The lockdown imposed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic forced many small firms and their staff to switch to home working, including the use of associated technology. Being able to do so effectively is now essential, says Rob Gray.
Once the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent and lockdown was introduced, legions of small businesses scrambled to stay operational by switching to remote working.
This presented numerous challenges, not least a greater reliance on technology to keep the wheels of business turning.
Given that a period of considerable uncertainty still lies ahead, small firms cannot bank on things quickly returning to how they were before the outbreak. There may be much more home working ahead for both business owners and staff, either enforced or in line with revised business strategies and changing employee expectations.
It’s vital, therefore, to derive high productivity from people working remotely by overcoming some of the stumbling blocks to efficiency. At the heart of this is choosing the right technology and using it in the best way to meet your needs.
Cybersecurity should obviously be a priority.
“Home and remote working is potentially more risky than office working as systems and devices may be less well protected, and it is easier to relax vigilance in a home or remote location,” says FSB senior policy adviser Lauren Smith. “Hackers are taking advantage of the confusion and changes in business practices to exploit human and technical weaknesses, so be extra careful.”
She advises taking precautions. Devices and equipment used at home should be password-protected (with no family sharing or access to protected data); internet browsers, firewalls, antivirus/malware and other apps and software should be kept up to date across all devices; virtual networks should be kept secure and the extent and number of remote user licences checked; and companies should consider encryption of devices if they are not already.
Your router is vulnerable to attack, so it’s best to have the WPA2 security protocol – a security standard for wireless networks based on Advanced Encryption Standard technology – and you must change the default password.
Additionally, check that all internet-connectable devices in your location (including cameras, TVs and fridges) have appropriate security settings implemented and only leave them connected when necessary.
To help home workers, managers should ensure everyone is reminded of company IT, internet usage, confidentiality and data protection policies and procedures. If these do not specifically cover home or remote working, consider updating them. A useful resource is the online guide to cybersecurity with respect to working from home, published by the National Cyber Security Centre, which includes sound advice on spotting email scams.
At a time when digital communication has come to the fore, many businesses are still hampered by inadequate connectivity. According to Lost Connection, FSB’s broadband and mobile report from October 2019, 33 per cent of small businesses consider their broadband speeds to be insufficient, rising to 40 per cent when factoring in their future needs. In rural areas the situation is even worse: 39 per cent of small businesses consider their broadband speeds insufficient, rising to 46 per cent when assessing future needs.
FSB is a longstanding campaigner for better broadband but, as the coronavirus crisis has shown, there remains a long way to go. “We have all assumed our networks are fit for purpose, but we are now seeing the patchiness and unreliability of service provision coming to the fore,” says Chris Manka, FSB Regional Chair, North West. “Just watch the news to see how often connections drop out or are too poor quality to understand.”
Another problem for many businesses is that while they may invest in good technology, they don’t always take the trouble to explain to staff how to get the most out of it.
According to The Employee Experience, a report by technology provider Insight, 1.8 billion hours a year are wasted because employees don’t understand how to use the technologies they are given. Alex Guillen Estudillo, Technology Strategist at Insight UK, says businesses should step up efforts to provide training and support in order to ensure staff remain connected and are fully equipped to work from anywhere.
Christian Bozeat, UK Managing Director of digital transformation consulting business Macom, says the onus is on employers to ensure staff have the correct tools in place and know how to use them. “It’s easy to have a video conference solution in place, but if there are no defined processes on how to use it, it can be difficult for staff to use it optimally,” he says.
Moreover, he adds, technologies such as video platforms should be tested to ensure they work well with other commonly used tools. For instance, he advises, it wouldn’t be sensible to use Zoom if you are a Google G Suite user.
When social distancing measures were announced, Coodes, a regional law firm with offices across Cornwall and Devon, asked all staff to complete a pro forma detailing what ICT equipment they had at home and the quality of their broadband. It then provided laptops or PCs from existing stock, or new equipment to those who needed it.
Almost from a standing start, the firm moved to using Microsoft Teams hundreds of times a day across the business to communicate internally and meet with clients – who have responded positively to getting advice face-to-face without having to leave their homes.
“The change of engagement with technology and the ease at which everyone has adapted to using it has been nothing short of phenomenal,” says Coodes partner Colin Hunter.
Estudillo has another good tip, designed to help build morale among teams working remotely. “Online quizzes have become particularly popular, bringing an element of fun to remote working,” he says. “Looking at the bigger picture, they can help to integrate teams that previously did not work collaboratively, thus increasing productivity and teamwork.”
There are also health and fitness issues to consider. “It would be wise to advise workers to take regular breaks and exercise,” says Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.
“After finishing an email, get up and stretch. After completing a document, get up and walk around the house or garden, or make a cup of coffee. The human body is designed to move about, so do it, encourage it, even require it.”
Case study: Embracing home working
“Once we saw Google sending all their employees to work from home, the writing was on the wall,” says Voice Talent Online founder and CEO Simon Luckhurst. The company’s suppliers – voiceover artists or linguists with home studios – already worked remotely, so the challenge related to the core team.
Necessary equipment was taken home, and all computers were equipped with software allowing IT admin to remotely log in and fix issues.
The operations systems are based on MS 365, Google Drive and local network attached storage (NAS) drives. The challenge was where to put extra-large audio/video files. The team wanted to collaboratively work on them, but there are limitations to MS cloud apps’ ability to repetitively ‘shuffle’ massive sizes and quantities of files, as well as connection/bandwidth issues.
As a compromise, extra-large files were hosted on the NAS, configured to accept remote connections based on users’ permissions.
“Production team members ‘check out’ large files to work on, then ‘check back in’ when work has been completed,” says Mr Luckhurst. “Several external hard drives were purchased for production team members to host locally their temporary, large audio/video and project files. This way their computers’
C drives do not get clogged up.”
The existing Skype video-calling set-up worked fine; people were organised into different team groups, as well as having one-to-ones to avoid swamping everyone with needless whole-company chats. Video ‘tea breaks’, ‘checking-in’ chats and Friday online drinks have sustained morale.
Looking the part
Emma Horn has spent 20 years working as a freelance costume designer and fashion stylist for TV, films, commercials and fashion shoots. Her work evaporated overnight when filming was cancelled or postponed due to Covid-19.
“I had to rethink and pivot my business using the skills I have, to come up with a new income stream,” she says.
“After watching too many ‘working from home’ video interviews on the TV news, interviewees sitting in darkness or wearing a top that was so obviously wrong, I came up with the idea of helping the business community get it right.”
Now she works with businesspeople, helping them choose the best outfits, perfect the lighting, style the background, and get the camera angle right to ensure they can attend their meeting confidently and “safe in the knowledge that it is what they say, and not what they look like, that will get the attention”.
Her top video conferencing tips include: don’t allow your clothes to be more interesting than you are; keep your backdrop uncluttered and calming to the eye; and before you go live, take a screen grab of yourself sitting in position and check all looks good before pressing ‘join’.