The covid-19 pandemic of 2020 and subsequent lock down suddenly found many more people working from home. There was no planning, or preparation, everyone was simply told “work from home if you can”.
If there can be any silver lining to the cloud of a global pandemic it is that, from an Information Technology perspective, there couldn’t have been a better time for millions of people to suddenly up sticks and work remotely.
The remote work tools and infrastructure – the internet, cloud-based applications, voice over IP, unified comms, and decent home broadband (mostly) – were sufficiently mature enough that making this sudden transition was relatively painless; imagine if this had happened just 10 years earlier, who had heard of Zoom then?
Of course, remote working presents a new set of challenges for both employers and the remote team themselves. As someone who works remotely 90% of the time, and has been since 2014 I was fortunate enough not to have been overly impacted by this new work regime; however, I more than recognise the problems and challenge of working from home. In this article I want to highlight some of the issues of working from home with some emphasis on the IT challenges.
Work Life Balance
Personally, I used to spend an hour and a half sat in my car every day commuting to work, so the transition to suddenly working from home was enlightening. All of a sudden, I could finish at 5.00 o’clock and be home, my time was my own. Of course, this came with a small pang of guilt where I felt like I should still continue my work day for a bit longer, and this is common amongst home workers. There is a temptation to respond to one more email, finish another task, catch up on some admin while the phones have stopped. So, it is important for home workers to be as disciplined in “switching off” at the end of their normal work hours, as they are about being productive during the day. It is also important that employers foster a culture that doesn’t take advantage of an employee’s willingness to swap the 45-minute commute for working longer hours.
Flexibility, of course, works both ways, some roles require employees to be available to cover the phones, but many may just be required to work the 8-hour day and the ability to start earlier or finish later in return for a few hours off during the day to ferry the kids to school and back could be one of the ways that remote working benefits employees.
Here’s some tips to ensure a healthy work life balance:
• Set a fixed time to start and finish work, and fixed work hours that everyone is aware of.
• When you reach that finish time, shut down the computer and turn off notifications for work emails. Don’t be tempted to work over unless there is a genuine need. This is especially important where you work for yourself.
• Use collaboration software like Microsoft Teams to post a message saying “Good Morning”, “Going for lunch” or “I’m off”.
• Like someone who works in an office, Home workers need dedicated working spaces, i.e. a study or spare room. Don’t be tempted to work from shared space such as the kitchen table. With a home office it is easier to form a routine where you leave that room at the end of the day.
• Schedule after work activities such as trips to the gym, shopping or going for a walk/bike ride.
• If you struggle to stop yourself overworking set recurring appointments in your diary for lunch and coffee breaks.
Productivity, Motivation, Prioritisation and Time Management
Just a few years ago some managers would have been apprehensive about people working remotely, considering “Working from home” to mean “skiving off”, but in reality, it is much more likely that the opposite is true. Home workers tend to be far more productive, work at a more intensive pace and suffer less from the typical distractions that afflict someone who works in an office. Having said that there are some common challenges of working from home. Distractions from family demanding your attention, neighbours who don’t appreciate that you’re at work, the cat throwing up etc. When I first started to work remotely it took a bit of effort to convince my wife that “No, I can’t just duck out of work to hang the washing out”.
Remote workers do need to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. Some things you can do to help with this are:
• Politely explain to family, friends, neighbours that you are working and shouldn’t be interrupted until lunch, tea break etc. train them to be self-sufficient. If you were away at work they would find whatever they’re looking for without your help.
• If you’re working on something that really requires undivided attention put a Do Not Disturb sign on your study door.
• Don’t be tempted by social media, TV, etc. turn off notifications for Twitter, in fact, just do that anyway.
• Do the tasks your most likely to procrastinate on first, when your mind is most alert.
• For some people background music helps them work, for others it is a distraction. Choose whatever works for you but remember that if you spend time on the phone talking to customers background music can be intrusive.
• Take advantage of remote work tools and project management software to collaborate with colleagues when working on projects, making sure you’re completing your tasks on schedule and ensuring your home working colleagues are completing theirs.
• Focus on one task at a time, multi-tasking can reduce productivity by up to 40% but don’t spend too long on one task, break it up into smaller chunks and work in short bursts, use the Pomodoro technique to help with time management.
• Line managers will need to make additional efforts to ensure their remote team feel included and motivated.
Communication and Collaboration
Anecdotally I’ve noticed that when everyone in the office was working from home, team communications using tools like Microsoft Teams became the norm. As some people drifted back to working in the office these tools were used less, meaning that those still working from home were less engaged and missed out on small snippets of information.
Team communications in any business is paramount, not only to ensure that everyone knows what is going on, but also to keep remote workers involved, included and motivated. Where companies have a number of remote employees there are a different set of challenges and there needs to be a culture shift to make sure everyone is kept up to date.
Consideration needs to be given for workers in a different time zone, how will they collaborate with colleagues?
The good news is that there is a plethora of really good tools to help with communicating and collaborating on projects. Online tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have become very popular. Video conferencing with Zoom, Teams or WebEx is starting to become more popular than using the phone. Screen sharing to do presentations has become a natural replacement to the travelling sales rep, and with a huge benefit to the environment.
Sharing documents and data has become even easier. Cloud based storage and document management systems such as Microsoft 365 SharePoint and OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox enable office and remote workers to share documents.
Many business systems are now web based, accessed over the internet via a web browser. For those business systems that still need to run on a Windows desktop there are desktop as a Service solutions like Hosted Desktops that enable companies to run any business application in the cloud, no matter how complex the system architecture.
Business need to be mindful of the information security challenge of working remotely. Make sure people who work remotely are using company PCs or laptops and not accessing company data or systems on home PCs shared with the kids and their friends. This article has some more information on maintaining cyber security with home workers.
We can now all work from home because of the rapid influx of new technologies so there really is no excuse for remote workers to have a 2nd class experience with their IT than those in the office. However, I still hear tales of people trying to connect to their office over VPN and being frustrated over how long it takes to work on documents.
So, here’s some tips on how businesses can give everyone a great working experience.
• Email – make sure you are using a business class email service with shared calendars and reasonable mailbox size. Your team should expect to be able to see all their emails, sent items, folders etc. on all their devices, their company PCs, laptops, phones and tablets. You should also consider additional email security measures to filter out malware, spam, and phishing attacks. Educate staff to spot dodgy emails, especially if they are working on their own PCs and you have less control over the management of their anti-malware.
• Computers – Don’t expect remote employees to use their phones or iPads and still be as productive. Ensure they have proper company PCs and monitors with full access to all the applications they need
o Online applications will be easy as they should be able to be accessed from anywhere. Consider Two Factor Authentication to reduce risk of anyone accessing your systems who shouldn’t be.
o Office applications such as Microsoft Office can be installed on multiple devices if you have a Microsoft 365 subscription. Use a business plan, not a personal one to get full collaborative features of applications like SharePoint, Teams etc.
o Share Office documents in Microsoft 365 SharePoint, Google Drive, Dropbox or use a shared drive on a hosted desktop service accessible by every team member.
o Desktop applications, those business apps that need to run on a Windows desktop and typically have a shared database may struggle to run over a VPN. Instead move these to a Hosted Desktop (desktop as a service) platform. Move your documents to the remote desktop service and run Microsoft Office from the same platform to get a fully integrated solution with all your business apps in one place.
• Telephones – Deploy a VoIP solution for your phones. Remote workers can either have their desk phone at home plugged in to their broadband, or many VoIP services now come with mobile apps so that workers can answer their business number calls via their mobiles and transfer calls etc just as they would from their desk phones.
• Web cams and microphones – don’t scrimp on quality web cams and mics if you expect home workers to engage with clients via Zoom or Teams conference calls. Get a separate decent quality mic rather than use the one inside the web cam. In an emergency there are several apps to turn your mobile into a web cam.
• Internet – The faster your internet the better, but you generally don’t need anything wild to be able to work from home. I work from rural Wales with a 15mbps download and <1mbps upload. I use hosted desktop, a VoIP desk phone and Teams running locally on the pc and I wouldn’t know I’m not working in the office. It’s good to have a backup option if your internet fails. A 4G connection on your mobile and setting it up as a Wi-Fi hotspot will get you out of jail free.
Health – Mental and Physical
When people are working in an office their employers have a legal duty of care to ensure the health of their employees and the safety of their working spaces. This doesn’t change just because people are working from home. If your employees are working from their kitchen tables on dining chairs with extension leads draped across the floors, then very soon they will start to suffer with bad backs, RSI, trips and falls, and the like. Just like in the office employees need to be on ergonomic chairs with adjustable seat height and back position and a 5-star base. Permanently bending over a laptop screen is not good for posture. Invest in a decent monitor and position it so the top of the screen is at eye level when sitting upright.
Home workers also need to take breaks away from the screen, the same as their team members working in an office.
Isolation and loneliness can be a problem for anyone who works remotely, so both the employer and the employee need to take steps to reduce the risk of cabin fever. Use the telephone to communicate where you can rather than just email/messaging. Take the time to “chat” about non-work stuff just like the office based people will be doing. Look at staggering work and finish times so that employees in a different time zone still have opportunity to talk with other team members. If you work from home try to schedule out of work social activities, lunch dates etc. (lock down permitting) to relieve the stir craziness.
Your Office Anywhere have been helping people work remotely since 2005, specialising in hosted remote desktops, hosted email, and architecting solutions to enable businesses to run any desktop application remotely. Please get in touch using the form below to find out how we can help.