I've been worked from home most of my working life, so adapting to the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic isn't too difficult for me, and it's pretty much business as usual, however for some people it will be a major disruption.
For some industries, this is unavoidable, but for others there are plenty of options to keep staff productive and engage with clients even when physical contact needs to be restricted.
I'm not big on pretentious job titles, but looking at what I do, I'm basically a systems analyst and developer with maybe a little bit of business analysis thrown in. In simpler language, I look at business processes and develop information systems in consultation with clients to ensure efficient running of their businesses. The developer bit means I actually get my hands dirty writing code rather than delegating that task to someone else to do. An even simpler way of describing what I do would be to say I solve business problems with software.
Clearly, uncertainty over whether a good part of your staff or clients are going to be able to come into the office is a pretty serious business problem, however since I've already solved the issue of remote work for myself, I think it's timely to share some of my own experiences and solutions.
Remote Access to data
One of the commonest issues a business needs to address is off-site access to data. When everything sits on an on-site server, or worse yet, on an individual's computer, accessing that data off-site can be a significant problem.
Cloud storage for files
Fortunately, over recent years, many businesses have adopted cloud storage services such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or Microsoft One Drive. All of these have limited free offerings, so even on a tight budget it's possible to put at least some critical files in the cloud and share them so that co-workers or even clients can access them.
The best service and plan will depend on how much data you need to store, what level of control you need over file access, and what collaboration tools you need.
Most of these offerings have both personal and business paid plans. The personal plans are the cheapest and may be suitable if you're a sole trader, or only have one or two staff, and don't need find grained control over access to shared files. At the time of writing (March 2020), the cheapest of these is Google One, at $2.99 NZD per month for 100GB of storage.
Gsuite, Google's paid offering starts at $6 USD per user per month for 30GB of storage.
Microsoft's cheapest business offering is Office 365 Business at $14.80 + GST NZD per user per month, which might sound expensive compared to the cheapest Gsuite plan, but that includes 1TB of storage, and also includes the familiar Office suite of apps, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, Publisher, Access, so it's actually pretty good value. (There is a cheaper Office 365 Business Essentials at $7.60 + GST NZD per user per month option, if you don't need desktop versions of Microsoft Office, but want cloud storage and team collaboration.)
I've personally used a free Dropbox plan for sharing with clubs I'm involved with for several years, and sometimes for sharing with clients, as I find it integrates well with Windows as is pretty much a no-brainer to use, however I find it a bit hard to recommend as it's one of the more expensive options both in terms of storage provided, and additional features, with the cheapest personal plan $9.99 USD per month for 2TB of storage, and the cheapest business plan $12.50 USD per user per month for 5TB of data. One situation where I have found Dropbox is worth considering is if you need to provide integration with your website, so people can send you files without needing Dropbox. Dropbox has a straightforward API (a way for other apps to talk to it), that I've found particularly easy to get up and going so that people can send files from a website form without even needing to know Dropbox is involved.
Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive also have this functionality, and although they might take a little bit more to set up initially, they offer a lot more additional features than Dropbox.
Cloud Storage for databases
Database development, initially for desktop platforms, and now increasingly cloud based with web based front ends have been my bread and butter for over twenty years. Twenty years ago, a desktop Microsoft Access database would have been considered cutting edge, but today a database app that can't be accessed anywhere on any device looks increasingly dated and inflexible.
You'd have to have been living under a rock if you're a New Zealand business and haven't heard of Xero, the cloud based accounting software. Not all business data is accounting data though, and some businesses may have developed internal database systems in Microsoft Access, SQL Server, or some other system for internal processes that are unique to their business.
Databases can't just be dumped in shared cloud storage like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft One Drive. They need to be moved to a cloud based database server to enable remote access. Microsoft's Azure SQL Database service starts from less than $10 NZD per month per database, and is ideal for migrating Access or SQL Server databases to the cloud. Access databases do need to have their data converted to SQL Server data first, however the actual Access front end with forms and reports can often continue to be used without major changes if they've been properly designed.
In some cases, it may be worth making a clean break and converting a database to a pure cloud based system with a web based user interface like Xero. In this case, there are lots of options for hosting, as your database becomes a web app which has the same kind of requirements as any website.
In the process of moving to cloud based access to your database content, not only can you allow for remote work by your own staff, but you can also greatly improve efficiency by allowing clients to see information that's relevant to them, without having to ask for it, improving staff productivity by reducing the time spent responding to emails or phone calls.
One critical issue to bear in mind if converting internal databases to web apps is security and backup. When you have data sitting only on your own PC or a server within your organisation, hopefully, people outside your organisation shouldn't be able to access it unless you have a major security breach, however once your data is sitting on a web server, the only thing protecting your data from access and manipulation by anyone in the world, is the security system in place for your web app. A strong password policy, access control, and logging, so that users can only see or change data they are meant to have access to, and logs are kept of user access to alert to any unauthorised access all needs to be taken into account.
Building web business apps requires a specialised skill set, and you shouldn't assume that every web design agency is capable of doing this. Adding a bunch of plugins to Wordpress might be easy, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee security or data integrity. In fact, Wordpress is a pretty bad choice of platform to integrate with business critical data, but at a time of crisis, you may not be in a position to redevelop your existing website on a new platform, however many web hosting providers let you host more than one website on your plan, and it's possible to create subdomains, so if your main website is www.mycompany.com, you can create a subdomain like portal.mycompany.com without having to pay to register another domain name.
Instead of your website just being an online brochure for your business, it should become an online portal for everyone who needs to interact with your business, whether they be staff, clients, or suppliers, with each having access to the information that's relevant to them.
Having people working remotely could potentially complicate tech support, but it needn't. Like many IT service businesses I know, I have a business subscription to Team Viewer. This allows me to email a link to clients, which enables them to download a remote support app preconfigured to allow them give me access to their computers, regardless of whether they are PC, Mac or Linux based. Team Viewer isn't particularly cheap nor is it the only remote support software option, but only the people doing the remote control need a paid subscription to unlock the full features. In addition to remote control, Team Viewer also allows remote file transfer and audio and video.
During the school term, with my daughter at school and my wife at work, even though I'm an introvert, the isolation can get to me a bit at times, as if I'm not careful, I can end up going all week with hardly any human contact.
One of the advantages of having people working together on one site is the ease of conversation which can be lacking if people are working remotely. This can result in spontaneous solutions to issues, and also provides a level of human social interaction that is important for well being.
There are a variety of options for remote meetings depending on the nature of them.
I've already mentioned Team Viewer which has screen sharing and video-conferencing features, but I think this is a rather expensive solution if all you want is video conferencing.
Zoom is a very popular videoconferencing solution, and if you can keep group meetings to under 40 minutes and 100 participants or stick to one on one meetings, it's free.
Skype and Whatsapp allow group chats, but particularly Whatsapp has a mobile focus, and my experience is that neither are paricularly efficient for searching past conversations.
If you want to be able to maintain continuous interaction with co-workers and clients, Slack is a very popular solution. It's free for small teams although the free version doesn't allow group audio or video calls. The paid version costs from $6.67 USD per user per month.
If you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365 Premium, at $18.90 + GST NZD per user per month, you get Microsoft Teams, which includes voice and video conferencing and text chat for collaboration. Considering this also includes all the Microsoft Office desktop apps, and One Drive cloud storage mentioned previously, although it's not the cheapest offering in plain dollar terms, if you use the full range of bundled apps, it represents pretty good value.
One thing you'll notice I've omitted from my list is Facebook. There's good reason for this. I quit using Facebook on a regular basis over a year ago, and my productivity and income increased dramatically. Unfortunately, Facebook is not really structured around efficiency for end users, but more around efficiency as an advertising platform. I found it incredibly wasteful of time, even when I achieved useful things with it.
Because I do software development, I need to keep track of tasks that have been assigned to me, and get sign off when they've been completed satisfactorily. I quickly learnt that emails are a very inefficient way to manage projects where there are a lot of tasks that need to be completed and reviewed.
Github is a site that started out primarily tracking code changes for software developers, but it also has some very useful collaborative project management tools.
I've found the Github issue tracking system and project features are excellent for keeping track of tasks and making sure the right people are assigned them or can sign them off when complete.
Since Microsoft bought Github, it has allowed private 'repositories' (the Github term for a self-contained project), with up to three collaborators in addition to the repository owner. For $7 USD per month, a repository owner can allow unlimited collaborators. (Only the repository owner who will invite collaborators needs a subscription.)
If you're in the business of selling physical or even virtual goods, if you haven't already set up an online store, now might be a good time to consider it. There are a multitude of web based shopping cart products from SAAS (Software as a Service) offerings like Shopify, through to free, open source options like Thirty Bees amongst many others. Setting up an online store can be quite a major undertaking, and can involve quite a bit of expense, but if the alternative is an empty store with no sales, and expenses continuing to mount up, it may be worthwhile investigating.
Physical Well Being
I've written a lot about technology, but an equally important aspect of working from home is looking after your physical well being. IT solutions are only ever as good as their end users. Workplaces have to comply with a multitude of health and safety regulations, so will generally have ergonomic workstations, and will ensure staff get appropriate rest breaks, but when you're working from home it's easy to be too casual. Make sure you do get adequate breaks, and get outside to enjoy some fresh air. Global lock downs might sound scary, but in New Zealand at least, our population density is quite low, so you can go outside and get some exercise without fear of getting sick just by stepping out the door, and it's healthier than staying cooped up inside all the time.
I've really only scratched the surface of some of the tools for remote work and collaboration, based on what I use. Depending on the nature of your business, your requirements will differ.
Some of the cloud services I've mentioned are likely to come under increased pressure as a result of more people working from home, so you may need to be patient. There's also a growing awareness of the high environmental impact of data centres, so if you are working from home, try to focus on the tools that let you get your work done efficiently rather than gratuitous funny cat videos. (Your employer probably doesn't really want you spending work time watching funny cat videos either.)
As I mentioned at the start of this article, remote work is something I've done for a long time, so if you would like help to implement any of the ideas I've mentioned, and don't know where to start feel free to reach out, and I'll see what I can do to help.