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Best Practices and Challenges of a Remote Workforce

Dave Hodgdon, Steve Ripper, and Roland Carter of PCG, a managed service and IT provider headquartered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and with locations in Dover, Manchester, and Portland, Maine, discuss the challenges and best practices of a remote workforce.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Dave Hodgdon, Steve Ripper, and Roland Carter of PCG, a managed service and IT provider with headquarters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and locations in Dover, Manchester, and Portland, Maine. Today we’re talking about the challenges and best practices of a remote workforce. Welcome, everyone.

Steve Ripper: Hi, John.

Challenges of a Remote Workforce

John: So Steve, let’s go ahead and start with you. Now that we’re kind of in the middle of this coronavirus epidemic and more people are working from home. What are some of the challenges that companies are facing in terms of having a remote workforce?

Steve: I think the biggest challenge particularly for employees, you know, speaking I’m an employee, so speaking as an employee is that feeling and that fear of disconnectedness. Am I a part of what my company is doing? It’s very easy to get used to and people don’t even notice it, how the drive into work and the coming in and sitting at their desk is such a key part of “I have a job here, I am a part of what is happening.” And suddenly you find yourself at home and “Am I going to be just permanently at home?” is a fear that I think that every one of us who are still lucky to have a job with this horrible thing that’s happening, we still think that. “What is my place in the company and what is my future?”

So, it’s really important to engage, to reach out, to be a part of what the company is doing and really the challenge is to be a self-starter. You have to be able to go and say, “I’m doing this today. I’m tackling this today. I’m a part of what’s today, and I’m going to show whoever else is watching that I was productive even though I’m not at the office.” That’s really, I think for me, the biggest challenge going on.

Risks to a Remote Workforce

John: Roland, are there some risks to having all or most of your workforce working remotely?

Roland Carter: Sure. There are a few. With what we’re seeing, some people are now forced to use their home PCs and that is fairly unknown as what’s on those machines? Do they have the right antivirus? Maybe it’s not up to snuff? We don’t know if the machine’s already been compromised. So, if it’s now getting network access to onsite resources, is it going to possibly transfer something that shouldn’t be there? It really requires some mindful thinking on those things to make sure we’re putting the right tools in place to secure those devices and make sure that the sites are secure.

Some other risks are the tools that we’re now using. We’re using some new things in many cases. Zoom is a prime example. A lot of companies probably weren’t using Zoom to the extent that they are right now, but with everything going on, they’re now forced to use something to collaborate and Zoom was a good alternative for them. And the FBI issuing warnings for security concerns, it’s key to make sure that you know how to secure those tools. So with anything that you’re seeing for a new application or something new that you need to do, it’s always good to talk with management or talk with your IT to see if there’s something you can do to make sure that’s secure.

Planning for a Remote Workforce

John: Right. Dave, how should businesses be planning for something like this in the long run?

Dave Hodgdon: I think we’ve found now that people can work remotely. In the past, we felt like everyone had to come to work. But many people actually can do their job better. I think it’s great that you’re giving some employees flexibility to work from home. You know they have families, there’s issues going on. We’ve been speaking about potentially moving more to the Cloud, to Azure. So, I think you need to think about your infrastructure. You need to think about the Microsoft Team to collaborate and I think it’s a great time to have that planning session with your IT department and talk about how we can better utilize this because you will find that your users will embrace this. I think it’s nice you give them one day a week, you get to work from home. So I think you’ll see a big change after this, John.

Best Practices for a Remote Workforce

John: Steve, what are some of the best practices for implementing a remote workforce?

Steve: You know, not to hammer the point home I just made a little while ago, but I mean really it’s communication, it’s engaging. You have to overcome the challenges of how do bosses and managers know that their employees are working? How do the employees know that they’re being monitored, that their work is being seen, and that they’re coming across as productive as opposed to being not needed? Those are the fears. So, companies really need to think about how they might do it.

Now, some companies are lucky enough that they may have a line of business applications in place already that manages time, where calendar entries can be put in, or time is logged, and those are lucky. But maybe some companies don’t. In some cases, it may be important to make some rules so that everyone knows the rules. Rules define the parameters for everybody so that they know where they stand.

For us at PCG, our COO came out and told us that “One of the requirements was to have Teams.” And we’ve talked about Teams before in a different podcast. Teams must be on when you’re working at home. That’s just a rule that everyone knows and follows and that’s a way that the PCG can say, “I know that Steve is out there working. I know Roland is out there working because he’s on Teams. He’s on. He’s available.” And it works both ways because we’re on Teams we know that they know that we’re working.

So, we really have to communicate. You really have to have those company meetings. Don’t let those company meetings slide because nobody’s in the building with you. Dave has been, for us, has been great about going, “This is where we are. This is where we stand and this is what we’re doing going forward.” So, really it’s all about communication and it’s all about getting together and setting the ground rules for what this new working environment looks like because it is different. You never thought that you had to think about someone in a cubicle over there. You would just evaluate them. You know they’re at work. You know they’re sitting there. You know they’re working. You see them producing. Now suddenly you don’t see that anymore. So, you have to come up with new ways to evaluate how everybody’s doing.

Tools for a Remote Workforce

John: Right. Roland, Steve just mentioned Microsoft Teams. Are there some other software tools that can help a remote workforce to collaborate and work together even now when we’re physically apart?

Roland: Absolutely. Teams is our go-to. We mentioned Zoom to have more collaboration. There’s GoToMeeting. Beyond, some of that is how are you accessing what you need to? And for some of that, it’s having a proper VPN and making sure that it’s secure so that you can connect to the network, think back home at the office there. Having a terminal server, if necessary, where all of the applications are hosted and you’re able to access the files that you need. Making sure that even though we’re all working a little differently, we’re still able to collaborate. So, with Teams, yeah, that’s a great option. Zoom and GoToMeeting and VPNs, they’re all means to help us get access to what we need, collaborate, and get our work done.

John: What about in the case where a person is having a problem with their computer at home. How do they get help when they can’t just call the IT guy upstairs and have them come down and fix their computer?

Roland: Sure. In some of these cases, we are receiving some of the calls where they have the home PC and it doesn’t have any of the tools on it and they’re trying to figure out how we’re going to access those machines. And so, in those cases, we do have to walk people through how to fix something by saying “Click on start. Click on settings.” Go through these different motions. In other cases, we’re able to help them get a remote application on there and get them into a situation where either we can help them or they can get access to another service that allows them to work properly.

Business Infrastructure for Working Remotely

John: Dave, what are some of the things that we should be thinking about in regard to the businesses current infrastructure?

Dave: I feel that the infrastructure is one of the most important parts because we’re all accessing from remote locations. So, in the past, we might have only had two, three, four people working remotely. Now we might have 30, 40, 50, and that might be putting a lot of extra strain on my internet service. So, you want to take a good look at your service, whether it’s Comcast, Firstlight, and see what that service is and see if you can improve on that bandwidth. I think it’s also important to have two internet connections. Now, we are really relying on 40 or 50 people working remotely. If that internet service goes down, my business could be at a huge risk of not being able to work. So, have that second circuit in place.

Know your firewall has the ability to take those number of connections? A lot of firewalls can only handle 2, 5, 10, 20, current connections and you might need certain software in place. We use a product called Cisco. They sell in increments of 25. So, if you’ve got 35 users, you got 25 there, 10 can get on. But just add that additional licensing. Knowing these switches are proper to handle the bandwidth. Think of it like riding on Route 1. Do I have good quality switches that my remote users can access? I want to be on Route 95. I don’t want traffic. I want to fly to get to my data. And, there are a lot of security concerns there. So, just make sure you have all the proper security in place to minimize your risks.

Communications for a Remote Workplace

John: What about phones? I know that this can be an issue for a lot of companies, whether it’s just a few people working from home or whether it’s your entire workforce, like now, working from home. Your phone system, Roland, what phone systems work best for a remote workplace?

Roland: Sure. Some of the better phone systems that you can use are VoIP. These systems work over the internet. There’s been a lot of change in VoIP systems. They used to be mostly just an internal system where it still went over your network connection internally, but you were kind of stuck inside the building. A lot of systems now, you can actually take that phone out of the building and plug it into an internet connection in your house and the system will come up just like you’re in the office. So having those abilities are really great in times like this right now where you still need that same phone.

Other systems you can use though, I mean there’s a Find Me/Follow Me feature on a lot of these phone systems. This allows you to update a setting where you put in an additional phone number where if your first phone doesn’t ring it will try to find you on that next phone. So, this really helps out in the situation where someone might know the phone number they used to call but they don’t know how to get in contact with you now so they’re still able to reach you.

Some of the other systems you can use have softphones. These piggyback off of some of the VoIP systems where you’re able to use a phone number that’s really just internet-based and you use your headset from your laptop and you’re able to make phone calls. You need quality headsets and mic for it, but it does work pretty well.

Dave: Yeah, John, I found when I left, I’ve been working from home for about a week now, I just took my phone from my office. I came to the house and I plugged it in. So my extension’s here. I have my same phone like I’m at the office to get anyone’s extension. I’m able to answer calls. So, as Roland was saying earlier that that voice or IP, having that flexibility is key. A lot of these older phone systems that companies have will not give you that feature. So, I’m assuming they’re struggling. They’re probably looking at options like this.

John: Right, because it’s very difficult to just have your workforce just on their cell phones and then have to call people on their individual cell phones. Maybe you don’t even know the number and maybe a worker doesn’t want to give out their personal cell phone number and things like that.

Dave: Yeah, I would agree a hundred percent. Having unknown numbers, where they’re calling from, you’re giving your personal cell number away, that’s not good smart business right there.

John: Steve, we talked a little bit earlier about a boss or a manager and knowing whether or not their workers are actually getting things done and being productive and at their computer during the day. And you mentioned that Microsoft Teams is one way to do that so that you can do a lot of chatting and make sure that your people are being productive. Are there any other thoughts that you have in terms of a company making sure that their remote workforce is being as productive as possible?

Steve: Yeah, so, we’re going to see a lot more companies really look at their infrastructure in terms of communication. Specifically, like microphones and cameras. I think that those industries will explode even after this virus thing hopefully goes away. That isn’t going to go away. A lot of companies are going to look at this like, “I need to make sure that we are remote.” And so, right now you’re seeing companies look at … Our microphones are terrible. John, you might hear us sound better in one of the next podcasts. I know Dave is probably thinking that right now. So, we’re going to see a lot more, where the cameras are better, the microphones sound better, and tools that allow the employees to really engage without being physically there. Whatever that might be. They may start to look at line of business apps that include a way of tracking either time or the productivity, you know, this order got done, that order got done.

Lastly, and maybe I know I might have Dave jump in on this as well, I think we’re going to see a lot of companies really go towards what we thought of before as digital signage, as more company metrics. Websites like BrightGauge is one of them. But there are a number of them out there, where employees can go and see their measurables, where it’s posted. And so, that can really make people understand where they are. It’s important that the employees can see what the bosses are seeing and so that they can then say, “All right, I have to fix that.” And so digital signage is what we think of where it would just be up on a TV screen in the facility. Buy now we’re going to start to see that be personal web pages that can be logged into and show their metrics. So, I think that’s going to be big, right Dave?

Dave: Absolutely. Steve, think about how you’re at the Red Socks down at the Fenway and the big Green Monster. They’re showing statistics there. They have the big screens. So, John, we’re talking about this product called BrightGauge. We’re taking information and presenting it to the employees. “Here’s the number of tickets I’ve worked on. Here’s how long I’ve worked on something. Here’s our efficiency. How’s our customer service satisfaction doing?” We’re also developing key dashboards for our clients to see, now they’re not seeing as much in person. We’re working diligently now to have a customer-facing dashboard to see that information. I think that’s all excellent data that we all can share and get better with.

Equipment for a Remote Workforce

John: Roland, is there any other hardware or equipment that a company might need to invest in for a remote workforce? Is it just a matter of making sure that everybody has a laptop instead of a desktop or is there more to it?

Roland: There’s definitely a little more to it, in some cases anyway. We do have people that use multiple monitors when they’re in the office. So, maybe adding an additional monitor for an employee, or mice and keyboards, docking stations for the laptop so they can properly connect to the other peripherals that are being given. Some basic conference equipment like microphones or cameras would be beneficial for the company meetings that you have or the individual interactions. The laptops would be a great addition if they only have a desktop in the office and if they don’t have a home PC especially. Also, making sure there’s proper phone systems so that you don’t have to worry about the cellphone usage. So, outside of that making sure that you have a good VPN, a firewall that can handle it, and the licensing.

Security in the Digital Age

John: Right. Dave, now that we’re in the age of the remote workforce should business owners be more concerned about their security posture now?

Dave: I think more than ever, John. People aren’t doing it intentionally, but they’re working from home, sometimes their guards might be down. There’s kids in the house, which is fantastic, you’ve got your pets coming around, your kids doing homework, you might not be as attentive to what’s going on. So, you might end up clicking something that you normally would not. So, you need to be thinking about that because at home you don’t have some of the parameters there. We’re really educating our clients to set the precedence of what’s acceptable and not. As owners of your business, you should not allow your employees to use their own PCs. This is a huge risk. You have a machine that is being shared by family members, it might not be protected by antivirus, who knows where it’s been and now you’re connecting that PC to your company network. That’s just a huge no-no.

Make sure that their wireless at their house is not on a public signal that anyone can hop on their call. So everyone at their house has their wireless, so there’s things that we need to help educate the employees about what they do and shouldn’t do. Never let your family member use your work system that is there for work. We prefer to have company-owned equipment at the house. That way we know, like I heard Roland about the tools in place. What do you mean by that? It’s being monitored, it’s being managed, it’s being updated, and we know if there’s a risk happening.

We use a product called SentinelOne and we find that imperative. It looks for unusual traffic patterns of some unknown user or from a strange IP trying to access your system or take data. So, I think right now is the time to stay vigilant. I think you’ll see more cyberattacks than ever in the next 30 to 90 days because of what’s going on. You have your whole remote force working from all these environments that are not under control by the business, but you need to set the precedence from what’s there.

John: All right, and any final tips or thoughts on working remotely?

Additional Tips

Roland: I would say being mindful of your time and how you’re using the equipment and software. A lot’s different right now, so it may not work the same way that you’re used to. So, it’s really a great time to explore what the functions are and if there are tools that need to be changed to make your job function work better while you’re at home. Also, collaborating, it’s not just to show that you’re doing something either. It’s a very healthy exercise, talking with your peers, feeling a little bit of normalcy. Those are my thoughts anyway on everything going on.

Steve: Yeah, I think it’s important to get your work environment at home straightened out. It sounds pretty basic and pretty straightforward, but it’s important to maybe set that space aside. Maybe mimic how you work at work or whatever that takes. Talk with your bosses. Do I need a coffee maker? I don’t know. Do I need a microphone, keyboards? What do I need? Monitor stands, do I need three monitors? What do I need? A lot of workers never really wanted to bring that work stuff home, but now they’re finding a different attitude towards it and maybe there’s a productivity that’s available. You know, making lunch in your own kitchen is nice. So, getting base set up so that you can be productive is a really key part of it.

Then the second part of it is just you have to learn how to be a self-starter. I think every boss is worried that every employee is going to go and just maybe not work for a while. And I would be lying if I didn’t think that every employee goes through that a little bit. Like, “Hey, I can just maybe go upstairs for a few minutes.” But then what I would say to every boss is that every employee goes through a point where, “Listen, I need to contribute. I need to work. I don’t want to lose this job.” Then suddenly you see a spike in productivity where I’m glad I have a job and I’m glad I can work from home. So it’s really about finding that space both in where you work and how you approach in attitude is really the whole thing.

John: That’s great.

Dave: I would also add with both Steve and Roland brought up, speak to your respective management team to give that environment. We’ve had several of our clients that are doing the right thing that the employee at home needs one or two monitors. We talked about having a docking station. Their wireless might not be good. We can help them there. They might not have adequate internet speed there or have the funds to do that. But if they ask their boss, they’ll help them do that because they know we all need to get through this. Just ask for it and I’m assuming they can help and we’re here to help them do that.

How Can PCG Help Implement a Remote Workforce?

John: So, say, I have a company and I know that I need help with either implementing a remote workforce or I already have people working from home, but I have some issues. How can PCG help?

Dave: Great question, John. Just give PCG a call at (603) 431-4121 and speak to one of our network specialists or one of our account reps. We’ll listen to what’s going on. We’ll understand what your current scenarios like, understand some of the pain points that you’re going through. Then we’re ready to help guide you, to help get this resolved. We understand everyone’s budgets are tight, but we need to make sure you’re taking care of your staff. Our goal is to give your team the access they need to the resources, so they can be productive as we’ve been talking about. They want to work, but we also are very keen on having to minimize your risk. Security is top of the mind for us.

So you can visit our website for insight and information. We’re doing podcasts like these on these topics and the remote workforce is here to stay. PCG has been doing this for 25 years. There’s always been a certain number of people working remotely, the leadership team, the management team, and all of our employees at PCG work remotely. Now, it’s just everybody. So, this is nothing new. We just need to make it all work for everybody.

John: All right. That’s really great information. Dave, Steve, and Roland, thanks again for speaking with me today.

Roland: Thank you, John.

Steve: Thanks, John.

Dave: Thank you, John. Our pleasure.

John: And for more information, as Dave said, you can visit the PCG website at pcgit.com or call (603) 431-4121.