Remote working

An employee works remotely from home

Remote working can improve business efficiency, reduce fixed costs, and help to attract and retain employees. Improvements in technology and changes in culture mean flexible working arrangements can be a full-time solution, enabling some businesses to get rid of their premises and work entirely online. Others offer a blend of the home and office, called hybrid working.

The right technology and security is essential when you and your employees are working remotely. You’ll also need to develop the skills and systems required to manage employees working without hands-on supervision.

Remote working explained

The hardware

Applications and software

Security issues

Management issues

1. Remote working explained

Remote working enables your employees to work away from your premises

Remote working can include:

  • working from home;
  • working while out and about - for instance, on the train or in a café;
  • working at client sites - for instance, at a meeting or training day.

Many activities can be carried out remotely using the right technology

Examples of what you can do include:

  • Send and receive email from any location, with a laptop, tablet or mobile phone.
  • Connect to the office network using a laptop and broadband (or secure Wi-Fi) connection. This allows you to securely access everything you can normally access in the office, like the latest stock information.
  • Conduct remote meetings using a teleconferencing service such as Zooms or Teams, or online meeting space.
  • Divert phone calls to your current location. Even though you may be at home, the caller still rings your office number.
  • Many employees can do everything at home which they usually do in the office with a telephone, laptop and broadband connection.

Remote working can bring a several benefits to your business

  • Extra efficiency. Your staff can work at all times, such as evenings, weekends, and while travelling on the train, for examples.
  • Additional flexibility. Within set boundaries, your employees can work whenever and wherever they want.
  • Lower overheads. Fewer staff onsite reduces your requirement for fixed desks and office space, saving you money.
  • Happier employees. Flexible working is a benefit that employees enjoy, enabling them to fit their professional life around their personal one.

There are management issues

  • It can be harder to manage teams of people working remotely.
  • You need to trust your staff to work unsupervised.
  • It can be a challenge to shift culture to new ways of working.
  • However, new systems and software enable you to monitor and manage performance effectively.
  • There is a risk of 'presenteeism', especially if employees feel they have to reply to work messages and emails outside of normal working hours.

2. The hardware

Depending on the systems and software you run, much remote working can safely be done through non-specialist devices. In some cases, workers may prefer to use their own devices.

At the most basic level, staff will require a laptop computer and a mobile phone.

Laptop computers can do everything a desktop machine can and are portable

  • Issuing all staff with a laptop PCs makes remote working easier to implement.
  • Laptops with a specification equivalent to a desktop computer may cost a little more, but you’ll benefit from the additional flexibility.
  • Demanding programs like graphic design software may need a particularly powerful (and therefore expensive) laptop. Mid-range machines can run typical office software with ease.
  • If a laptop is to be frequently used 'on the road', check the size, weight, and battery life carefully. Your staff must be able to safely travel, transport and protect a laptop.

A network server provides a central store for documents and other files

  • Your staff can then log in to the server and access files across the internet.
  • Many businesses use a virtual private network (VPN) to allow secure access to business resources. This can consist of hardware and/or software (see Applications and software).

Consider shifting document storage to the cloud

  • Storing documents in the cloud enables anyone with a password to access them at any time and from anywhere.

Mobile phones can keep staff in touch wherever they are

  • Smartphones allow you to send and receive email and run specialised versions of standard software and browser packages. They are a very effective way to keep up with emails outside of the office.
  • When purchasing mobile phones, look at the overall cost of the tariff carefully and be wary of long contracts.
  • Personal use of company mobiles can be a problem. Make sure you have a policy governing this (see Management issues).
  • Some staff may prefer to use their own mobile device, so consider this in your plans and security strategy.

Broadband enables employees to connect to the internet

  • This can include accessing company resources, software and sending and receiving emails.
  • If you plan to allow employees to work from home, you may need to provide them with an internet connection or contribute to the costs.
  • Broadband costs vary, but typically begin from £20 a month.
  • Faster connections cost more money but can be essential for those who need to use cloud computing software or send and receive large documents.
  • If your staff will be working from home frequently, look for a broadband provider that guarantees a certain level of service and speed.
  • Check the provider doesn’t impose data transfer limits.
  • Mobile broadband connections are also available. These provide broadband-like speeds through a small device called a “dongle” connected to a laptop.
  • Your employees can link (or tether) their mobile to a laptop, enabling them to access the internet using a mobile phone connection. This can provide fast access to the internet, but data limits can apply. 

Forwarding telephones allow staff to receive calls wherever they are

  • When away from the office, your employees can forward calls to their mobile telephone or another landline.
  • Many telephone systems offer forwarding as standard.
  • Alternatively, you could consider a Voice over IP (VoIP) system that routes calls over the internet.

3. Applications and software

You can provide basic remote access to emails with a webmail system

  • Webmail allows you to access your email through a standard web browser, like Internet Explorer, Mozilla or Google Chrome.
  • Typically, you type in a username and password to access an email account.
  • You can then view messages and send them as normal.
  • Free webmail services include Google's Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft's Outlook.com.
  • Web hosting companies can also supply webmail access to email addresses.
  • Webmail can also be accessed on mobile phones and tablets.
  • Your staff will need to protect their passwords and regularly change them to stay safe while using webmail.

Other tools can help your employees work together remotely

  • Teleconferencing services allow you to hold meetings with several people in a telephone conference call. These services include Powwownow and GoToMeeting.
  • Videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Meet are popular platforms for videocalls.
  • Online collaboration services let you work with a team on projects. Examples include Basecamp, Slack and Huddle.

An extranet allows you access to files and folders remotely

  • An extranet is a version of your company intranet which staff can log in to over the internet.
  • Once logged in, they can view documents and download files.
  • An extranet is good for providing limited access to important resources. For more complete access, consider a virtual private network.

A virtual private network (VPN) provides complete access to the company network remotely

  • A VPN creates a secure connection between a remote computer and your office network across the internet.
  • It is the best way of enabling employees to access company resources.
  • It provides access to all documents and data and makes remote working much more practical.
  • It is very important your VPN is secure. Because of this, an expert should set it up and maintain it.
  • You may need to purchase specialist software and hardware to create a VPN. Your IT supplier or a consultant should be able to advise.

4. Security issues

Security risks can increase when your staff are remote working. The dangers are manageable, but it is important to take precautions to protect data, software, and systems.

Remote working usually involves transferring important data across the internet

  • Hackers could intercept this information or try to access your computer.
  • Make sure all your company computers run up-to-date security software, including a firewall.
  • Only connect to your company extranet, VPN or email using computers and connections which you trust.
  • Be extra careful when using public Wi-Fi connections.
  • Use encryption to scramble sensitive data. This makes the information unreadable, even if intercepted. Microsoft Windows includes encryption, or you can download encryption software online.

It is possible to break into remote access systems by guessing usernames and passwords

  • Make sure all your staff have strong passwords. For example, you can often set up systems so that they require passwords to be a certain length and contain both numbers and letters.
  • Make it company policy to change passwords regularly and insist staff do so.
  • Consider using other ways to log in to your systems. For instance, many VPNs require something you have (a smartcard) and something you know (a password).

Portable devices like laptops and mobile phones are easily misplaced or stolen

  • This can be disastrous if they contain confidential information.
  • Having a password policy and ensuring staff adhere to it provides some protection for your data.
  • Try to store data on a central server rather than on individual laptops.
  • Always back up data. Often the value of data on a laptop exceeds the value of the laptop itself.
  • Some laptops have encrypted hard drives, which makes it hard for unauthorised users to access the data.
  • Ensure company policies include guidance on good practice on caring for equipment. For example, employees should not carry laptops in laptop bags or leave computers visible in public spaces like cafes and cars.
  • Some security software enables you to remotely lock laptops and even wipe the contents before thieves get a chance to access it.
  • Ensure you have adequate insurance cover for all devices in your business. Try to keep spares in stock for immediate replacement.

5. Management issues

Managing staff who are not in the office can be challenging

  • Ensure you can contact everyone when they are working remotely.
  • You may wish to ensure that staff spend some time in the office. This is known as hybrid working.
  • It’s important to keep your team together, so regularly run team meetings and encourage communication amongst members.
  • You can use monitoring software to track your employees' activity and work. However, this could lead to resentment and distrust. You will need to advise your employees if you are monitoring their work in such ways.
  • Fairness is important. Your company policies should lay out exactly when remote working is acceptable, and what everyone's obligations are.

Minimise the information security risks

  • Ensure that employees are aware of basic good practice to protect data, software and systems.
  • Stress the importance of complying with security procedures such as using passwords properly and regularly backing up files. If possible, avoid storing confidential information on portable devices.

Make sure portable devices do not fall outside your regular IT management systems

  • If office portables are shared, set up a system recording who has been issued with them.
  • It can be tempting for employees to use their own portable devices if it makes their job easier. Have a clear policy on whether this is acceptable, and if so how you will manage the risks.

Be aware of potential health and safety risks

  • Prolonged use of laptops carries a greater risk of problems such as eyestrain or RSI.
  • If an employee will be using a laptop as an office computer, provide an external keyboard, monitor and mouse.
  • If you ask staff to work at home, you have a duty under health and safety regulations to ensure their workspace is safe. Alongside peripherals, you may need to buy furniture for your staff, including a desk and a chair.

Signpost

Expert quote

"When we asked our customers whether they felt they were working more during non-office hours now that they had a mobile device for communicating with the office, 40% of respondents agreed.

"A further 15% felt that as a direct result of their use of a mobile computing device, they are now under more pressure to be available for work during non-business hours. Even so, 62% recognised that they are now better equipped to do their job more efficiently because of it." - Stewart Hayward, WStore

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