Experts say technological advancements have eased process to be productive outside office
In many ways, technology has changed the way we do business in the 21st century. It’s streamlined processes and connected people in ways that weren’t possible even 20 years ago.
Technology plays an integral role in almost all professions today, especially in office environments, experts say. Remote work setups make technology imperative to keeping pace with the speed of business.
Statistics from the 2018 American Community Survey estimate about 5 million people, or roughly 3.6% of the U.S. workforce, work from home at least half the time. The number of telecommuting employees has grown by 173% since 2005, and the number of employers offering a work-from-home option has grown by 40% during the past five years.
Technology professionals say companies that don’t adopt telework tools and policies risk losing talent or even business especially in the wake of a global pandemic. That said, not all tools are created equal, and the ways in which employees deploy them matters.
But experts say companies that permitted remote working were ahead of the curve and prepared to deal with the impact of stay-at-home orders during the crisis. Firms that weren’t, however, sought expertise to quickly adapt to the situation.
Cary Smith, president of Midwest Telecom of America, said having the right tools is key.
“Good Wi-Fi equipment allows you to move throughout your remote environment while maintaining good internet connectivity to your mobile devices, like laptop PC, mobile smartphones or tablets,” he said.
On the software side, Smith recommends decision makers set their colleagues up with reliable collaborative programs that facilitate communication and connection with team members, coworkers, as well as prospects, vendors and existing clients in real time with automated historical storage of all events.
Speaking of connectivity, Smith said it’s not enough to make databases like customer relationship management systems and ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems accessible. The real test is if they work in remote contexts and at the speed the business world demands.
“Of course, all of these systems must allow you to update and fully interact with them while working remotely on a real-time basis,” he said.
Use of these tools does not come without its risks. That’s why Smith recommends secure encrypted (256-bit encryption) VPN (virtual private network) connection over the internet back to company servers housing necessary systems. Additionally, he advises clients to invest in a firewall appliance like Fortinet, which in his words, “receives constant anti-intrusion, anti-virus/malware updates on a real-time basis on the edge of your remote network.”
Jeff Cobb, regional vice president of Comcast Business, said companies stand to benefit from embracing cloud computing.
“To stay productive, employees need virtual access to the same information and tools they’d be able to access in a physical office,” he said. “The obvious solution here is the cloud, which hosts files, data and applications within a centralized server and makes them accessible from any device with connectivity.”
Cobb said this setup allows people to work from anywhere on company-issued mobile devices or even on their own devices.
Many technology providers offer cloud solutions apps and software as a service (SaaS), in which software lives in the cloud, not on an individual’s computer, he added.
Cobb said remote working doesn’t require sophisticated technology but should be reliable. For example, a phone system should be easy to use both on site and remotely, he said.
Working in the cloud
Collaboration tools are another means to that end.
“When all employees are in the same office, it’s easy to get together in a conference room or someone’s office to exchange ideas and present information — but when one employee, or everyone, is remote, it’s not as easy to do,” he said. “That means collaboration platforms and unified communications systems are key for future workplaces.”
Another tool — group chat software — can make it seem like everyone is in the same room, even if employees are in various locations or working remotely from home. Google or Microsoft Office both offer collaboration apps for chatting remotely and sharing files.
These tools, however, are only as good as the environment in which they’re integrated. To that end, Cobb said it’s critical that employers grant virtual access to everything.
“Employees need access to more than a few applications or files,” he said. “Businesses deploying a cloud strategy must provide employees with ways to share information, sync schedules, process important documents, and back everything up in real time — securely.”
Cobb said neglecting cybersecurity measures can be costly. Employers should take care that their talent understands how to keep their devices (and by extension, the company’s network) safe by avoiding unsecured websites, using virus protection, and refraining from downloading unapproved apps and software on company devices. Mistakes happen, but according to Cobb, it’s imperative that there’s a universal standard and code of conduct.
All employees — especially those who work remotely — should be obliged to follow key cybersecurity guidelines, which a business should document and IT should support. Cobb recommends tactics that include securing their work phone and computer, installing a firewall, downloading anti-virus and anti-malware software that is set to update automatically and regularly back up information.
Chris Kotul, division manager with Chester Inc.’s informational technologies arm in Valparaiso, is no stranger to helping people adjust to remote work setups. He said Microsoft 365 is a comprehensive solution that caters to the demands of a remote team.
“With all the data in Office 365, I really don’t think that there’s a better option out there right now,” he said. “Microsoft has done a great job of building a product to really meet the needs of all businesses.”
For instance, the solution Microsoft Teams has the power to connect teams, no matter their location. Users have access to messaging and audio/video chat. It also allows for real-time document collaboration, which cuts down on confusion and headaches that stem from working from multiple drafts.
While these solutions are convenient, Kotul said employers should exercise caution when facilitating remote work environments.
“A lot of employers really need to consider that, when you’re allowing staff to connect from home, you could potentially be just extending everything that is running in their home into your office,” Kotul said. “So, I think it’s important to set up things like multifactor authentication.”
Ron Hulett, co-founder and project manager at U.S. Business Systems in Elkhart, said there’s a wealth of security tools available on the market, including some that are free.
“I think the criteria for what you choose really comes down to the security level and the risk mitigation that you might have personally or as a corporation,” Hulett said. “So, we’ve found some really simple tools to deploy that work well and that have security on both ends, (and) they have low cost of entry, which allows a small team of folks to get on board and not break the bank, so to speak and be able to remotely access their devices, which is important in the wake of the pandemic.”
Hulett recommends remote workers use RemotePC software, which allows users to access their desktop from home. He said it’s simple but effective for productivity off site. “You load the tools on both machines — on your machine at home and on your machine at office, and it authenticates the two together,” he said. “So, there’s a level of security there, and it’s really simple to use.”
You can never be too careful, especially right now, Hulett said. Cyberattacks are on the rise in recent months in terms of both sophistication and frequency.
“So, the security tools are even more important if you’re handling data that needs that level of attention,” he said, noting the press around the popular video platform Zoom, and its alleged security gaps.
Rushed into change
Chip Miceli, CEO of Illinois-based Pulse Technologies, which has operations in Northwest Indiana, said when the pandemic hit the U.S. and companies shifted to telework, the transition wasn’t always done with care.
His company advised clients how to empower their staff to get the job done, with safety and security in mind.
Sometimes that meant addressing vulnerabilities in a remote work environment. For example, he encountered cases where employees took their work monitors home to hook up to their personal computers.
This goes against best practices, Miceli said.
Similarly, he said working from home underscores the need for firewalls and other security measures.
“I think the most important thing we have to look at going forward for our homes is the proper security there,” he said. “Most staff just plugged in a computer and got on the internet and away we go, but a lot of us don’t lock it down.”
Miceli said some home offices his firm examined found firewalls were nonexistent, which required software installation. He said all industries are vulnerable when it comes to data transmission and exchange.
Many everyday communications contain sensitive information, which could be harmful to a business or individual if found in the wrong hands, Miceli said.
“Say you’re sitting at home, looking at your emails, (and) you don’t really think about the fact that you might need more protection than you already have,” he said. “So that’s one of the things we’ve been finding out — a lot of people just don’t have that at home.”
Click here to read more from the June-July 2020 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.