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Work-from-home policies (WFH) have become the norm, not the exception, during the coronavirus pandemic. As lockdowns, social distancing orders, capacity restrictions, forced business closures, and social anxiety around the spread of COVID-19 shaped our lives, they fundamentally altered our working lives too. Employers and employees were forced to adapt to a virtual-first way of doing business. Restaurants rapidly adopted food delivery services, traditional office workers found themselves out of the cubicle and in makeshift home offices and studies, and even interns had their summers totally changed.

The culture around WFH policies also rapidly changed. Remote work went from a snazzy Silicon Valley tech perk to the new normal for the majority of full-time workers. One study from May of 2020 reported that 57% of small business owners believed remote working would continue after stay-at-home orders were lifted, and that number of work-at-home believers has grown since. Doubts about the effectiveness of WFH employees quickly were disproved too with studies showing that remote workers can be as or more productive than their in-office counterparts, with one study showing that remote employees work an additional 1.4 more days per month than in-office employees. Remote workforces also report better work-life balance with more flexible work hours and home workspaces.

The reality of the pandemic forced a rapid adoption of digital tools and WFH solutions, but that rapid adoption left much to be desired in terms of the quality of implementation. Many small business owners are re-evaluating the logistics of allowing their employees to work from home, scrutinizing their information security, ensuring they have the right tools (and ONLY the right tools) and processes in place to keep productivity up while reaping the benefits of a work from home environment.

In this article, we discuss what is needed to enable a strong virtual work environment for their remote teams and where WFH truly works for small business owners.

How to lay the foundation for a successful work-from-home implementation

WFH policies are dependent on your ability as a business owner to empower your employees with the right tools and infrastructure necessary to do their jobs without risking productivity and information security. To do this, you should focus on two key areas.

Digital infrastructure

WFH is dependent on an employee’s ability to connect to the internet reliably to access company servers and services. To make sure this happens, business owners should consider providing employees two things:

  • Reimbursement for Wi-Fi: Unless you want your sales team to constantly be disconnecting during critical client calls, you need to ensure that your employees have strong internet connections. A best practice has been reimbursing employees for their current Wi-Fi expenses and even fully or partially reimbursing employees for upgrading their Wi-Fi systems.
  • Company laptops and devices: While many people own personal computers, they’re often not up to snuff either in terms of performance or security for them to be able to be used for work activities. Providing high-performance company laptops, tablets, or other devices depending on an employee’s requirements removes a crucial barrier to success.

Cybersecurity infrastructure and policies

Leaving the confines of the workplace means leaving the confines of your secure company networks and devices. This can be a HUGE issue, especially for small businesses that deal with confidential client data. Ensuring that the right infrastructure and company policies are in place can be the difference between smoothly running operations and disastrous lawsuits.

  • Cybersecurity infrastructure: As discussed above, providing employees with encrypted devices and enabling the ability to work over secure networks and platforms will ensure compliance with information security standards.
  • Cybersecurity policies and education: Even with the best equipment and security software, the behavior of your employees can compromise your business. Implementing security policies like regular password changes or double authentication and providing education about phishing, malware, and other threats will build a security culture that is resilient to threats in the digital age.

It might be worth it, especially for less tech-savvy small business owners, to invest in a consultation with an information security professional to ensure that your virtual workplace is safe and secure.

Best-in-class tools to maintain productivity and efficiency

WFH only works when remote teams are empowered with the tools they need to efficiently complete their work while away from the office. Recreating the office environment is basically impossible, but modern technologies allow business owners to simulate workflows and in-office collaboration to a very high degree. Building the right digital WFH technology stack allows businesses to leverage scalable work infrastructure for full and part-time employees and customers alike.

Video conferencing

Video conferencing tools have become table stakes for modern business operations. Best-in-class tools like Zoom and WebEx allow businesses to simulate in-person collaboration and meetings. These tools have tons of user-friendly features like meeting recording, breakout rooms, and password-protected meetings that allow businesses to simulate most forms of in-person interaction in a secure virtual environment.

A free honorable mention would be Google Meet which has fewer features but is still just as secure and user-friendly.

Quick messaging and chat tools

Tools like Slack and Microsoft teams emulate the chit-chat, quick questions, and small talk that keeps the office functioning outside of the more formal email environment. They have become a quintessential tool for remote work to maintain the critical flow of internal communication. They even integrate with file-sharing solutions to make intra-office communication more seamless.

Other tools include Google Hangouts, Chanty, and Workplace by Facebook.

Secure file sharing and collaboration

Collaborative work is the norm for most businesses. Using platforms that allow for secure file sharing (and ideally real-time collaboration) keeps the work product of your business flowing while everyone is out of the office. Tools like Microsoft 365’s SharePoint, Google Drive, and Egnyte allow your employees and clients to share critical data in a safe and secure fashion.

Virtual private networks (VPNs)

Especially for small businesses that deal with confidential client data and information, VPNs are an essential tool to keep work products secure from bad actors. They keep the internet activity of your workers off of vulnerable home Wi-Fi networks. VPNs are offered by tons and tons of companies, many of them add-ons to typical office product suites like Microsoft 365.

Project management tools

A big worry for managers and business owners in a WFH environment is the ability to manage employees and projects. Tools like Monday.com, Microsoft Project, Trello, Jira, Basecamp, and even makeshift solutions using spreadsheet software like Excel allow virtual team members to manage tasks and ensure project completion in a virtual environment.

(For Fun!) Virtual spaces

While this is not an essential WFH tool, virtual space technologies can make for fun office events like Christmas parties, happy hours, seminars, and even conferences! Tools like gather.town allow users to navigate a virtual environment with dynamic audio levels that change depending on where a user is within the environment (just like real life!).

Where work-from-home works best for small businesses

Working from home is an exciting prospect for those looking to build flexibility into their work lives. Modern working cultures are starting to understand the value of allowing employees the ability to skip their long morning commuting routines, prepare better for the workday with extra time for morning routines, be present when their kids come home from school without having to hire childcare, and a host of other benefits. Employers also benefit from things like having to spend less on office space and gaining the ability to build a flexible “hot desking” culture.

But the reality is that not all businesses can operate using the WFH framework. Some businesses require employees to be on the job or in the field, without exception. Landscaping, construction and site planning, healthcare and homecare, auto repair, and food service are just some examples of the types of businesses for which WFH operations are pretty much impossible. That isn’t to say that other forms of digitization can’t help them! All sorts of businesses are seeing huge revenue boosts and cost efficiencies by investing in internet-of-things enabled point-of-sale systems, digital inventory tracking and planning software, automated digital marketing services, and many other digital upgrades.

So, who does WFH work for? Below, we discuss two situations where different degrees of WFH can work for small businesses.

Digital-first businesses

In the last decade, the rise of internet-enabled digital businesses has been staggering. Digital marketing agencies, many different flavors of business consulting, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms are just some of the examples of businesses in this category. What they all have in common is the ability to conduct most, if not all, of their work arrangements over the internet.

Consultants can conduct complex client meetings over constantly evolving video conferencing software like Zoom and even free software like Google Meet. Digital marketing agencies can set up marketing campaigns using tools like Facebook’s Ad Manager, Google AdWords, HubSpot, and other tools without ever seeing their client in person. SaaS platforms quite literally build their software as their service and that kind of development can absolutely be done in a remote, WFH setting. While in-person collaboration and sales interactions can be valuable, the last year has shown that these activities can be done in a virtual environment very effectively.

Digital-capable departments

While certain businesses can’t afford to let certain employees work from the comfort of their own home, they often have “digital-capable” departments that could see performance boosts and quality-of-life improvements from enabling WFH.

Sales teams can adopt a virtual-first strategy, leveraging a new culture that has normalized virtual interaction, to talk to more prospects in more territories without the need for travel. Human resources employees can conduct most of their work using specialized platforms like Workday and best-in-class video conferencing. Accountants, inventory managers, and data analysts can perform remotely using collaboration tools and product suites like the ones from Microsoft or Google.

Smart small business owners should evaluate their business to understand which employees could continue working from home without sacrificing critical operational capacity and keep up productivity.

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