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Working from home: tech considerations

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 article highlights suggested actions in 6 key tech-related areas:

  • Prepare, plan and test
  • Check network capabilities
  • Explore new ways to communicate
  • Heighten staff awareness around cyber security
  • Be creative with business activities
  • Look after staff wellbeing
Note that there are a wide range of other resources on the ICAEW coronavirus hub page.

Prepare, plan and test

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

Understand what tasks can and cannot be done remotely, for example, and have contingency plans in place where things really can’t be done from home. If people are still in the office, think through what equipment staff might need for the next few months. Checking who has laptops at home and handing out any pooled or unused ones in the office, for example, can help everyone to be prepared. If you’re looking to use new apps or equipment, test it all out and ensure that staff will be able to use the tech effectively when they’re 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. 

Pull together some quick guidance and help-sheets for those staff who may not have worked from home. While many 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. And make sure everyone is prepared for the moment when the building might need to shut, with staff thinking ahead and taking home whatever they need.

Check network capabilities

There have been concerns about broadband and whether it will be able to cope with the increases in home use during the day. The industry say they are confident that the network will cope, although it may get tested to the limits when children are home too and playing online games or streaming! 

However, employers should consider how to help if staff have caps on their use of broadband or if their broadband provision is poor and needs to be upgraded to enable home working. Will they pay for that and if so, who will authorise those payments? Have a process in place for any additional expenses that staff are bearing as a result of home working. Also make sure that home broadband systems allow voice over IP (VOIP) solutions that staff may need to connect to. 

Explore new 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 Zoom for virtual meetings. A number of providers are offering free trials to help companies get through this period (and then hoping they’ll sign up for the full product afterwards!) 

Online messaging tools can be a way of chatting and providing less formal interaction. Office 365 has the Teams app and there are others that can be explored, such as Slack. There is a separate ICAEW article that outlines working remotely with Microsoft Office tools and further articles on useful tools will follow.

Make sure that there is more than one way for colleagues, suppliers and clients to contact you. And think about post – if documents are still being physically sent in, what happens to them and could you get those emailed instead?

Heighten staff awareness around cyber security

As with all tech, it’s vital to think about the cyber security implications of home working and ensure that the right controls and security are in place. This is a time when criminals will try to exploit stressed staff so good practices and common sense will be very important. The NCSC has already spotted a spike in phishing emails related to coronavirus,  so keep an eye out for their regular communications and share with staff.

VPNs are the most secure way to link to the internet, so this is an option to explore. Make sure backups are working and tested in case of a ransomware attack. And remind staff about good basic security, such as: strong password disciplines; not using open public wifi; and not clicking on anything that looks vaguely suspicious. NCSC again has a range of more specific resources on these topics that you could share with staff. 

Be creative around business activities

Think creatively about how tech can help you stay 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 and get good readership. Client meetings can also take place over the phone or through video conferencing – check what capabilities they have.

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. We’re 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 tech skills. 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. 

Look 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 here and keep an eye out in case they issue anything specific to the current situation. 

Provide some information about good working practices, for example keeping regular hours and scheduling breaks. 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 (although hopefully not at Christmas!)
  • 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.

About the author

Kirstin Gillon 
Technical Manager, Tech Faculty

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