Dropbox’s online tools, available through their website, to mark up and comment on files.
Identify which programs used in the office are critical to your staff’s work. If your staff can’t take their computers home, look into how these programs can be used online or from another computer. You may need to temporarily increase the number of licences.
In some programs, like AutoCAD and Illustrator, a file might link to (reference) all sorts of other files on your computer and network. Start identifying these link structures now, and look into how they can be made more portable.
Face to face meetings may become impossible. Phone conferences are not ideal. Work with your clients and staff to determine one or more video conferencing tools to use, then test them. Zoom, Microsoft Skype and Google Hangouts are the most commonly used. Staff should become familiar with the chosen tools and learn how to screen-share.
There is a lot of overlap between online communication tools and project management tools. Most use a ‘kanban’ style interface – in its most basic form, each project has a ‘to-do’ list, an ‘in-review’ list, and a ‘completed’ list. You can add tasks, sub-tasks, deadlines and schedules, and assign them to various people and clients. These are slowly taking the place of email and are worth exploring soon. Some examples: Slack, Monday, Ora (which we use).
If you are using paper or spreadsheets to manage time tracking, it’s probably time to move online. We use Beebole, but there are many others out there. You can see how time is being spent as often as you want, see how project budgets are tracking, and staff can submit their completed timesheets from within the software.
Distractions and too much screen time
The twin problems of working alone – distractions from work and getting glued to work. The morning and afternoon time blocks will be harder to achieve at home, especially where people have a carer role. Flexi-time will become the default as people have to juggle other commitments.
This can get messy and timers can assist. They give people focus for a set number of minutes (usually 30), then force them to have short breaks to rest their eyes or look into the distance. They also allow people to track which projects or tasks they’ve worked on during the day.
There are many apps out there that may suit – I use Be Focused Pro from the Apple App Store.
If you need access to government services online, like the ATO’s business portal, AusKey and myGov are being replaced with myGovID this month. Get onboard as soon as you can, as there can be issues getting it to work.
Ergonomics can quickly become an issue for people working with laptops full-time. To lessen the likelihood of staff returning to the office with hunched backs, encourage them to audit their home set-up:
- use a good chair (preferably swivel, with gas lift) and a desk or table
- don’t use the couch and coffee table
- set the laptop higher than the desk. The screen should be closer to eye level than elbow level.
- use a separate keyboard. There are many cheap bluetooth options available.
- get a separate trackpad if necessary
- use a mouse
- a USB adapter hub may be required.
If you’re not in the office, work out what needs to happen when your office landline(s) ring. Your solution will be dependent on the size of your office and existing set-up.
Many clients don’t have your staff members’ mobile phone numbers, and sometime staff won’t want to share them. An option to consider is a temporary virtual landline. Skype can provide local landline numbers that can be made to quietly forward on to any mobile.
For staff unaccustomed to working remotely, the lack of familiar voices shooting the breeze, discussing TV shows and Trump can be dispiriting.
You can try to cover this using private Facebook groups or team management tools like Slack to make watercooler chat areas, but there is only so much you can convey with a chat box, and pop-up conversation alerts can interrupt work rather than assist it.
Consider setting up virtual staffrooms people can patch into at will, using audio or video conferencing. There is no need for people to talk – just having a familiar face on the screen could be a morale booster for some.
These methods should not be obligatory, or used as ways of monitoring staff. They are simply ways for staff to feel more comfortable in an alien situation.
Think up your own novel ways to recreate the best of your office culture without people being in the same building. Perhaps a shared Spotify playlist, or scheduled gaming? Sending in gift packs of coffee, biscuits and flowers is another more tangible way of keeping your team feeling valued. Some think it’s better that gifts are less perishable and are uniquely selected for the individual.
Downtime and professional education
If projects are postponed and work slackens off, what else can salaried staff do at home? Online training is one way to keep staff engaged by learning things they’ve never had time to. If you know a staff member wants to learn about business management, tell them to find an online course on it. Or if they’re rusty on CAD or Photoshop, now might be the time to fix that.
For architects, picking an interesting competition might be a way to keep people busy, allowing them to collaborate creatively, while providing you with another project for your website.
Speaking of which, this could be a good time to get your best writer to do a thorough audit of your website. Clean out the old stuff, add text descriptions to projects, and see how you can improve your performance on search engines.
Share your experiences
Employers will feel isolated too, working in a strange new world without staff you can see. Look for ways you can communicate with others in the same boat, so you can share ideas and vent off a bit of steam. Make occasional ‘no-reason’ phone-calls to friends, others in your industry, and maybe even your clients.
If you’re worried about the time spent setting up all of this, it is not all in vain if COVID-19 becomes a Y2K-style false alarm. These systems should be a worthwhile investment in the future, whatever the outcome.
Peter Johns is a former architect and now full-time web developer. He has written for the architectural blog butterpaper.com since it began in 2000. This article was originally published as a Butter Paper newsletter and has been republished here with permission.
Images: Giorgio Trovato (Unsplash), londondeposit (DepositPhotos)