In response to the COVID-19 threat, many companies are implementing a work-from-home policy for office workers.
Although working from home can keep you safe from a global pandemic, it can also be more challenging than it sounds.
Here are some tips and tricks for workers and employers, to help you maximize your time, and keep a remote workforce efficient.
1. Benefits of Working from Home
I have worked from home for years, and I manage a team of people who all also work from home.
Aside from (hopefully) keeping you safe from a viral infection, working from home has many benefits:
- No wasted commute time. Some of us were spending up to an hour or more on the road in each direction – easily an hour to two or more hours per day – just driving.
- Better work-life balance. Being at home, it’s easy to step away for a few minutes to deal with a personal matter, and likewise, it’s easy to step away from your personal life for a few minutes in order to deal with a work matter. Starting work early or working late becomes less of an issue.
- Reduced expenses. When you work from home, you potentially save money on:
- Gas, vehicle maintenance, and other transportation costs
- Dry cleaning and other clothing costs
- Lunch / Coffee – That venti mocha latte and eating out for lunch every day can add up quickly
- Child / dependent care costs (depending on your situation)
- Deduct / expense home-office space – Any work-related costs that you can’t expense through your employer can be deducted on your taxes.
- If you smoke, you know that smoking in public is now demonized, and many office facilities don’t even provide a designated smoking area – you have to smoke in your car or leave the premises. If you work from home, you can take a smoke break whenever and wherever you please, without having to worry about the smoke police, nor the disapproving glares of others.
- Less social interaction. I mean this in the best possible way, but when I did work in an office, it was not unusual to lose over an hour per day because people like to drop in and say “hi”. It’s nice to visit with people, but when you’re busy, it can be distracting.
- Generally, remote workers are more available outside of normal working hours. Stepping in to your home office for a quick conference call is a lot different than having to drive 30 minutes in to the office.
- Every office worker requires 10 to 15 square feet of office space in order to do their job, plus the cost of fixtures and furnishings. Every remote worker results in a direct facility cost savings (either your company can facilitate more employees, or write off the empty space)
- Less demand for conference rooms, break rooms, restrooms, and other communal areas.
- Lower expenses for coffee, soft drinks, and other amenities.
2. Drawbacks of Working from Home
Unfortunately, working from home can also have some drawbacks:
- Meetings become conference calls, and conference calls can become very difficult without proper technology support, such as web conferencing.
- If you live in a busy household, it’s easy to get interrupted, or to have noise in the background during important calls.
- It’s easy to get caught up in your work, and as a remote worker, you can end up actually working longer hours, and even working through breaks.
- Working from home and staying productive requires discipline. Without it, your productivity and quality of work might suffer.
- Less social interaction. Building work relationships is important. Work relationships help us navigate difficult or unusual situations, and a co-worker who is also a friend is more willing to give you a favor or otherwise help you when needed. Working remotely can make it much more difficult to build these relationships.
It’s also difficult to be the only person who’s NOT in the room when someone makes a joke, or it’s difficult to hear what everyone is saying because you’re on a conference bridge instead.
- Accountability can suffer. It’s easy to have a remote worker who drops off the face of the planet, and can’t be reached.
- Some people are not disciplined enough to work without supervision. Deadlines and quality can both suffer.
- To some degree, the synergies of collaboration suffer, but this can be overcome with the right mix of leadership and technology.
- It can be difficult to address urgent / timely issues without additional coordination. For example, expediting a request through the proper workflow.
3. Employee Work-From-Home Tips
Here are some things you can do to make your work-from-home time more productive.
3.1. Set Expectations At Home
Tell the kids, wife, husband, parents, pets, and anyone else at home that while you are working, you are NOT to be disturbed.
For me, this was a very difficult hurdle early on. It can be tough to say “hey, can it wait?” or “hey, leave me alone, I’m working right now”.
You need to get the point across that when you’re in your work area, you’re working.
- You won’t be responding to personal texts, calls, or e-mails except on breaks
- You’re not to be interrupted
- Kids, pets, etc need to be quiet while you’re working. This includes keeping the TV and video games turned down to a reasonable volume, no yelling, no barking.
Have the kid(s) help keep the pets quiet – let them in and out as needed, and make sure they have water.
If you have more than one kid, have the older kid(s) keep the younger kid(s) quiet and entertained.
Make sure everyone understands that while YOU are working, THEY need to pitch in and help.
Anecdote: One trick that worked very well for us when the kids were young, is that we set up a designated shelf in the refrigerator and a shelf in the pantry for snacks, drinks, etc. The kids were taught that when they were hungry or thirsty, anything in THOSE TWO PLACES was fair game. Instead of asking ME or MOMMY for a snack or a drink, go find one for yourself, and we kept them stocked with peanut butter crackers, drink boxes, fruit, snack bars, fruit snacks, and the like.
In addition to games and toys, we also had a specific stack of movies they were allowed to load or unload from the VCR (yes, they are THAT old) or DVD player, and an old NES set up in the play room. All other movies and games were off-limits without Mom or Dad’s help.
3.2. Set Up a Designated Work Area
You need to have an area where you work, that everyone understands is off-limits. It’s difficult for other people to understand the rules if you work in the kitchen one day, and in the living room the next day.
Your work area needs to have a door that closes – don’t expect to be able to work from the dining room table.
One option that worked very well for me for several years was to work from the master bedroom. I had a small desk set up on one side, and normally during the day, no one is in there.
Even if you don’t have a desk, a folding chair and couple of TV trays can be used as a work area, but it has to be behind a door that closes.
When the door is closed, you are not to be disturbed.
3.3. Maintain a Work Mentality
One of the biggest mistakes that first-time work-from-home workers typically make is to start thinking about work-from-home as “home”.
Work-from-home is work. You should think about it as work.
While you are working, you need to dress, act, and talk professionally.
- If you ask yourself, “if I was at work right now, how would I behave?”, the answer is how you should behave when you work from home.
- If you ask yourself, “If I was at work right now, would I be doing [this]?” If the answer is “no”, then don’t do [this].
Here are some DOs and DO NOTs when you work from home:
- Do not attend a conference call in your pajamas, underwear, or bathrobe. (See Conference Call Faux Pas below)
- Do not “step away” to deal with the kids or pets. Plan out breaks in advance, and enforce the DO NOT DISTURB UNLESS SOMEONE IS BLEEDING policy.
- DO respond promptly to calls and e-mails.
- DO plan ahead for deliveries, repairmen, and other interruptions, and schedule them on your calendar.
- DO set your status, so that people know whether you are working or away, and if you are away, include in your status when you plan to return. For example, a status of “I’m away from my desk – back at 3 PM” clearly sets expectations.
3.4. Maintain a Schedule
When you first start working from home, it’s tempting to say “my first meeting isn’t until 9, I think I’ll sleep in…”
DON’T DO THAT.
Establish a routine and a schedule, and stick to it.
Even if you don’t have anything going on until 9, get in the habit of being DRESSED (see Conference Call Faux Pas below) and at your desk at 7:30.
As you would do at work, spend some time reading your e-mails, reviewing your schedule, and making sure you are prepared for the day.
You should be well past your first cup of coffee (or breakfast muffin or whatever) before your first meeting.
Here is a good “work from home” schedule to maintain:
- 7:00 AM – Wake up, shower, get dressed
- 7:30 AM – “Arrive to work” (close the door to your work area). Review your e-mail and schedule for the day. Prepare for any important meetings.
- 8:00 AM – Start your work day
- 10:00 AM – As your schedule allows, take a quick break
- 12:00 PM – Lunch – limit your lunch to 20 minutes unless you schedule an off-site lunch in advance.
- 2:00 PM – As your schedule allows, take a quick break.
- 4:30 PM – Review your e-mail, respond to any requests by setting expectations
- 5:30 PM – End your workday
3.5. Stay on Task
It’s easy to go online to do some research, and 3 hours later, you’re watching cat videos.
I find it extremely helpful to have a wall clock –
- I keep an eye on the clock during conference calls, to make sure that everything gets addressed before the call ends
- I watch the clock to make sure I’m not missing a meeting, or when I’m expecting something to happen (e.g. receive a status report)
- I watch the clock meticulously during troubleshooting calls – especially if something is down, and we have to bring it back up as quickly as possible.
Another good trick is to set an hourly chime –
- Since most meetings start on the hour, a chime can help you avoid missing a call or being late
- The chime itself is a reminder to stay on task – if I find that I’m watching too many cat videos, the chime tells me to get back to work.
3.6. Maintain Hygiene, and Dress Professionally
This is kind of gross, and it should be common sense, but I’ve heard of people who work from home and don’t shower on a regular basis.
Take a shower every day, maintain a routine, and attend to your personal grooming as if you were going in to the office.
Dress professionally – at least business-casual. If you work from home, blue jeans are probably OK, depending on your company’s corporate culture. If you plan to attend video calls, slacks would be more professional.
In addition to helping you maintain a professional attitude, maintaining a standard mode of dress will also help you avoid an embarrassing incident. (see Conference Call Faux Pas below)
3.7. Set Expectations at Work
Equally important as setting expectations at home, make sure your boss and co-workers know when they can expect a prompt response because you’re “at work” vs. “away”.
- Make your boss and co-workers aware of when you begin your workday, when you take breaks, and when you end your workday. You can do this as part of your status, or set an away message: “My normal work hours are 8 AM to 5 PM. Please call my cell if urgent.”
- Use status messages and away messages if available.
- Use “out of office” messages when you deviate from your normal schedule
- When someone makes a request, respond promptly, indicating when they can expect their request to be fulfilled.
Note that responding to a request and setting expectations are two different things:
- If someone asks you for a report, and they get no response for 2 days because it takes 2 days to produce the report, that leaves the requester in limbo for 2 days. Are you working on the report, or did you simply miss the e-mail? Who knows?
- If you respond immediately and say “I’ll have that report for you in 2 days”, the requester knows what to expect and when.
- Always set and manage expectations as proactively as possible: If you CAN’T get that report done in two days, get back to the requester immediately and let them know that, due to unforeseen circumstances, you can’t get the report done before early next week.
People will be much more accepting of delays, as long as you maintain communication and manage expectations. It also gives the other person a chance to escalate if the request is urgent, or to make alternate plans if necessary.
3.8. Conference Call Etiquette
In a face-to-face meeting, it’s easy to see people’s facial expressions, and there is no “mute” button.
Unfortunately, working from home means shifting from meetings to conference calls, and ushers in a whole new set of pitfalls.
- As more people work from home, conference bridge lines and cell tower bandwidth can become saturated, making it difficult for you to dial in to a conference call – as recently as a couple of days ago, some of my co-workers were reporting problems and delays joining conference bridges, especially at the top of the hour, lasting 5 or even 10 minutes.
- If you join a conference call, plan to join 1 or 2 minutes early.
- If you organize a conference call, understand that people might join late – not by their choice.
- Just as with a normal meeting, always have an agenda, and stick to it. Even if the agenda is as simple as “review today’s objectives” (like a scrum call), make sure the call doesn’t devolve in to a troubleshooting call. If you need a break-out call, say “let’s take this offline and I’ll set up a call to discuss it further”.
Trust me – there is almost nothing worse than having 30 people on a conference call while 3 people dominate the call trying to troubleshoot something for 20 minutes. “Hey, did you try this?” is OK, “Read me the 3rd diagnostic line from the log file” belongs on another call.
- Notify the organizer, in advance, if you won’t be able to attend. Otherwise, join promptly and be prepared to start immediately.
- Don’t monopolize the call, and if you’re the organizer, don’t allow others to do so.
- Wait half a second after the other person finishes, before you start talking. Leave pauses so that everyone gets a chance to speak, make comments, and ask questions.
- Don’t speak over someone else. If someone else is speaking, even if you were speaking first, just let them go… take a deep breath… try again. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, send an e-mail after the meeting.
- Don’t yell. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, send an e-mail after the meeting.
- Stay on mute unless you have something to say. If your microphone is constantly listening, it can pick up background noises (kids, pets, noisy neighbors) and can also create feedback – especially if you are using a speakerphone.
- Get in the habit of: Unmute – speak – mute.
- Make sure your work area is as quiet as possible – close your door, put the pets outside, put the kids on notice, etc…
- Test your equipment before the call starts. Ask the organizer, “can you hear me OK?” or “can you hear and see me OK?”.
- Make sure the mute button works by enabling mute and asking “can you still hear me OK?” If you hear no response, either your mute works, or you work with a bunch of jerks.
- I find that the phone’s mute button is more effective and more reliable than headset or earbud mute buttons.
- If you plan to share a document or other content, make sure it’s open and ready to go
- If you are meeting with new people, it gets difficult to recognize new voices. It helps if you get in the habit of announcing yourself when you speak: “This is Justin: I agree / disagree with the proposed whatever” or “This is Justin: I have a question.” On regular calls or calls with your team members, this becomes less necessary over time as everyone begins to recognize each others’ voices.
- You never 100% know who’s on a conference call. Don’t ever make a negative comment about clients, bosses, or co-workers (or anyone, really) while on a call, even if you think you’re on mute. Keep it to yourself or put it in e-mail if you absolutely have to voice your opinion. Even if it’s a joke, it’s way too easy for a comment to get out of hand or get taken the wrong way.
- Make sure your wireless headset is charged properly. A low battery can result in static and other artifacts on the call, and can even lead to a situation where you’re essentially spamming the call with static, and no one can hear each other.
- If you plan to have your camera enabled (or even if you don’t), take a quick look around behind you (as you sit at your work area) to make sure there is nothing messy or embarrassing in the background.
For example, before we moved last year, my home office was in the master bedroom, and the laptop’s camera faced the bathroom door! I made a habit of making sure the bathroom door is closed, which simply looks like any other interior door. That way, the background is not cluttered, and other people on the call don’t get to see my medicine cabinet and toothbrush!
- Web Conferencing software such as WebEx, Skype, or Teams will try to enable your microphone and camera by default.
- Always check your audio and camera settings. I prefer to dial in via phone, so I have both my camera and microphone drivers disabled in Windows, I also have them disabled in Windows settings, and I have them taped off with electrical tape.
- If your camera is enabled, make sure your work area (and everything behind you) is presentable.
- If you dial in to the call by phone, make sure your laptop’s microphone and speaker are muted. This can cause feedback and echo, and can be very distracting.
- If your internet sucks, you might need to turn off your camera in order to save bandwidth, or consider dialing in by phone instead. Low bandwidth can cause “compression artifacts” that make it difficult for others to hear you properly.
- If you are the organizer, send out a recap after each call, and ask others to add points or other information that might have been missed, and offer to set up a follow-up call if needed.
- Do not use the bathroom during a conference call. This should be common sense, but you’ll catch people from time to time because they forget to mute their phone. Instead, say “I need to step away for 2 minutes, be right back”.
- If you step away from a call:
- Announce it.
- DO NOT put the call on hold. This can spam the call with hold music. It’s better to drop if you have to answer another call, and then rejoin after your other call has ended.
- ALWAYS mute your phone if you step away.
- Announce when you return
- Take notes. You should do this in EVERY meeting, but it’s especially annoying on a conference call when the entire call grinds to a halt in order to review a decision that’s already been made or a question that’s already been answered.
3.9. Conference Call Faux Pas
In short, avoid them.
Here are some things that have actually happened (not to me, thankfully) while I’ve been on various conference calls over the years.
- I have heard dozens of people across many years of conference calls use the bathroom while on a call, thinking they were on mute but they weren’t on mute.
In a best-case scenario, you catch the end of a toilet flush. In a worst-case scenario, the entire call gets serenaded with a variety of biological noises. Gross. Don’t bring the call with you to the bathroom. Put the call on mute and step away for a few minutes.
- This happens all the time: “Yes, I agree with such and such” followed a few seconds later by “(Unintelligible noises) Dang you kids / pets!”. Check your mute button, folks.
- Negative comments about client / boss / co-worker. I’ve actually witnessed all sorts of variations of the following:
- “Can you believe what [person 1] said / is wearing??”
- “Uh this is [person 2]… [person 1] just walked in to my office”
- “Uh… this is [person 1], and I’m on the call, here…”
- “Who implemented this stupid policy??”
- “Uh… I did… is there a question?”
- “Why is [client A] always asking us for stupid stuff?”
- “This is [client A], we’re on the call with you. Why do you consider [request] to be stupid?”
- Inappropriate sexist or racist joke – affected person or persons are on the call, or worse, “the boss” is on the call and is deeply offended.
Bonus points if you manage to make a sexist AND racist joke, and piss off the client’s female, minority CTO, who happens to be on the troubleshooting call (yep – I witnessed that happen once)
- The worst one I ever witnessed: Conference room A in City A has about 30 people in it. Conference rooms B and C are also on the call, each with 10 to 20 people, plus another 10 to 20 people dialed in.
Person 1 in room A stands up in the middle of the meeting, presses the mute button on the Polycom speakerphone, and says full-volume (looking around the room) “DO YOU BELIEVE THIS BULL***T??”. Phone was not on mute. Folks, when you mute a Polycom, the light goes from green to red.
In my experience, having been on the receiving end of that kind of commentary, there are two ways to handle this. The “kind” way is to say: “Uhhh… can you repeat? We didn’t quite catch that”, giving Person 1 an opportunity to retract or go in a different direction. What ensued was NOT that. What ensued instead was chaos, shouting, threats, and Person 1 got fired 2 days later.
Check. your. mute. button… folks.
- “Can you believe what [person 1] said / is wearing??”
- Headset malfunctions happen all the time:
- Wired headsets cause an audible “scribble scrabble” when the cord gets tangled. So in some cases, you might get to listen to several seconds of “scribble scribble bump scribble scrabble scribble scrabble” etc.
- Older, non-bluetooth cordless headsets are infamous for having all kinds of static, especially when the batteries are low. The resulting static can get so bad that everyone is forced to abandon the call.
- Bluetooth headsets tend to buzz and echo when they are low on batteries. This often leads to an endless string of “WHAT did you say?”
- “Scrabble scrabble scrabble” can also happen when someone moves a speakerphone across their desk.
- Web Conferencing has become the norm, but not everyone realizes if / when their camera is enabled, and the results can vary from hilarious to cringy.
- I’ve been on at least one call where this happened, but have heard many others tell stories of someone showing up in their underwear or sleep attire. E.g. hair wrapped in a towel, wearing a bathrobe.
The cousin of this happens when you’re in the middle of a call, and someone’s significant other shambles through the background, bigfoot style, wearing a robe or under garments.
- Person is center-frame, work area is clean, background is clean, but something hilarious is in frame.
For example, after weeks of arguing with [person] over a specific topic, and [person] had presented themselves as an expert on that topic, we get on a Webex to whiteboard the problem, and [person]’s camera clearly shows a “For Dummies” book on that topic, WITH A STICKY NOTE denoting a specific page, laying on their desk.
- Person is center-frame, work area is clean, but they forget to check their background. It’s never good when the call starts with “Hey, [person], is that your [embarassing object] in the background?”
- Person forgets they are on camera, and does something embarrassing, such as picking nose, adjusting undergarments, or dancing.
- I’ve been on at least one call where this happened, but have heard many others tell stories of someone showing up in their underwear or sleep attire. E.g. hair wrapped in a towel, wearing a bathrobe.
4. Employer Tips: Enabling a Remote Workforce
Here are some tips for making sure that your remote workforce remains effective.
4.1. Create a Work From Home Checklist
Create a checklist that work-from home employees can use in order to make sure they have all of the equipment necessary, and are able to be productive immediately.
Here is a sample work-from home checklist:
Sample Work-From-Home Checklist
[ ] Worker has signed a work-from-home agreement
[ ] Worker has VPN Account
[ ] Worker has been issued token or other MFA access
[ ] Worker has tested VPN Access
[ ] Worker has all necessary equipment
[ ] Monitor
[ ] Monitor cable
[ ] Monitor’s power cable
[ ] Laptop / Desktop
[ ] Docking station (if applicable)
[ ] Encrypted backup drive (if applicable)
[ ] Power cable
[ ] Keyboard
[ ] Mouse
[ ] Mouse pad
[ ] VPN Token
[ ] Cable lock (Secures laptop or desktop to a desk)
[ ] Surge-protecting Power strip / UPS battery power supply
[ ] Locking file drawer
[ ] Cross-cut document shredder (if needed)
[ ] Necessary files / paperwork
[ ] Worker has tested connection and equipment
[ ] Worker has suitable work area
[ ] Work area has a locking door, and is normally kept locked when not in use
[ ] Laptop / Desktop is physically-secured using cable lock
[ ] Worker has suitable internet connection
[ ] Internet connection is connected to a battery power supply (UPS)
As an employer, issuing a locking file drawer, UPS or surge protector, and a cable lock are cheap security. These can be purchased in bulk from an office supply store for about $100 for all 3 items, per worker.
If the worker will be handling sensitive documents, a cross-cut shredder is a must-have – you don’t want them throwing out sensitive client lists or confidential company strategies with their eggshells and coffee grounds. Most shredders only cut in to long strips – make sure you issue a cross-cut shredder, which basically makes confetti.
4.2. Have Each Remote Worker Sign a Work-From-Home Agreement
Separate from any other agreements that the employee may have already assigned, the Work-From-Home Agreement covers specifics that might not be otherwise covered:
- Either specify the hours that the employee is required to be available and working, or have the worker list the hours that they will be available.
- Specify that the worker is responsible for maintaining security for all information that they handle – either printed or on their computing device.
- List measures such as keeping doors and drawers locked, and using a cable lock, for which the user is responsible.
- If your company doesn’t enforce screen locks, make sure the worker agrees to set a 20 minute screen lock, AND ALSO manually lock their screen when away from their home work area.
- Remind the worker of non-disclosure requirements
- Remind the worker of all document / data handling requirements, and enforce a “clean desk” policy.
- Remind the worker that they are never allowed to store equipment in their vehicle
I’ve had employees who had their UNENCRYPTED laptop stolen from the back seat of their SUV, and their only excuse was “I didn’t know!” or “I didn’t think that could happen!”.
- Specify that the work-from-home agreement is temporary.
- There should be a start and end date
- Specify that the agreement can be extended, as agreed by management and as amended in writing
- Specify that the agreement can also be revoked by management at any time for any reason (in other words, worker, don’t go sell your car)
- List specific equipment that the worker is allowed to take home. This is an important one – most people follow the rules, but you always get that one “special” person who tries to take home the group copier because “they need it”. When they return to work, or are terminated, this provides a list of equipment to expect back from them.
- Specify that the worker agrees NOT to smoke near the equipment, and to keep all equipment clean, and in good working order. This might not seem like a big deal, but anyone who has done desktop support can tell you endless horror stories about gross keyboards, or systems that are unusable because the original user was a heavy smoker.
- Specify the process by which the worker should order / obtain new or replacement equipment, and the process should include manager approval prior to any purchase or order.
I’ve had employees expense a couple of cables (no big deal), and I’ve had “special” employees try to expense a 30″ monitor at over $1,000! Sorry, buddy. you’re not that special… go return it.
- Remind the worker that, during set working hours, they are prohibited from performing outside work – either for personal benefit, or for another company, and that the worker is prohibited from using company-issued equipment and resources for outside work.
Yep… I’ve had that happen, too. NO, you can’t use your company-issued laptop to go do a side-job for your brother-in-law. (Seriously)
- Set Service Level requirements. During working hours:
- All calls and e-mails must be responded to within 30 minutes
- If the worker has some other job requirement, such as part of a call center or help desk, additional service levels should be specified: For example, Must be logged in to ACD group except during breaks and lunch, and must have an abandon / drop rate less than x.
- Make sure any other company requirements are listed
- Have the worker AND the manager sign and date the agreement
4.3. Maintain Security
Normally, documents and data “live” at the office.
When workers take equipment, data, and documents home, maintaining security, privacy, and confidentiality can be an issue.
4.3.1 Limit Work to Company-Issued Equipment
Specify that ONLY company-issued equipment is allowed to connect to the network, and ONLY company-issued equipment can be used for work.
Bob’s home computer might be really powerful, and he might be really proud of it, but it might have a virus that can infect the network, or it could have a key logger that just gave a hacker access to your company’s data.
Further, if Bob’s house gets robbed, Bob’s computer might have company data on it, and the hard drive might not be encrypted.
4.3.2 Limit Work to Company-Issued Online Accounts
Specify that ONLY company-administered e-mail, messaging, conferencing, portals, and file sharing services should be used for work.
Google has stated that they scan all e-mail – if there is something proprietary or confidential, it just got scanned by Google.
Services such as drop box are convenient, but not very secure. You don’t want a client list sitting out on drop box, where anyone with the link to it could download it.
If your company is under special data handling requirements, such as PCI, GLBA, or HIPAA, the worker might be handling sensitive or protected personal information. Company-administered systems have been configured for the proper security in order to comply with these regulations and related requirements.
4.3.3 Have Workers Avoid Printing
You’ve probably issued the worker a locking file drawer, and perhaps a cross-cut shredder for their home office, but ideally, they shouldn’t be printing anything at all!
If the employee absolutely has to handle printed documents – for example, contracts that must be signed, make sure they are aware of how these documents must be handled.
Make sure the employee shreds anything older than 3 months, unless they are important business records that must be retained.
Make a courier service available to pick up sensitive printed documents so that they can be stored properly, and make sure extra copies are stored properly and then shredded.
4.3.4 Try to Keep the Data inside the Datacenter
Try to force workers to use technologies such as VDI (Virtual desktop), Citrix (Remote application / remote desktop) and Remote Desktop.
This keeps the data inside the datacenter, rather than allowing workers to download spreadsheets and other potentially-sensitive documents.
The general term “VDI” or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure is used to describe any number of “remote desktop” strategies where each worker is assigned a specific remote desktop that runs as a virtual machine, or runs inside an environment such as Citrix. The workers do all of their work and run all of their applications from the virtual desktop, rather than having to download documents to their laptop.
A strategy such as VDI is actually required for any kind of remote access in to PCI environments.
4.3.5 Encrypt All Hardware
Make sure all company-issued laptops, desktops, and backup drives are encrypted.
Microsoft Windows 10 has “Bitlocker” disk encryption built-in – it’s not that difficult to configure, and will prevent a thief from accessing the company’s data if that device is stolen.
If you don’t have a centralized backup system, consider issuing encrypted backup drives, or Windows can be configured to encrypt a backup drive as well.
4.3.6 Lock Down Equipment – Group Policies
On the one hand, locking down hardware makes it harder to support remotely, but on the other hand, some minimum levels of security are required:
- Enforce password policies, including regular password changes
- Enforce a screen lock timeout (20 or 30 minutes)
- Add a logon legal notice (google for a good one – it should basically say: This laptop is the property of [company], and you’re not allowed to use this equipment unless authorized by [company])
- Force Windows Firewall (or some other firewall package) to be on, and prevent it from being disabled
- Force Antivirus on, and prevent it from being stopped or disabled
- Ensure that users can’t disable encryption
4.3.7 Enforce a “Clean Desk” Policy (And Send Lots of Reminders)
At the end of the workday, the worker’s desk should be “clean” of any data, notes, printed documents, passwords, etc.
Be sure to call out NOT to write down passwords – instead, offer a company-approved password manager that they can load on their phone or computer.
Send LOTS of reminders
4.3.8 Monitor VPN Usage
If possible, run daily VPN usage reports for each remote worker, and provide a copy to the managers.
If a person isn’t using VPN, then how are they reading e-mail and doing their work?
This is a good way to catch and correct potential problems early on.
5. Tips for Managing a Remote Workforce
When everyone is in the same office, it’s easier to see who’s there and who isn’t, and as a manager, it’s easy to “make the rounds” a couple of times per day to check on everyone.
As mentioned, not only do I work from home, but I manage a team who also all works from home.
Here are some tips that I’ve found useful.
5.1. Institute a Daily Operations Call
Right at the start of the workday, have a daily, mandatory call to review issues and objectives.
- Maintains a work cadence, and helps people maintain a “work” mentality
- Setting daily (short-term) as well as longer term objectives helps people stay plugged in, and accelerates the delivery schedule
- Helps plan ahead for troubleshooting and other break-out calls to address specific issues
I also find that this reduces the need for group-level and one-on-one calls, as everyone is on the same page, every day.
5.2. Watch Out for Problem Employees
On the one hand, you need to be able to trust your employees, and if you have an employee that you can’t trust, for whatever reason, you should consider making a change.
Having said that, on the other hand, performing a little bit of monitoring and spot checking can help detect potential problems before they arise.
- Monitor daily VPN usage. If your employee isn’t connected to VPN, how are they able to work?
- Watch for employees who are consistently late to meetings. If they are always late, they might have time management issues, or issues related to working from home that might be impacting the quality and schedule of deliverables.
- Perform spot checking – send random e-mails and make random phone calls throughout the week, and make sure all of your employees respond as expected. In SEVERAL YEARS of working from home, I think I’ve missed maybe 3 calls from my boss, and in turn, I’ve called him back almost immediately in each case.
- Although I hate doing this, you can monitor who is “online” via your company’s instant messaging platform. I actually encourage my employees to shut it off when they need to be “heads-down” working on a project or problem.
5.3. Provide Coaching for Problem Employees
If you do find that you have an employee who is having difficulty transitioning to a work-from-home situation, a little bit of coaching can go a long way.
By coaching, I really mean “micromanaging”
- Help them set and maintain a daily schedule
- Help them use calendar reminders to stay on-task
- Break down larger goals in to a series of smaller, shorter-term goals
- Have the employee provide you with a daily summary at the end of each day, detailing that days accomplishments along with work planned for next business day
- And, of course, have them read this article!
If it’s as simple as a time management issue, once the employee gets up to speed, the issues should go away.
If there are deeper issues, you might need to dive in to specifics about their work-from-home situation – for example, maybe they can’t be productive because they don’t have an adequate work area (always have a door that closes!), or maybe there is a morale issue.
5.4. No Flex Hours for WFH
Employees often ask for flex hours – the ability to show up early and leave late.
If someone has an hour-long drive in rush-hour traffic to get to the office, there is something to be said for letting them dodge rush hour by coming in early or late, and leaving early or late respectively. It makes the employee more productive.
However, if you’re working from home, there is no commute, and no rush hour, and no sitting in traffic.
Usually, I’m fairly strict and do NOT allow flex hours – typically I require workers to either work 7-4 or 8-5 local time (We support multiple time zones – I generally let them pick one of the two)
However, during the current crisis, I would tend to be a little more flexible – for example, if you have to pick up the kids (not that the schools are open) or you have some other requirement to step away, I would tend to be more accommodating right now.
Nothing is more annoying than when a WFH employee says “Yeah….. I prefer to work from 6 to 3”.
Ummm NO. It’s up to YOU if you want to start your workday early, but if I pick up the phone at 4:30, I expect you to answer. If an employee has one of the few jobs where they have a “work queue”, and they are able to finish all of their work for the day by 3 PM each day, I might be inclined to let them step away at 3, with the proviso that they are still on call from 3-4.
On the other hand, I DO tend to be generous about comp time for management-approved projects and other management-approved overtime. If you put in 12-hour days for a week in order to meet a project deadline, I appreciate the hard work, and I’m inclined to give you next Thursday and Friday off.
However, if you take it upon yourself to work straight through from Tuesday to Wednesday without a good reason and without prior approval, I WILL NOT give you Thursday and Friday off. (Yes, I’ve had that exact situation come up – the employee in question had booked a 4-day weekend with some friends and somehow wanted to turn the situation so that I was the one who benefited, and they should be rewarded for their “extra hard work” Umm… NO.)
5.5. Rewards and Recognition
Working from home can make workers feel disconnected.
When someone does a good job on something, be sure to call it out during team meetings, and calling someone specifically to let them know that they’ve done a good job helps them feel included and appreciated.
If your company has a reward program, be sure to hand out plenty of rewards – at least one or two per week, for various achievements. If not, buy some $10 Amazon gift cards, and give one away every week or every other week to the employee who you think best deserves it. (I would say Starbucks, but not everyone drinks coffee, plus we’re all quarantined anyway)
5.6. Get Feedback From Peer Managers
If one of my employees is working on a project for another manager, I’ll contact that manager or the project manager and ask for feedback.
This is another great way to find out about potential problems.
If you get feedback like:
- [person] is a joy to work with!
- [person] is always on time!
- [person] always delivers on-time!
Then you know that everything is going well.
On the other hand, if you get feedback such as:
- [person] is always late, or misses meetings
- Is [person] OK? They owe me several responses and I haven’t heard anything
- I’m very concerned that [person] isn’t going to meet their deadlines for this project
These can be signs that the employee is having difficulty with time management, or working from home in general.
If handled properly by both the worker and the employer, you can be very productive working from home.
As a worker:
- Have a designated work area with a door that closes
- Set expectations at home, so that you’re not disturbed by others while working
- Set expectations at work, so that your boss and co-workers know what to expect
- Maintain a “work” mentality, and stick to a daily schedule
- Stay on Task, and Respond promptly
- Practice Conference Call Etiquette and avoid Faux Pas
As an employer:
- Have a solid technology plan
- Have all remote workers sign work-from-home agreements
- Track equipment and expenses
- Maintain security
- Watch closely for problem areas