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Coronavirus (COVID-19): tech considerations around home working

26 March 2020: this guide has been prepared by the ICAEW Tech Faculty. Recognised internationally for its thought leadership, the Faculty is responsible for ICAEW policy on issues relating to technology and the digital economy. The Faculty draws on expertise from the accountancy profession, the technology industry and other interested parties to respond to consultations from governments and international bodies. To connect with like-minded professionals within this community and, to gain access to the full suite of exclusive resources, visit icaew.com/techfac.

The shift to home working

The coronavirus crisis is forcing many people to work from home to reduce social contact and minimise the associated risk of transmitting the disease. Technology is key to helping people work at home, so what are some of the things to consider when setting up and managing home working for your staff over the coming weeks and months?

This guide highlights some of the tech-related implications and issues. A separate guide from the Tech Faculty is available which focuses on cyber security and data risks and the Business and Management Faculty has developed a fuller guide to Business Continuity. Both of these guides are available on ICAEW’s coronavirus hub.

Prepare, plan and test

Many companies will have been forced to move quickly into home working mode, but whatever stage you are at, prepare, plan and test as best you can.

If you’re looking to use new apps or equipment, test it all out and ensure that staff can use it effectively at home. If you’re using new tools for client calls, for example, test them out in advance of the call to identify any issues. Make sure that staff can access whatever applications or data they need remotely and nothing is stuck on a machine left in the office. Cloud-based applications will make this transition easier, as they are designed to be accessed remotely. Another point to consider is whether staff will be able to access corporate voice over IP (VOIP) solutions through their home broadband packages.

There may also be new scenarios that you could plan for, eg significant levels of network unavailability, key IT workers being unavailable or problems with IT service providers. Where services are being delivered from overseas, it may be useful to keep track of developments in the relevant countries.

Pull together some quick guidance and help-sheets for those staff who may not have worked from home. While some staff may be familiar with remote working, not everyone will be, so help everyone to have the confidence to use the tech through short training or knowledge sharing sessions, online if needed. Having staff, such as superusers, dedicated to helping others with their set up and testing can also be very helpful.

As an example, ICAEW has provided short guides and help sheets on the following topics, which typically include links to relevant apps or websites:

  • Diverting your phone and picking up messages remotely
  • How to access key accounts
  • How to change your password remotely
  • Virtual meeting good practices
  • Keeping emergency contact details up-to-date 
  • Links to IT and cyber security policies and good practices

Connectivity and networks

The industry say they are confident that the network will cope with the additional demands of home working and companies are working closely with the regulator to ensure that the network capacity remains adequate. Some commercial providers, such as Netflix and YouTube, have reduced the picture quality of their services across Europe to reduce the consumption of bandwidth and help networks cope.

However, experience already shows that bandwidth is coming under strain at peak times so people may need to be patient, revert to audio calls where video conferencing is struggling or reschedule activities to other times of the day. It may also be worth logging into meetings a few minutes before or after the scheduled start time to avoid a logjam.

Where staff are living in areas of the country where broadband and wifi connectivity is poor, they could contact their provider to see whether any upgrade in speed is possible. Alternatively, they could consider boosting connectivity by using 4G mobile networks instead and tethering laptops to mobile devices.

Some telecoms providers are removing caps on data, increasing data allowances or limiting call charges during this period, so staff should check the website of their provider to see what may be available to them. However, if staff do incur additional charges as a result of home working, employers should make clear what expenses they will cover and have a process in place for approval.

New tools and ways to communicate

There are many tools out that there can help staff to stay in touch virtually. Video conferencing tools have improved greatly in recent years and you can easily sign up to services such as Skype or Zoom for virtual meetings. A number of providers are offering free trials or free upgrades to existing functionality to help companies get through this period. Zoom, for example, allows free calls of up to 40 minutes and in some countries, this limit is currently removed. Many of these tools can also be used with audio only options if video connections are proving difficult. Consumer-based products such as WhatsApp and Facetime may also be alternatives for individual interactions or small groups.

Online messaging tools can be a way of chatting and providing less formal interaction. Office 365 has the Teams app, which is being enhanced for existing customers during this period. Google are also offering enhanced features to existing C-suite customers and there are other products with basic free offerings that can be explored, such as Slack. Check your providers to see if they are offering any additional features at this time.

For more information on the features of the following tools, see the full Tech Faculty blog post by Microsoft MVP David Benaim:

  • Slack
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Zoom
  • Microsoft OneDrive
  • Google Drive
  • Google Hangout Meets
  • Webex
  • Dropbox
  • Microsoft Planner

Other things to consider with regard to communication:

  • Make sure that there is more than one way for colleagues, suppliers and clients to contact you.
  • Post – if documents are still being physically sent in, what happens to them and could you get those emailed instead, or use mail redirection services?

Adapting business activities

Tech can help you to be creative in staying in touch with clients or customers. Greater use of social media, for example, or generating more digital content, could help to keep engagement with customers. With lots of people at home and likely to be online for long periods of time, engaging content could be very useful for clients or customers. Client meetings can also take place over the phone or through video conferencing – check what capabilities they have. Where companies are using cloud-based apps, related operations should be able to continue as before.

Events can be run through live streaming or as webinars rather than as physical events. ICAEW’s Women in Tech day, for example, attracted a number of viewers over the live stream who gave positive feedback on the experience, even if they did miss the networking. ICAEW is still planning to run webinars in the coming months, as everyone can join from home.

But it’s also worthwhile to think about how staff time could be most productively used. This could be a time to do some online training courses or brush up on your Excel or other tech skills. There are plenty of free resources and courses available. Alternatively, desktop research about new trends or future planning activities could help staff hit the ground running when they come back into the office.

Be proactive in helping staff identify what they can do in the hours they have at home and make sure that they stay busy – this can help with mental health as much as anything else. This approach can also help to manage outputs rather than focusing on the specific hours worked. If young children are at home too, for example, staff may need to work flexible hours to cope with the different demands on their time.

Looking after staff wellbeing

Think about the health and safety aspects of home working and share guidance or tips with staff about the equipment and how they should set up a working space from home. Look at your responsibilities as an employer here and communicate whether staff will be able to purchase any additional equipment needed. There are a range of resources at the Health and Safety Executive on home working. They state that there is no need to do a work station assessment for those working at home temporarily but they provide a checklist which could help staff to set themselves up correctly.

Provide some information about good working practices, for example keeping regular hours and scheduling breaks. Where flexible working patterns are helpful for staff who have caring or home-schooling responsibilities, for example working early or late in the day, this should be discussed and agreed with managers to ensure that key roles are still covered.

Home working has a particular risk of isolation, as staff can go for long periods with limited contact with others. Setting up regular catch ups or team meetings can help to break up the day and provide some structure and contact points. Using cameras can really help to maintain engagement in meetings rather than just listening to voices. Furthermore, regular contact helps managers identify if anyone is struggling from a mental health perspective and provide support where possible.

But also think about fun ways to use the tech to keep people in contact and keep morale up. Examples of things being looked at by one firm to help people cope with the lack of social contact include:

  • virtual coffee meetings with random pairings made for each week
  • dial in lunches - just chat and eat
  • virtual karaoke
  • virtual games such as Pictionary, charades
  • baking competitions
  • virtual Christmas Jumper day
  • virtual fancy dress day

With good and imaginative use of tech, employers can play a vital role in helping their staff cope with the challenging months to come.

Hits and tips – using Office 365 for better remote collaboration

Many organisations have moved to Office 365 applications and here are some tips to help with remote working between colleagues. 

Publish your availability through Office 365 Outlook online

Help clients and colleagues find a time for that meeting easily by making a link to your availability through Outlook. Sign in to your Outlook account on outlook.live.com and go to Settings => Publish a Calendar. Set it to only show when you’re busy and you’ll get a link for your email signature or anywhere else that people can use to arrange a call time with you, but won’t reveal what you’re up to when you are busy.

In-line commenting on Outlook emails

Simplify inline commenting on emails by changing your Outlook settings – go to Options => Signatures => Personal stationery, and you can both set your initials or other marker and tick to select a new colour. Now if you comment on items in a forward or reply email, your additions will automatically be marked with your name and will appear in a different colour from the base email.

New comments structure for Word and others

Newer versions of Word have revolutionised commenting, allowing you to respond to individual comments similarly to social media discussion threads. This makes discussing a particular edit or phrase all the more easier. And across newer Office versions, you can call somebody in to a conversation easily by using @ followed by their name.

Tracked changes tricks

Working with track changes in Word is a must for collaborative document editing. But formatting tweaks can drown out substantive changes and make reviewing a real pain. Here’s a little trick to accept all formatting changes but leave insertions and deletions flagged for review:

  1. Click Review tab>Show Markup and untick “Insertions & deletions”
  2. Click Review>Accept>Accept all changes shown
  3. Review>Show Markup and re-tick “Insertions & deletions”

Visit the Tech Faculty blog post by Microsoft MVP David Benaim to see more.