Tools to Keep Your Business Going in the Isolation Age

By: Jerry Horton, Technology Director

America has entered into relatively unknown territory – social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and businesses struggling to maintain operations when their staff may need to work from home. These are trying times for all of us, to be sure, with challenges that we have rarely, if ever, been faced with previously. While there are difficulties, for most businesses, remote work can be accomplished with a bit of planning, technology, and good old American ‘can-do’ attitude! The purpose of this article is give everyone some hints, tips, and (of course) technology advice to make sure that you and your staff can overcome the hurdles for remote work and help America ‘flatten the curve’.

Communication, communication, communication… 

Businesses, no matter what the products and services they produce, run on a constant stream of communication. While it is certainly true that email has become a common way for business communication to occur, it is simply a small part of the day-to-day exchange of information that actually drives the business. How many meetings do you have? How many times a day do you pick up the phone or pop into someone’s office to discuss project details? How many impromptu hallway or coffee break conversations occur to solve a problem? Needless to say, these are all essential to the communication chain inside a business. Moreover, we humans are a gregarious lot and, in general, don’t function very well in isolation; this means that your business will not function any better than your staff can. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is a plethora of technologies right at your fingertips to make remote communications the next best thing to being there.

Chat 

Chat programs have been around for a long while; Internet Relay Chat or IRC was pretty much one of the first widely adopted Internet applications. Any business that has multiple offices probably already use some version of chat to keep communications near real-time between a widespread staff, so chat is one of the first things you need to implement. However, not all chat is created equal or even close to being secure. Most ‘free’ or commercially available chat programs, such as Facebook Messenger or Yahoo Chat, should be avoided as a business tool. It would be surprising if you haven’t read about the privacy issues with Facebook and Yahoo, but suffice it to say that personally identifiable information (which you are required by law to protect for most businesses) is not at all safe over these types of platforms, let alone your business processes and intellectual property. In short, when it comes to using public chat platforms, DON’T. So, what then can you do to take advantage of chat as a business tool?

If you are using Office 365 with the right licensing, the problem is already solved for you! Teams is an Office 365 application which is specifically built to keep your staff in communication via chat, collaborative file sharing, and audio/video meetings. Teams is designed specifically to be secure as it is configured out of the box to be an internal communications platform – assigned specifically to your license and not available to the outside world. If you have Office 365 Business Premium or Essentials (Enterprise versions, as well), congratulations! You already have access to Teams and might need no more than an hour or two to configure it and hit the ground running. If you aren’t sure, contact your professional IT consultant to assist you.

There are other chat servers available, many of them open source (low to no cost to acquire), but they do require an onsite server and a fair amount of work to make them operational and secure. If you don’t have one in place already, your best move is to set up Microsoft Teams using Office 365.

Telephone  

Many of you might be rolling your eyes and saying ‘Duh, Jerry…’ but having someone’s home phone or cell phone number simply isn’t enough to run a business. How do you answer incoming calls or transfer them? If your customer service representatives are on the phone already, how do you know which of them are on the phone, who is available, and how the call flow will work? Most businesses have a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) phone system to handle all of these tasks; unfortunately, most PBX systems don’t deal with remote stations well at all, often requiring very expensive remote cabinets to extend their reach beyond the walls of your business, not to mention the fairly high cost of additional phone lines to run those cabinets and the costly handsets. What to do?

The best technology answer to this is to replace your PBX with a hosted VoIP system. VoIP is tailor-made to support remote/home offices with some fairly minor configuration and relatively inexpensive equipment. However, if you don’t have one yet, it may be a while before you can get one installed and operational (that is a typical 6-8 week timeframe), so the most efficient path would be to contact the vendor for your PBX to see if you have other options in the meantime. That being said, you can use Teams to help facilitate a temporary way of using a combination of cell/home phones, presence information, and even the built-in telephony features of Teams to make a functional, if not flawless, way to keep in touch with your customers and vendors.

Video meetings 

This is another that should be no surprise to anyone who has sat in on a webinar or web demonstration within the last 5 years. Full motion web meetings are a great way to get work done and minimize the feeling of isolation. The great news is that web meetings are probably the easiest thing to accomplish – all you need is a web browser, web cam and microphone (built into every laptop made for the last several years), and a good Internet connection. GoTo Meeting and Zoom are great commercial platforms that even offer free accounts (with significant limitations, sure, but it is an easy way to get started). Of course, Teams is also a fabulous way to get this done without any external accounts. I know that it may seem as if I am shilling for Microsoft here, but the truth is that Teams is purpose built to answer most of these needs.

Ok, we can all ‘talk’ now, but what about getting the rest of the business working? 

Actually, communications are typically the most difficult part of remote work, so you’ve already done a lot of the hard work. That being said, let’s talk about the ideal way to set up remote work for your staff. You may or may not have some of this in place, so in the interim, focus on what you need to acquire or configure.

Remote access 

Seems as if this should be simple, right? Just set up a workstation that people can access from the outside world and you are done, correct? In a word, NO.

Unfortunately, making sure you can connect to internal resources securely is the very first concern you should have, but it is also fairly easy to solve. Most modern business-grade firewalls have the ability to set up an SSL-VPN. This is the simplest method of remote access to network resources and is typically very quick to implement once you answer a few simple questions:

  • Who needs access?
  • How many need access at the same time?
  • Where do they need to access from?
  • What do they need access to?

The answers to the first three questions will help you design a secure remote access policy and ensure that you have enough licenses to get the job done. The last question is a bit trickier. If you are running some simple line-of-business applications, the solution may be to just add a bit of extra memory to your server and bandwidth to your Internet connection. It may not run perfectly, but it will get the job done. If, however, you have high security concerns or complex applications, the answer is much murkier and will require some planning and possibly a fair bit of expense to suit the needs of your business. Contact your professional IT consultant to help you get these answers turned into action.

If you are using cloud-based applications, such as Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics, Adobe Creative Suite, or even Quickbooks Online, a lot of the hard work of remote access is already done for you, although you may need to modify how and where you store files for everyone to work on (hint: if you have Office 365, it is simple).

The hardest part of setting up a good, secure remote access solution is the remote computer itself. Many companies provide laptops – a perfect remote work solution – or require certain software and configurations to be made on personally-owned computers to facilitate remote access. If you don’t have a bunch of laptops sitting around with the right configurations, this is going to be tough, but you aren’t out of luck yet!

First, most of the major manufacturers ramped up their production of laptops as the outbreak of Coronavirus began, so there is an available supply from Dell, HP, and Lenovo, to name a few. Some manufacturers may have leasing programs available as well if you are only needing a short-term supply.

Second, many software vendors offer cloud-based versions of their applications, so a simple phone call or email to your software vendor may be all you need to get the ball rolling.

In summary, this is a trying time for all of us in so many different ways. Even if you have never thought about operating without being dependent on the traditional brick-and-mortar, many businesses can be converted to telecommuting remote work with a little planning, team effort, and (yes, there will be some) expense. To recap, below is a short list of what you will need to set up a workable remote office:

  • A sufficiently sized Internet connection at both the office and remote ends. Talk to your professional IT consultant and ISP for the best advice.
  • A communication plan to keep your staff in the loop, provide project teams and workgroups working seamlessly, and keep external communications with customers and vendors flowing.
  • A business-grade firewall that supports enough SSL-VPN connections to support the number of remote workers you will have connected simultaneously.
  • Laptops or tablets capable of running your line-of-business applications.
    • If you will allow your remote users to operate their personal computers in your business environment, set a minimum standard for hardware and security configurations.
  • Convert applications to a cloud-based version if it is practical and cost-effective.
  • Prepare your internal servers for remote access. This may require additional hardware and configurations to ensure the highest level of security.

From all of us at Blue Valley Technologies, please stay healthy and safe. Together, we will all get past these times of trial and come out stronger!