Empowering Remote Workforce for the Enterprise

With the right combination of applications, services, and policies, organizations can maximize remote workers’ productivity and minimize risk. However, remote work presents new challenges for IT professionals. And as remote working becomes part of an enterprise’s cost-trimming, profit-boosting efforts, IT will be under pressure to ensure they’ve selected the right remote-working tools for the job.

Empowering Remote Workforce for the Enterprise. Image: ShutterStock
Empowering Remote Workforce for the Enterprise. Image: ShutterStock

This article outlines key considerations and best practices when empowering a remote workforce.

Content Summary

Common Security Pitfalls and How to Prevent Them
How BYOD Policies Protect Both Employees and Remote Workers
Set Up Remote Workers for Success
Stay Connected: The Best Tools for Remote Collaboration
Sometimes, Things Break: IT Support Tools for Remote Workers
In Conclusion: Remote Working Can Work for IT

Imagine if an outside management consultant came into an enterprise and said,“I have a surefire technique for boosting worker productivity by 13%, reducing staff turnover by 50%, and making about $2,000 more in profit per employee.” Upper management would jump all over it. Reducing overhead and boosting the company’s bottom line? That’s annual bonus-worthy management win material right there.

That surefire technique exists. It’s telecommuting, increasingly known as remote working.

However, remote work presents new challenges for IT professionals. A geographically distributed workforce changes how new technologies are introduced into the workplace and how IT departments support workers. And as remote working becomes part of an enterprise’s cost-trim- ming, profit-boosting efforts, IT will be under pressure to ensure they’ve selected the right remote-working tools for the job.

The double-digit improvements are derived from research. Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nicholas Bloom teamed up with James Liang, John Roberts, and Zhichun Jenny Ying and studied a Chinese travel agency with 20,000 employees and a market capitalization of about $20 billion. The researchers worked with Chinese online travel booking and services provider Ctrip to divide the workforce into two groups: Half worked from home for nine months and came into the office one day a week, and half worked solely in the office. After two years, Bloom and his team were able to quantify the effects on the remote workforce – the increases in production, the reduction in turnover and the profit boost per employee.

There are other bottom-line benefits to remote work: More than 25% of Dell’s employees are remote workers and the company says it saves at least $12 million annually in real estate costs.

And finally, embracing remote work can help companies address critical skill shortages by widening their hiring pool outside specific geographic areas.

(Workers can even move to areas that benefit them financially – Tulsa, Oklahoma, wanted to attract more people and boost the city’s economic and social diversity, and fed that goal with a program called Tulsa Remote, in which successful applicants who are willing to move to the Sooner State will get $10,000 in cash, a housing stipend and a desk at a local coworking space. This would allow remote workers to keep their day job and get a little extra something on the side.)

However, remote work presents new challenges for IT professionals. A geographically distributed workforce changes how new technologies are introduced into the workplace and how IT departments support workers. And as remote working becomes part of an enterprise’s cost-trimming, profit-boosting efforts, IT will be under pressure to ensure they’ve selected the right remote-working tools for the job.

This guide outlines the following considerations and best practices when empowering a remote workforce:

  • The specific security challenges of a remote workforce
  • What to be aware of if or when remote workers are using their own devices to do company work
  • Tools and habits that set up a remote workforce for success
  • The best tools for remote collaboration
  • How to help remote workers troubleshoot their tech setups

Let’s start by acknowledging the biggest obstacle to successful remote working: security.

Common Security Pitfalls and How to Prevent Them

The same thing that makes a remote workforce possible – the internet – also makes it a threat to its employer. In an OpenVPN survey of 250 IT leaders, more than one-third said their organization had a security incident linked to a remote worker’s actions. It’s that kind of data that makes policymakers understandably nervous about allowing or embracing remote work. But so long as IT professionals are aware of the risks that remote workers can introduce, they can take steps to mitigate them. Here are some of the most common tools and policies survey correspondents used to reduce security risks.

Restrict access to corporate networks, cloud-based services and file repositories via VPNs or hardware tokens. Seventy-four % of OpenVPN survey respondents used this policy to reduce the risk of people using unauthorized machines to get on to a network.

Reduce password breaches by using a password manager. Open- VPN has also found 25% of employees, regardless of location, use the same password for everything. So all malicious actors have to do is get one password right, and they’re everywhere.

Prohibit BYOD options at work. Although the technology exists to log a remote worker’s tech tools and authorize them, 38% of survey respondents said, to reduce risk, their companies disallow corporate data on employees’ personal devices. On the flip side, an Intel-commissioned survey of remote workers found that 29% of respondents used their company-issued computer for personal chores, with e-commerce being the biggest culprit.

Rely on cloud-based storage. These services often have high levels of encryption so that data is both easily accessible for remote workers and also protected from ransomware.

Engage in employee education. The Intel survey of remote workers found that 6% of all remote workers are just fine with opening email attachments attached to messages from unknown people outside their organization. This is a classic security threat to an organization. A sizable percentage of these correspondents – 46% – also saw nothing wrong with uploading personal files to their company devices or corporate networks.

That’s where employee education comes in handy – it’ll remind users what risky behaviors they may be engaging in and how to refrain. According to OpenVPN, 66% of all organizations require security training, and 90% say their organization requires that remote workers take part in cybersecurity training. Being reminded regularly to not open .exe files from strangers might just reduce security risks.

How BYOD Policies Protect Both Employees and Remote Workers

According to software review organization TechJury, 67% of employees use personal devices at work, and 78.5% of organizations in the United States had BYOD activities in 2018. And according to Cisco, the smartphone is the preferred device of BYOD employees. BYOD is the obvious alternative to the inconvenience of carting around multiple phones, and it can boost productivity because remote workers will be using systems with which they are already familiar.

But BYOD carries risks. Since IT can’t always exert complete control over the machines, they can’t monitor all the potential security threats, and they can’t always see how corporate assets get downloaded, stored or shared.

Before allowing any remote workers to use their own devices on the job, consider the following:

How will the employee secure the machine or mobile device? Will they have passcodes on the devices?

What about session timeout features for specific applications or services?

How will the employee access the internet? There’s a big difference between accessing a network via a password-protected private router inside a private residence and accessing a network via an unsecured Wi-Fi network in a coffee shop or library.

How can an employee access and store company data? If the employee is accessing company servers via their personal machines, then they can download files to their personal machines. The same goes for accessing cloud services that the company uses – or even checking company email via a web-based interface and downloading attachments. IT professionals are going to have to ask: Will they be able to accurately track and monitor how remote employees are accessing and storing company assets? The issue of remote workers downloading and storing corporate assets might also present regulatory or legal issues later. For example, records might not be stored at a legally required level of security. They might not be retrieved and destroyed in compliance with company or industry data retention policies. And remote employees may not be aware that their personal machines would be subject to discovery requests during any sort of audit or litigation process.

What kind of access will the employer have to the employee’s personal machine? An enterprise’s IT department may request remote access to a machine so it can install a properly configured VPN or to troubleshoot a nonworking application – and remote workers might be understandably concerned about their employer having the ability (or, in some cases, the right) to look at personal email communications, financial and health data, or contact lists. A remote worker might also be wary if their employer reserves the right to wipe any machines of data upon an employee’s departure – that’s their personal machine that’s being wiped.

This is why employers should have a BYOD policy for any remote workers. This allows the workers to be informed as to what’s expected and helps the employer reduce risk. In the words of ITPro Today contributor and mobility expert Craig

Mathias, “BYOD should not give users carte blanche to do whatever they want, and the operating rules and regulations need to be set down in a BYOD policy and sealed with an executed BYOD agreement between the user and the organization.”

The policy should cover the following:

  • Which computers and mobile devices are permitted and whether refurbished and jailbroken devices are permitted.
  • How to include new BYOD assets on the company registry of BYOD devices.
  • Who is responsible for the operating system and security upgrades and when those must be done.
  • What security measures – passcodes, biometrics like face or fingerprint ID, session timeouts or lockouts after failed log-in attempts – must be in place on the machines.
  • What the procedure is for reporting and replacing lost or stolen devices.
  • How work and nonwork assets are partitioned on a remote worker’s computer or device.
  • What backup procedures the employee is required to do.
  • Who is permitted to access the computer or device during working and nonworking hours. (In other words, can the employee hand a BYOD mobile phone to their child in a restaurant on a weeknight? If so, what measures must they take first?)
  • What rights the employer has to access, monitor, revise and delete data owned by the employer.
  • What applications or cloud services are blacklisted due to security threats or insecure data storage.
  • What rights and circumstances would precipitate the employer being able to take custody of and wipe the BYOD assets.
  • Whether or not the employer will reimburse voice, messaging, data and Wi-Fi expenses, and what the terms of reimbursement are.

Vendors have stepped into the market to address the security concerns around BYOD. There are a few different approaches IT managers can select:

  • Using a cloud-based service that allows IT administrators to register mobile devices and laptops, then control the permissions associated with those devices. This approach allows admins to control the devices their workforce uses to access company data, to manage the mobile apps BYOD users are allowed to use, and to control when and how BYOD users are allowed to access company data.
  • Using a cloud-based service that keeps a checklist of configured security requirements (multifactor authentication, enrolled with Intune, using a managed app, supported OS version, device PIN, low user risk profile, etc.) and refuses to allow devices to access company-licensed applications or resources until they’re compliant with the security requirements.
  • Using tools which prevent cut and paste reappropriation of data or drag and drop migration from a corporate One- Drive account to a private online storage account.
  • Using an endpoint verification service which checks machines to ensure they’re approved, then check the data from those devices to assess the activities of the users and grant permissions accordingly.
  • Using admin tools to determine the complexity of the device unlock code and establish its own unlock code thresholds before granting access to corporate resources, and the ability to block access to third-party app stores without taking control of the remote worker’s entire device.
  • Using admin tools that partition a user’s BYOD device, then restricting user access to sensitive data on unmanaged parts of the user’s BYOD device. This way, users can’t open and work on business files in non-workplace-approved apps.
  • Requiring biometrics for single sign-on and for business apps.

Set Up Remote Workers for Success

The top practice that will make remote working successful: communication. Because remote workers don’t have the option of swinging by a colleague’s desk to chat when something comes up – and because tone and facial expression are hard to convey via email – the potential for botched conversations and dropped information is high. There are a few simple habits – aided by common enterprise tools – that can help remote workers improve their communications with colleagues and help remote teams collaborate effectively.

Set up one-on-ones among remote workers and their colleagues. Don’t just do this over Slack or Google Hangouts – regularly scheduled phone calls can help build a relationship. As Michael Adorno, vice president of communications at Hot Paper Lantern, wrote, “Having regular check-ins keeps you on top of your colleague’s mind. It also allows you to obtain the information that you need to build sustainable relationships.” For regular scheduling, an email and scheduling client can be used, or any office suite that allows participants to combine contact information with scheduling functions. For those who prefer an audio and video client, many collaborative workspaces let clients schedule recurring meetings.

Be sure to have “office hours” where people know you’ll be readily responsive. The suspicion that remote workers aren’t really working is, unfortunately, founded in some fact. When Yahoo’s then-CEO Marissa Meyer banned telecommuting at the internet content company, she cited low VPN use and worker inaccessibility as proof that remote workers weren’t available and working hard. Verizon’s security team logged a case of one remote worker who had, in fact, taken advantage of his work at home status to outsource his job to a Chinese contractor. But at the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect remote workers to be accessible at all hours every day of the week. The solution: Establish office hours and corresponding habits to respond to communication. Collaborative workspaces like Slack and Teams permit users to set statuses indicating when they’re online or not – useful for quick chats.

Find the format that works best to boost communication. Google is now famous for its video-first approach. As Serge Lachapelle, Google Cloud’s director of product management, wrote in a blog post sharing the best practice: “We realized that the technology we used didn’t mirror how our teams actually like to work together. If I want to sort out a problem or present an idea, I’d rather be face-to-face with my team, not waiting idly on a conference bridge line.” It’s entirely possible that some remote teams don’t do well with video. But teams that work remotely should work on finding the format for collaborating that allows the most effective communication among multiple people.

Use metrics to prevent burnout. “A recent Gallup study found that two-thirds of full-time employees say they experience burnout at work,” Natalie Mc- Cullough, general manager of Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics at Microsoft, wrote in a blog post. “Multiple factors are contributing to burnout, such as the increased pace of work, a rise in collaborative work like chats, emails and meetings, and the continuing trend of technology blurring the lines between work and life.” Since remote workers may rely more on collaborative work tools like Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Teams, they’re at increased risk of burnout. Although part of the risk can be alleviated by nontech habits like confining work to a defined office space (thus reducing the risk that an employee is answering email on the family room couch at 11 p.m.), there are also tech solutions to help workers identify and mitigate pain points. Some vendors are now offering metrics that assess a user’s email activity, their meeting schedule, how often they’re in a collaborative workspace or how often they’re working in specific team files. The productivity tools then tell individual users how much time they’re spending in meetings, chatting with colleagues, reading and sending emails, working late, and focused on uninterrupted tasks.

Stay Connected: The Best Tools for Remote Collaboration

Collaboration can best be described as a workflow in which information and communication move between the right people at the right times. Sometimes, it requires sharing a computer screen view; sometimes it requires a conversation; sometimes it requires reviewing iterations of different people’s work on the same product. When an enterprise – or teams within an enterprise preparing to shift to a remote-work model – want to optimize their remote workers’ abilities to collaborate, the following tools could be useful.

Text and video chat programs are becoming a combination of sit-down meeting and watercooler for remote workers – with the added benefit of storing transcriptions and hosting file exchanges. Chat-based workspaces are a great way to get far-flung teams in the habit of keeping a line of instant communication accessible all day, but there is a hard limit to how many individual messages and files the free account sustains.

Remote desktop viewing applications are useful to an IT department that might be required to troubleshoot remote workers; they’re also good for sharing presentations among colleagues. Look for features like cloud-based viewing — those don’t require viewers to sign up or download anything to view screens — or screen-sharing features in collaborative chat applications.

Cloud-based office application suites have a few advantages for remote workers and the IT admins who support them: They’re not on individual machines, so there’s far less individual user support in terms of installation, maintenance, and upgrading. Also, if the files remote workers touch are stored in cloud-hosted repositories, they’re easily accessible to team members and easily monitored by security pros to track who accessed them, downloaded local copies (if permissible) and made changes.

Virtual workspaces are sometimes an enterprise’s preferred tool for keeping all communications, files, task lists and shared schedules in one place. They’re also referred to as project management solutions. Although companies offering cloud-based office suites are making compelling pitches for considering their platforms as the one-stop-shop, some enterprises might prefer a solution that’s focused solely on collecting the assets and communication related to specific projects.

Among the virtual workspace/ project management solutions in the market, IT pros can find ones with the following features:

  • The ability to do time tracking, which is useful for remote workers who have to log how many hours they’re spending on different projects for different departments.
  • The ability to forward team communications to the project management platform and have those emails be automatically turned into a task
  • Integration with common office applications
  • Document collaboration via cloud storage
  • Mobile applications to seamlessly pick up from the desktop application

There are also project management tools designed specifically to mimic the Kanban board, a visualization tool that allows project planners to depict tasks within a project via cards, then track the cards by moving them from step to step within a work process. These tools let users drag individual items (“cards”) around on a virtual Kanban board, so it can be used as a team to-do list, a team scheduling tool or an individual tool for tracking work.

Sometimes, Things Break: IT Support Tools for Remote Workers

In an ideal world, remote workers would never need IT support. But in the real world, remote workers will run into technical glitches – and some of those errors won’t be operator errors or local broadband difficulties.

Remote desktop software can help an IT department support their panicky clients. Both Apple and Microsoft offer their own remote desktop clients for their respective operating systems, and if remote workers are strongly browser-based, there’s always the Chrome Remote Desktop for quick and easy troubleshooting. Beyond those baked-into-the-platform options, there are a few services that offer IT departments the tools they’ll need to support coworkers flung across the world. When you’re shopping for the right option for your team, consider any of the following options:

  • The ability to run on both mobile devices and desktop machines
  • An own-network option for remote workers who can’t or shouldn’t access a cloud for security purposes
  • The option to see remote employees’ screens and fully interact with the remote desktop – in other words, if someone needs help changing passwords or updating programs, the IT help desk employee can get the remote worker to download the client app, launch it, and let the help desk tech take over and do the rest.

In Conclusion: Remote Working Can Work for IT

Remote working requires a cultural change – some bosses are still suspicious that people who aren’t present and visible aren’t working – and it requires some new ways of doing old things, like holding meetings.[recast this to IT] But the payoffs are worth it: Research from Gallup shows that those workers who spend about three to four days of the week working offsite are more engaged in their jobs than traditional office-bound workers.

If IT is engaged in helping remote workers thrive, through ensuring secure working environments, fostering collaboration and providing troubleshooting outlets, then those efforts will pay off for the remote workforce and for the enterprise overall.

Source: LogMeIn