Work from Home: Transitioning to a Remote Workforce

By Lisa Sadach

On January 22, a 50-year-old Canadian man returned home from a three-month visit to Wuhan, China. Within 3 days, he became what is presumed to be Canada’s first case of COVID-19. Less than two months later, all ten provinces have instances of the virus.

Though uncertainty abounds as financial markets are thrown into upheaval and there’sno definitive timeline of when a vaccine will be available, the Canadian government and individual companies are stepping up to deploy the best weapon we have against new transmissions of the virus: social distancing.

Companies across Canada are mobilizing plans to make remote work possible for thousands of employees andcreating more physical space for employees who must work onsite. Though the effects of the virus will hit the Canadian economy hard in the coming months, increased remotework can dramatically slow the spread of the virus. This will reduce the strain on the Canadian health system and give researchers vital time to develop treatments.

Ramping Up Security

One of the keys to making a successful transition to remote work is ensuring security even when workers are offsite. Those in the technology sector are better situated than most to do this, but the massive migrations are leaving all companies vulnerable to opportunistic cyber criminals.As the virus continues to spread,there has also been a rise in phishing scams attempting to get people to click on links promising information about, or relief from, COVID-19. Without proper education, employees can fall victim to these emails which might compromise the security of a business.

Cyber criminals are adding to the stress of already difficult times, but there are ways to mitigate the potential for damage. European cybersecurity agency ENISA has put forth these measures for employees to reduce their risk: 

  • Do not use the same device for work and entertainment activities
  • Practice caution with any email offering information on COVID-19. Refer to official news sources, be skeptical of anything that isn’t from a major health institution or government.
  • Be wary of emails asking you to change passwords and credentials.
  • Be vigilant in verifying that emails are from people you know – unusual email requests for information from a friend or colleague should be treated as suspicious until you can verify by phone.
  • Practice common sense security including keeping your antivirus software updated, keeping a secure Wi-Fi connection, backup information regularly, and enable encryption tools.
  • Home systems will not have the same security controls as your business.  Home grade operating systems are not patched and usually run subpar antivirus. If you’re using a VPN, you’re connecting these devices directly to your network.
  • RDP/Remote Access is a major attack route for cyber criminals. It may not be secure and has had many vulnerabilities over the years. Ensure your remote access systems are up to date, secured, and patched.

Have the Right Tools in Place

Working from home presents a variety of hurdles for both employers and employees, but with the right tools in place productivity can continue and even increase. Technology has made a global workforce increasingly possible over the last decade and the tools we have used to employ freelancers halfway around the world can now be used by our own local teams. 

With more businesses and organizations closing and reducing hours daily, it is important to be prepared to transition all or most of a workforce to remote work. Employees who are currently still coming into work should be encouraged to take their laptops home each day in the event that there is a sudden shift to remote work. 

A company’s IT team should be involved in every step of the transition. While striking a balance between security and ensuring everyone has access to the materials they need, your IT team is crucial in keeping the company compliant while also giving workers access to what they need.

Best Tools for Remote Work

Whether remote work is unchartered territory at your company, or this is only a minor adjustment, there are a variety of companies providing free and reduced-price resources to help with organization, file sharing, telecommunications, and more. 

Microsoft Teams and 365: Microsoft’s collaborative tool, Teams, provides real-time chat communication and app integration for remote workers. To help more companies access this platform, Microsoft will have fewer restrictions on their free version. Additionally, companies can reach out to Microsoft directly and get a six-month free trial of certain Office 365 features.

Google’s G Suite and Hangouts: Google’s G Suite premium video chat allows for up to 250 participants on a conference call and 100,000 viewers on a livestream. Meetings can also be recorded and saved directly to Google Drive.  Until July 1, customers can access this feature for free.  Google Hangouts also helps to connect people and integrate communication. This platform is included in Google+ and is also available as an app for Android and iOS. 

Zoom: This web-based video conferencing tool allows users to talk with or without video through their desktop or mobile device. It is a great tool for collaboration as it allows users to make notes on other users’ screens and allows for session recording. 

Slack Technologies: Slack provides a group chat room for your whole team and is an easier and more streamlined alternative to emails. CEO Stewart Butterfield stated on Twitter that Slack would provide free upgrades and consultations to anyone connected to the research, mitigation or response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Jing: Jing saves the day whenever you have something that is a little too complicated to explain over the phone. This app allows users to create a screencast of up to 5 minutes, upload it and get a shareable link.

Time Management Apps: Time management is difficult even under the best circumstances, add in the variety of distractions in a home environment and productivity can take a nosedive fast. Fortunately, there’s an app for that! Many apps including Harvest, Hubstaff and Time Doctor, all provide tools for tracking time spent and motivating users to get back to work.

Coping with Working from Home 

The struggles of working from home are as much a head game as they are a tech issue. For employees who are new to remote work, this can be extremely challenging and even for long-time remote workers the new restrictions on daily life are likely to take a toll.

To emphasize the importance of doing this, Hartung points to the lost bank registry for The Bank of Canada. “If you have a bank account that goes dormant after 10 years, it goes to the Bank of Canada. That list is just growing and growing, so we’re losing physical assets because there is only a digital trail. And if you don’t talk to your executor, how will they know?” 

While the first week of being able to create spreadsheets from the comfort of one’s couch may be liberating, this can quickly spiral into loneliness, poor time management, and compromised communication. Many of the traditional coping mechanisms for dealing with the isolation of remote work such as hanging out with friends or rewarding oneself with a visit to a favorite restaurant may no longer be an option.

According to a 2019 AirTasker Survey, remote workers worked 1.4 more days per month and had less unproductive time each day. However, remote workers also reported higher instances of feeling extremely overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. This largely came from the fact that creating a proper work/life balance was more difficult for remote workers. In short, when you live and work in the same space, it can feel like you never actually leave work.

To take control of the situation and maintain mental health, remote workers should strive to incorporate strategies that will bring their home environment closer to what they would experience in an office while keeping their personal time separate. This includes:

Have a Dedicated Workspace: A dedicated workspace serves two purposes: helping put you in a work mindset, and also protecting your personal space from your professional life. While it may not be possible to dedicate a whole room to a home office, separation can also be achieved by putting a laptop on a desk or table that is only for work. The key is to reserve that area only for working hours. 

Maintain a Schedule: Remote workers can avoid feeling as if their work never ends by sticking to a schedule similar to what they would have in an office including waking up at the same time each day, scheduling regular breaks and getting dressed in office-appropriate attire. 

Keep Up with Physical Fitness: Proper physical fitness has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, sleep quality and overall well-being. However, with the CDC recommending a course of social distancing, heading to a gym or even walking around outside will be out of the question for many. A variety of apps such as Aaptiv and Fitbit Coach offer guided and personalized workouts with and without equipment that can be done at home. 

Check in With Your Mental Health: Maintaining mental health while feeling isolated can take on many forms. Doing something creative, taking up yoga or working in your garden may all help to alleviate boredom. However, for those who are getting overwhelmed, online therapy may offer relief. TalkSpace and BetterHelp are two popular platforms for virtual therapy, however, many private mental health care professionals are now offering virtual sessions and special rates during this crisis. To find out more about mental health resources in your area, refer to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Maintain Relationships: While gathering together in person may not be an option, remote workers can use technology to stay in touch to stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation. Texting, phone calls and facetiming with loved ones should also be prioritized. 

Remember It’s Temporary

For many, working from home may seem like a dream right up until they are forced to do so. Whether you  are quarantined with your whole family and feel like you will never get a minute of alone time again or if you are fighting off feelings of isolation while living alone, it’s important to remember it is temporary. Be flexible and adopt new, healthy behaviours to guide this difficult time. 

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