Due to COVID-19, companies have found themselves in the middle of the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. Many hail remote work as a blessing, allowing employees to continue working while practicing social distancing during this uncertain time.
Of course, even before coronavirus grabbed our attention, many companies were already adapting various telecommuting and remote work policies. A 2019 study by Owl Labs found that 16% of global companies were fully remote, and 40% were hybrid (companies who offer both remote and in-office options). There are good reasons why companies have been embracing the remote work culture. From boosting productivity, reducing the cost of operations, and enabling access to a larger talent pool, remote work has many benefits.
However, for all its advantages, remote work also presents many unique challenges. Companies must establish communication norms, address diminished productivity due to lack of supervision, and create systems for managing accountability, tracking projects, executing payroll, and prioritizing cybersecurity. Taken together, these hurdles pose a significant hindrance to fruitful remote work. Fortunately, with the right strategy and tools, you can effectively identify and address these issues to fully reap the benefits of a remote team.
For those enacting a rapid transition to digital work or even for veteran leaders of decentralized teams, here are five best practices to ensure that your operation runs smoothly.
#1 Adopt Remote Security Measures
Ensuring security, privacy, and data protection in a fully remote setup will be difficult. Traditional intrusion prevention systems, firewalls, and sandboxes are not enough now that employees are no longer under your corporate security perimeter. While VPNs are being advertised as a solution, they are not the quick fix that many companies expect them to be.
One workaround is an endpoint-based data loss prevention (eDLP) solution. It can monitor and protect your employees’ workstations instead of just the servers and nodes on your network. This has the benefit of preventing data leaks by mitigating risk at the user level, where the majority of cybersecurity threats occur.
Another approach that companies can take is to utilize virtual machines on Windows, VMware Horizon, AWS/Azure/GCP, or set up a Terminal Server for their remote team. With this arrangement, employees can then login to the server using RDP while continuing to protect the company’s sensitive network and repositories. This is particularly useful if you have third-party contractors or other external users you need to support.
#2 Implement a Communication Policy
Frequent and fluid communications are keys to a successful remote team. Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Telegram, 8×8, WebEx, and Jabber all are useful tools. Many of them are offering free services for a limited time. In many cases, cell phone providers are also extending or removing the data cap.
However, due to increased demand, you may experience some limitations and disruptions. For example, Zoom recently removed the dial-in by phone audio conferencing capabilities from its Basic plan. Most recently, Microsoft Teams went down for over two hours because it was overloaded with activity. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan in case your default service fails.
Regardless of your brand preference, select one that has end-to-end encryption. If you want better protection, you can adapt a Data Loss Prevention (DLP), Content Monitoring and Filtering (CMF), or Extrusion Prevention System (EPS) solution. Many of these have real-time monitoring for email and IM/chat conversations to prevent sensitive data exfiltration over your communication channels.
#3 Utilize Team Collaboration Tools
Office 365, Google Apps, and other collaboration suites have built-in tools that allow employees to work together seamlessly. You can also use cloud drives to enable document sharing. When doing so, don’t forget to implement access control policies so that sensitive documents don’t get into the wrong hands.
Use project management tools for assigning team responsibilities, defining project priorities and tasks, and providing clear directions. This is critical for remote team collaborations. The right tools provide employee clock-ins, create and track projects and tasks in real-time, integrate with your support systems/PM systems, and many other useful features to improve team collaboration and engagement.
#4 Monitor Employee Engagement and Productivity
Remote workers can be highly productive. However, flexible and “always-on” hours can lead to a burnout culture that neither supports employee well being nor promotes company priorities. Therefore, establishing a consistent workflow that measures team performance is critical to ensuring that your team stays productive and doesn’t suffer alienation, burnout, or app-overload.
Specifically, a user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) software can be utilized to track employee behavior for signs of stress or other abnormalities. Of course, companies should implement this software carefully because many employee monitoring and time tracking software solutions allow you to record screens. This can be demotivating and hamper productivity. Instead, focus on activity and outcomes to support both employees and employers.
#5 Manage Your Remote Team with (Special) Care
The truth is, many managers are not trained to manage remote employees. After all, traditional management practices focus on personalized interactions, body language, and other soft skills that do not translate well in a virtual world.
Remote employees also have unique needs that require special attention. For example, a survey conducted by Buffer found that remote workers struggle with unplugging from work, loneliness, and collaboration/communications. Make sure your managers are mindful of these social elements. It seems counterintuitive, but technology can help address many of these “human” challenges. Conducting daily one-to-ones, using video conferencing, organizing “shenanigans,” “watercooler,” or casual team time, ideas generation sessions (for example, using Mural for remote brainstorming and engagement), flexible scheduling – all are useful tips. The key is to invest in the extra effort and pay attention to your employees.
While painful, this could be the watershed moment for the work-from-home movement. By the time we reach the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work will likely be even more normative than before. Companies should prepare now with a full understanding of the remote workflow, security, productivity, and monitoring tools, so that they can manage decentralized teams at scale – for the future of remote work is already here.