Over the last few weeks, most organisations have managed to get at least some of their key workers set up to operate from home.

There is also a growing recognition that once the lockdown is over, work is not going to simply go back to normal. So there is also a feverish amount of planning going on to get as more workers on to a remote working platform as soon as possible.

A Gartner survey at the end of March revealed that 74% of chief financial officers plan to move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-Covid-19.

“This data is an example of the lasting impact the current coronavirus crisis will have on the way companies do business,” says Alexander Bant, practice vice president, research for the Gartner Finance Practice.

“CFOs, already under pressure to tightly manage costs, clearly sense an opportunity to realize the cost benefits of a remote workforce. In fact, nearly a quarter of respondents said they will move at least 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions.”

With 81% of CFOs previously telling Gartner that they planned to exceed their contractual obligations to hourly workers, remote work is one example of creative cost savings senior finance leaders are seeking in order to avoid more severe cuts and minimise the downside impact to operations.

CFOs previously reported to Gartner that they were taking additional steps to support employees in this area by adjusting to more flexible work schedules and providing company-issued work from home equipment.

These action by finance leaders help minimise the disruptions workers might be facing as a result of the crisis.

“Most CFOs recognize that technology and society has evolved to make remote work more viable for a wider variety of positions than ever before,” says Bant. “Within the finance function itself, 90% of CFOs previously reported to us that they expect minimal disruptions to their accounting close process, with almost all activities able to be executed off-site.”

As organisations continue to grapple with the ongoing business disruptions from Covid-19, permanent remote work could complement cost-cutting measures that CFOs have already taken or plan to take.

In Gartner’s most recent survey, 20% of respondents indicated they have deferred on-premise technology spend, with an additional 12% planning to do so. An additional 13% of respondents noted they had already made cost reductions in real estate expenses, with another 9% planning to take actions in this area in the coming months.

Setting up users to work at home requires solid management.

Secure connections have to be established, with access control for the right applications and users set up.

Arguably the most difficult change, however, is that a new way has to be found to manage teams of remote workers.

Nicholas Bell, CEO at Decision Inc, points out that companies and employees are used to working in an office and many prefer it, enjoying the collaboration and engagement offered by the office space.

“Now, with the impact of the coronavirus, the changes in culture and ways of working that are required for successful remote working have become sudden and mandatory. For many organisations this is a shift in gears for which they are not prepared.”

A recent survey by @Workplace on Facebook found that employees in the UK and US didn’t feel connected to their leaders – 86% felt more connected to their team than to HQ.

It also found that 17% didn’t talk to head office and 54% said they felt voiceless.

“This doesn’t highlight the value of staying in the office, rather it underscores the need for technology and solutions that inspire deeper collaboration regardless of where the employees might be,” says Bell. “And it is collaboration and information sharing that are crucial to the long-term success of any remote working exercise.”

In a recent analysis of the challenges that influence remote working, The Harvard Business Review points out that the lack of face-to-face contact with managers and colleagues can have two different impacts.

On one hand, it can see some employees work harder and do more, on the other the employees may feel out of touch with the company and isolated. They can also perceive a lack of information and visibility into colleague behaviour in negative ways, particularly if they’re an extroverted personality struggling with isolation and an introverted way of life.

“Organisations no longer have the luxury of deciding whether or not to implement a work from home strategy,” Bell adds. “The right approach isn’t to just focus on the threats that could damage the business and employee deliverables, but to also focus on the technologies that can be leveraged to help organisations build a remote working infrastructure that overcomes these threats.”


Get the foundation right

Over the past two decades, remote access became a stable, but often neglected, technology. Now, coronavirus (COVID-19) changed the way employees need to work. Organisations now have old virtual personal network (VPN) technologies lacking the required licenses, updated features and adequate bandwidth to support all users working remotely and simultaneously.

“Corporate VPN is an ageing technology as organisations shift to more cloud-based services,” says Rob Smith, senior director analyst at Gartner. “However, in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, companies are realising they have to fundamentally change the way they work. For security and risk management leaders, this means grappling with the best course of action to solve the challenges of large-scale modern remote access.”

As companies support more work-from-home employees, they must have the right technology in place to ensure avoid poor performance and ensure secure access. Ask these four questions before deploying modern high-volume remote access products.

  • Who is the user, and what is their job function? All users are not equal. Some require more bandwidth than others, like executives or mission-critical employees with above-average data analysis needs. A user’s job function needs to be considered when defining any remote use case. “Employees who simply check email will have different demands from those downloading and analysing large sets of sensitive data,” says Smith. “Even if there is an existing, workable product in place today, it still may not be optimal for providing the best experience for all users.”
  • What kind of device is being used, and who owns it? Usability and security vary widely across the spectrum of available remote devices, like laptops and mobile devices. A corporate-owned PC is much easier to secure than a personally owned smartphone on which users are conducting concurrent activities and accessing websites that are potentially out of policy. “Remote workers must ensure the same, if not a greater, level of security for all company networks and data access, documents or otherwise confidential information that might be displayed on a home office computer screen,” says Smith. “If security requirements prohibit storing data on individual personal devices, virtualisation is an ideal option.”
  • What kind of applications and data do users need to access? From a performance perspective,  employees using dedicated cloud applications and having an always-on VPN to the corporate network would not make as much sense as using a cloud access security broker (CASB). The way in which users access applications and data – either through on-premises or via the cloud – makes a difference when choosing remote access services.
  • Where is the user located? Data security, labor and privacy laws differ across countries and state/local jurisdictions, which creates an added layer of complexity when choosing offline data storage choices, and thus the remote access solution.

After determining use cases and technology, build an end-user remote access policy with buy-in from all business units. Ensure that simple and local language is used, and stress the importance of employees physically signing the policy document as soon as possible.


The right tools

Decision Inc’s Bell points out that even without a remote working infrastructure in place, there are tools available that they can use to engage with their workers and collaborate across teams.

According to Bell, these include:

  • Business continuity management tools – solutions that can help business leaders futureproof the company and keep it moving forward while governments and business remain under quarantine and deal with the implications thereof.
  • Modern workplace tools – solutions such as Microsoft Teams, Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft To Do that allow for close collaboration across multiple geographic regions, times and teams. If everyone uses the same toolkits, then they will find communication and information sharing seamless and accessible which is essential to ensuring continued work and employee morale.
  • Remote working tools – solutions that blend business continuity, modern workplace management applications, and emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence, to create a vibrant online workforce that can engage and collaborate with ease.
  • Information security – with people working remotely there is an increased risk of them moving information off of the company’s infrastructure onto their local laptops and other storage devices. This poses a real security risk for company information and can expose the company to large scale breaches of legislation like GDPR and PoPI


Efficient management

Getting workers up and running is the first step in making remote working a viable option: the next is to ensure that managers are effectively managing them.

Graham Fry, MD of local software developer Saucecode, points out that this is arguably the most important part of the puzzle – and one that is often glossed over.

“Managers have to do much more than monitor their workers,” he says. “The need to ensure their teams maintain productivity and continue their own personal career growth.”

The results of this will be felt in the organisation’s bottom line, Fry adds.

“Effectively managing remote workers has a value proposition to the business that cannot be ignored.”

The Covid-19 lockdown has thrust remote working into the spotlight, and forced organisations to embrace the concept – and many have found that it can work for them.

“The lockdown has pressed a reset button for work,” Fry says. “It is going to change how we all do things going forward. And one of these is that people won’t be crowed into offices more than is necessary.

“Remote working is one of the paradigm shifts that we are all going to have to live with.”

He advocates the use of a tool like the locally-developed Tistro which managers can use to ensure their workers are remaining productive and efficient in their work, regardless of where they are.

“The business has to ensure it remains in contact with its staff, and had a finger on the pulse of what workers are doing. Just because workers are not sitting in an office doesn’t mean the managers shouldn’t still manage them.

“At the same time, it’s important that staff are not alienated from the business. A remote working management tool can help you do all of these things.”

The lockdown period gives companies and workers an opportunity to test the new paradigms and find solutions that work, Fry adds.

“Using the right tools can assist in many fronts: help managers achieve their goals; help workers keep a work-life balance; and help the company retain profitability.”


Effective communication

Communication is often difficult with a remote workforce, but it is hugely important, says Gys Kappers, CEO of Wyzetalk.

“Now, more than ever, communication between businesses and their employees should be frequent. Companies need to prioritise keeping employees informed of how the business has been impacted and whether their remuneration will be affected.”

He adds that it is also vital during this time of uncertainty, to inform employees whether their jobs will be safe, and that the company will continue to communicate regularly regarding the way forward.

“To keep employees invested, companies should demonstrate the lengths that they are going to, to put their people first. Our advice is that businesses mirror the restrictions set out by the government. Where organisations cannot make assurances concerning the future of the company, they should at least commit to open and transparent communication, keeping all employees in-the-know.”

Kappers says that having an effective internal communications strategy is especially important to ensure that employees with limited access to “traditional” forms of office communication like email are kept informed.

“Misinformation is rife at this point in time, so it is vital to provide employees with a single source of information collated from trusted sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). Making sure that all employees have access to accurate information builds trust, minimises their anxiety and ensures that they can make informed decisions when necessary.”

It is vital to communicate clear guidelines to employees who are working from home, so that they can understand what is expected of them during lockdown. “Provision needs to be made for digital mobile access where necessary, while regular team updates via video can be helpful to keep teams engaged and motivated. Employers could also benefit from sharing remote working best practices such as the importance of a structured day, limiting distractions and finding ways to work effectively,” he says.


Meetings and collaboration

Remote working can lead to workers feeling disconnected, cut off from the team. So meetings and the ability to collaborate are important tools in creating an enabling environment.

Francois Kriel, change management consultant at Kriel & Co, says under normal circumstances, adopting a virtual work environment and the supporting new technology can take any organisation months or years at best.

“Now virtually overnight, organisations have had to adapt radically to maintain business as usual during a time when the reality is unusual to say the least,” says Kriel. “I have observed a mad dash to set up digital infrastructures that allow employees to continue work (somewhat) uninterrupted.

“The secret to implementing a successful digital transformation strategy depends heavily on whether you have secured employee buy-in, provided ample training and empowered teams to  confidently and independently use these platforms, not to even speak of the first step – deciding which virtual technology platform will fit your organisation best.”

He adds that a number of tools are available to get workers collaborating quickly, including Google Hangouts and Google G-Suite, Facebook’s Workplace and WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business.

Stefan Mayer, MD of Corporate AV Integration, says most companies will already have access to these tools and more.

They each have pros and cons, he adds. “In principle, they all work the same, so questions such as who employees will be video conferencing calling with is key.

“Should they be mainly connecting with other remote workers within the organisation, then it makes sense for all to use the same platform.

“Should they, however, be calling external clients, there might be a number of different systems being used, which is why many software applications work off a Web-based platform allowing users to send a URL link to whomever they wish to call, who then need only click on the link and the browser enables the call or a temporary software app gets installed.”

What doesn’t always get the same amount of attention as the software tools is the etiquette of remote working and online meetings, Mayer says.

“Few have given much thought to how they should behave in this new reality. Employees are still technically ‘at work’, so would wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt be acceptable? Are we permitted to let ourselves go as we believe we likely won’t be seeing anyone today?

“These are all considerations, which although might seem trivial, are not necessarily.

“People who have been working from home for some time, understand that discipline is key to a successful workday. Many think working from home means sleeping in, binging on Netflix shows and similar.

“However, having a daily routine in place is key to making this work, and managers need to stop micromanaging their employees and manage based on outcomes.”