The coronavirus (COVID-19) is here, and it means unprecedented disruption to our way of life. Schools are closed, Main Street businesses are shuttered, and millions of workers are juggling the process of remote work.
Small and medium-sized enterprise organizations are scrambling to implement the software, procedures, and policies needed to enable their workers to stay productive (as much as possible) from home. The result has been a series of unprecedented growing pains as the western world’s collective white-collar workforce leans on network infrastructure in ways it never has before.
Fortunately, we live at a time in which technology has taken the next step forward and, with the right combination of hardware, cloud applications, and mobile-friendly software, remote work is not just feasible; it’s likely to hold up the American economy in the weeks to come.
Challenges Faced in Transitioning to Remote Work
At the best of times, there would be challenges in transitioning to a pure work-at-home model. But we’re not in the best of times – we’re facing a global pandemic that has forced millions of companies to rapidly accelerate their plans and move hundreds or even thousands of employees to a remote work model. There are bound to be issues in doing so.
- VPN Limitations – Large, disparate organizations are having immense difficulties with VPNs that are designed for some remote work, but not for 1000s at one time around the globe.
- Network Traffic – Networks are getting crushed under a deluge of new traffic. With every employee accessing the same resources at the same time and a marked uptick in video and voice communications, the traditional infrastructure simply can’t keep up.
- High-Speed Onboarding – It can take an inordinate amount of time for disparate IT support staff to remotely set up connections and applications for thousands of employees. This can lead to downtime and lost productivity.
- Lack of Built-In Policies and Procedures – Remote work is inherently different from in-office work. The lack of in-person 1:1 meetings, no formal structure to the start or end of the workday, and inconsistent means of communication can create many challenges.
These issues not only directly impact the productivity of the workforce, but they can also lead to unintended isolation and worker loneliness that further compound the issue.
Helping Employees Adapt to a Remote Work Lifestyle
Whether you have a part-time work-from-home policy or not, few of them will have ever worked 100% from home before, and the transition can be jarring.
Policies and procedures should be implemented as quickly as possible at the management level to keep employees engaged and teams in sync. That means:
- Overcommunication – Implement tools that facilitate constant communication between everyone, wherever they are working. You won’t realize how much teams rely on a quick jog down the hall for a 10-minute standup until they can’t do it. Encourage an abundance of communication, and provide guidance on which tools should be used for which forms of communication. When everyone is remote, it’s easy for messages to cross paths on different platforms. Determine now if you’ll primarily use email, Slack, Teams, or project management tools to track messages on your current projects.
- Facilitate Down Time – Remote work can lead to loneliness in normal circumstances, but it’s worse when your employees quite literally cannot leave the house. Setup channels in your communications tools for fun, non-work related conversations. Kick-off meetings with lighter fare. Loosen up and allow employees to stay engaged with one another now that they can’t directly interact.
- Understand Work Styles – Everyone works differently. It’s difficult to see that in the office when everyone is working in the same ecosystem. But online, it will become more apparent as some people grow much quieter on conference calls, others provide scarce details in their emails, and others still go radio silent for hours or days before providing massive updates. Management should take these into account and not try to force everyone into the same structure if it’s not a good fit, while at the same time ensuring ample communication between team members.
- Turning Off – Work-life boundaries can be difficult to manage in normal times. Weeks and potentially months stuck at home could obliterate them. While you can’t make your employees turn off the computer, encourage healthy habits and downtime where appropriate.
The Impact of Cloud Networking
As noted above, one of the biggest impediments to a remote work model is the existing infrastructure most small and medium-sized enterprises currently run. Existing networks are notoriously difficult to stand up for new locations, let alone access via VPN at scale by thousands of employees suddenly working from home WiFi networks.
Cloud networking addresses this by shifting away from traditional physical infrastructure, allowing the standup of dozens of APs in minutes, not weeks. From an operations perspective, this means seamless integration with third-party platforms, greater visibility and the ability to offer support remotely, and decreased business impacts and downtime. In short, it makes your employees more productive while working remotely, a situation they may find themselves in for weeks or months to come.
No individual network can expect to be up to the task of scaling to meet mass remote work requirements. Cloud networking is effective because it allows businesses to seamlessly extend their WAN to public clouds like Azure, AWS, and GCP, leading to increased cloud application and workload optimization.
A Cloud Network solution provides the business with reliable awareness of existing and new security vulnerabilities, is scalable for security upgrades and patching, and many such systems can instantly comply with industry-specific requirements. The Cisco / Meraki cloud networking solution, for example, is immediately HIPAA compliant, supporting rapid virtualization in health care and related fields. The plug and play deployability of a cloud network makes it easier to keep workers home and safe, leverages existing cloud architecture to maximize productivity and minimizes the risk of downtime or delays in deployment.
Application Support for Your Remote Workforce
Since 2005, remote work among non-self-employed individuals has grown by 173% and telecommuting, in general, has seen a 115% increase in the last ten years. Upwork recently surveyed managers of small and medium-sized companies and found they expect 38% of full-time staff to be working remotely in some capacity in the next decade.
We were already at the cusp of a systemic transformation, allowing employees to work remotely in more ways than ever before. And the SaaS industry has built up around that. There are dozens of tools – several from the big four technology companies – that support the movement. Some of the most relevant include:
- Office 365 / Teams – Office 365 is Microsoft’s suite of cloud-based productivity tools and includes the office applications you’re likely already using, as well as Teams – their spin on Slack and video chat communication. Scalable to large teams and integrated with tools you already use, Office 365 can be deployed rapidly in most sized organizations.
- Zoom – Zoom has become one of the most successful conference call SaaS products on the market, and companies have taken note, with unprecedented demand for their product in recent weeks. They offer free plans for new companies struggling with coronavirus response, as well as for schools offering remote lessons.
- G Suite – Google’s business suite of tools includes Hangouts, which seamlessly integrates with their calendar tools for invites, as well as Drive, which allows for easy file sharing and collaboration in the cloud.
- Slack – Slack is the de facto office communications platform, providing seamless, mobile-friendly communication between coworkers wherever they happen to be. Already a staple in many offices, it’s a more robust and accessible solution than ever when employees are all working from home.
- Skype – Skype is a long-time personal communication favorite, with millions of users. The system offers business plans, and also doubles as an easy to use instant-messaging tool.
- Dropbox – Dropbox provides a virtual file-sharing system that operates like a traditional-file structure, with version control, access control at a file-level, and history to protect files if they are in use by multiple users.
Shifting to Remote Work without Losing Productivity
Remote work is inherently different from traditional work. A recent Buffer survey found that 99% of respondents would like to work remotely at some point in their careers and Zapier found that 74% of the workforce would consider a job change if it meant being able to work remotely.
Americans want to work at home, but few have done so consistently, and fewer understand the potential downsides that come with it. The promise of taking calls in PJs and taking short breaks to walk the dog or play with the kids sounds great, but can be devastating to productivity, not to mention the mental health implications of working at home full time, further blurring an already tenuous work-life balance.
Simply telling your employees to work at home isn’t enough. They need structure in the form of:
- Cutting edge network technology that keeps them engaged throughout the workday.
- Seamless cloud-based applications that keep them connected with the rest of the team every day.
- Support from both management and IT to make a smooth transition from the office to the home office.
Those companies that can support their employees through this difficult time, keep them engaged, and maintain high levels of productivity will see less of an impact than those that do not.