Shifting to a Remote Collaboration World

remote collaborationWith everything that is going on around us, we are seeing plenty on the news and about folks having to work remotely. Over the coming weeks and months, we will see quite a bit about how we’re not keeping up and that business continuity is failing. Based on what I am observing first-hand from my children jumping into remote learning and my wife trying to be effective at work, there is a lot of work to be done.

What I want to talk about is why we are seeing these issues and how we can set folks up for success.

As a knowledge worker in Silicon Valley, remote work/remote access has been a non-issue for quite a long time. It honestly did not matter where you were; you were able to do your job pretty seamlessly. And while work from home (WFH) was not the primary driver, it didn’t really matter. We have to travel to other offices, work in hotels/airport lounges. And sometimes we worked from home because, well, the meeting with India is happening late at night for us, and I am just not going into the office to connect late at night.

While we have seen tremendous changes in the tech landscape that facilitate ever-greater capabilities for remote work such as online file storage (Box, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.), we have also seen a revolution in videoconferencing so that most people have at least one remote video application that they use. These systems are getting easier and easier all the time (WebEx, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Slack, BlueJeans, Zoom, etc.). And of course, we are working directly in the cloud more and more, via Slack, Box Notes, Microsoft Office online and G-Suite.

So with all these tools at our disposal, why are so many folks having an issue converting to working remotely? There are a few systemic issues and a few practical issues that we need to understand.

  1. Management has a lack of desire to allow working from home.
  2. Perceptions about security issues and other potential risks to the business.
  3. Misconceptions on additional costs.
  4. Lack of training on remote/collaboration systems.
  5. Lack of the right hardware to facilitate working from home.
  6. Inadequate accessories for workers to have a GOOD remote or working from home experience.

There are lots of other issues but I really just want to focus on these for this article.

Before we take a deeper look at these items, it’s important to understand that ALL of these things make for better, more effective workers. Solving these issues does not mean that you suddenly have to allow working from home all the time by your workers, it just means that you are set up to allow it if needed. And these steps can also serve a secondary need of making you as an employer look like a more attractive fit to potential employees. While our current landscape has laid bare those companies that are not prepared and are either having to risk workers’ health by forcing them to come to work or scrambling to figure it out on the fly, the reality is that being set up to allow remote work has advantages all year long. Think about some scenarios:

  1. An employee is taking a sick day, but coworkers need a file only that employee has digital access to. In a work-from-home-friendly environment, she just opens an app on her phone, shares the needed file, then fades back into the Nyquil coma!
  2. A day when an employee needs to go to the doctor, but the appointment is maybe mid-morning and closer to home than the office. Instead of taking a full half-day or more, the employee works from home until just before the appointment, goes to the doctor, and then back to work and the offline time is greatly reduced.
  3. What about a much more common scenario? An employee is traveling, or it’s just a weekend and there is a file that someone else is needing. Instead of having to find Wi-Fi and fire up a laptop, the employee can just remotely access the file and then share it with the other person. Boom! Five minutes of work and everybody keeps going.
  4. Or how about this? If I move all my personal files to Onedrive or Dropbox, then I no longer need to worry about backups and restorations. It’s always all in the cloud.

The reality is that by setting up an organization to be able to work/collaborate remotely, you make more effective employees. And right now, we’re seeing the extreme side of how important that is.

Overcoming obstacles to an effective remotely enabled workplace

Management has a lack of desire to allow working from home

This is usually the biggest hurdle to enabling any sort of remote working strategy.  And it can usually be explained away with the six most dangerous words in business: “We’ve always done it that way!”

There is a fear in many quarters that work-from-home employees will sit around and do an absolute minimum of work and waste time. This is a very real concern that is firmly rooted in… absolutely nothing. There is no data to support it. The fact is that in reality, it’s the opposite. A remote worker is typically online and working earlier than she would be if she commuted to work. Since she doesn’t need to drive, she tends to get started earlier. And when it comes to breaks, those are also usually much shorter as the employee can just step to the kitchen to grab what she needs and carry on. Additionally folks are also typically in a better mood as they did not deal with traffic, they aren’t being interrupted all day, they are usually more fond of their home environment. Of course, there is the downside of your pet trying to grab your attention, but in actual fact, even that may put folks into a better mood. (Apologies to anyone I have been in a call with when my dog opted to join in!)

A fear of remote work is driven by a perception that workers will cease to be productive when not directly supervised.  So it’s important at all levels to talk through things and clearly set expectations. That’s the only way that you can measure productivity. But in the end… if you do not trust your workers to do their job when “unsupervised” then there is either a problem with the workers that YOU have hired, or there is an issue with you. And in the end, those are both management issues.

Perceptions about information security issues and other potential risks to business

There is no doubt that once people have to access systems from outside the office that this creates more holes in your security posture. But the good news is that all of these solutions have been security vetted to the nth degree. This is how all the biggest technology firms function. So if you have an environment where you have onboarded the enterprise versions of Slack, Office 365 and BlueJeans and Box, then there is no reason to be concerned.

There are two big caveats to the above though.

  1. If you have a capable IT department, or you are using a managed service provider (MSP), then none of the above is new, or even difficult. These applications are all designed with security first. However, if your IT department is less than capable, or there is a bad rollout with minimal (to no) training and not all systems fully integrated, you can set yourself up for an environment that can actually be more difficult to use.
  2. If you hesitate to enable remote capabilities, employees will find ways to work remotely. Let’s face it, most people have a consumer account with Google, Dropbox and others. So if my office won’t enable remote capabilities, then there is a good chance that my fellow information workers will do it themselves. And when I am using the non-enterprise version of these platforms and it’s paired with my (questionable) home security posture, now you have some REALLY big security holes of which you’re probably not even aware. They are not doing these things to flaunt the “rules;” they are doing so in order to try to be more effective employees and because you haven’t set them up to be able to do so in the correct way.

You need to enable remote functionality before they take it upon themselves to do it anyway.

Misconceptions on additional costs

Anything new is bad! Anything new costs money that we didn’t budget!

Is this a familiar refrain? This is why it’s important to take a careful look at costs and needs. In many cases, folks don’t even realize what they already have. As an example, if you have Office 365, you have just about everything you need already. And by making better use of these systems, you may find that it actually saves you money. An enterprise account for Office 365 is $150/year at the most basic pricing level. This gives you 1TB of personal storage and everything else you could possibly need for collaboration. And with all that storage, all the IT person needs to do is point your various folders to one drive instead of your local machine and you don’t need to worry about backups anymore. These costs are a fraction of what setting up backup software, large storage arrays, etc. would cost.

It just makes fiscal sense.

Lack of training on remote/collaboration systems

boss turns herself into a potato on microsoft teamsThis one is a doozy, and in fact, was really the genesis of this article. My wife works in a government job. She uses O356 and there is a default remote desktop connection setup in her profile, but nobody told her anything about how to make use of it. So now she is working from home and there is a file that she needs, but as she knew nothing about putting it in OneDrive (let alone indexing it in SharePoint so that everyone can access and work collaboratively on it), somebody needs to go into the office.

If she had received any training on it, then she would have taken ten minutes and just dumped all her personal files on Onedrive and then be able to continue working without skipping a beat.

Much of the time when we think about training on using remote collaboration systems, we think about showing people how to log in and use the basic functions. When it comes to videoconferencing, that’s not enough. In order to be effective when communicating over video, you need to know some basics about how to appear and act on video. The folks at Poly (formerly Polycom) put together a series of videos with a character called Polly Calm. (See what they did there?) and they are great videos to share with employees to help them get accustomed to new ways of working and to avoid some potentially embarrassing mistakes.

Check out Polly Calm!

And lastly, no matter what platform you choose, make sure you have some sort of system in place for folks to test their setup. While we can see what our camera looks like, we can’t always test our audio from the far end. There are lots of solutions out there (paid and free) that allow you to test your videoconferencing connection… make sure that you have an agreed-upon one and tell your staff to test first. My favorite has always been the one that BlueJeans offers. You dial 111@bjn.vc from your system and a parrot comes up on screen that repeats back whatever you say.  It’s goofy but it works. No matter what you use, always test first.

Remember, when we are working remotely… just testing with a YouTube video is insufficient. That video only tests download speed (which most of us have TONS of) in order to send your video and audio, we also need lots of upload, on which most of us are not doing nearly as well. I have about 200 Mbps download at my house. And 6 Mbps upload. That’s OK if I am doing a single video call,  but as I also have two kids doing remote school, things start to get a little dicey.

The final part of the puzzle is your computer. Videoconferencing needs lots of system resources. Too many applications opening, too many browser windows (talking to you, Chrome!) and all of a sudden you have choppy audio, frozen video and just a terrible experience. This is one of the great things about the newer crop of VC systems. Not only can they track conventional measures of loss/quality etc, but they also capture your CPU load so that a user with computer issues can be identified.

Remote collaboration systems, when well executed, can look and act identically to legacy systems. You just need to do a little config to take advantage of it. And of course, ensure that your employees are not just set up for success, but are trained and have good resources to assist in using the new systems.

Lack of the right hardware to facilitate working from home

While many companies out there exclusively make use of laptops, there are still plenty of companies that give many of their folks desktops. While I do understand that the standard desktop is cheaper (and of course NEEDED for certain applications), the reality is that if you enable your workers with a laptop, they can become super workers. They can take it to meetings, they can bring it home during the week in case something is needed after hours and of course in situations like we have now, they become remote workers much more easily.

There are of course other lingering issues, depending on how your environment is set up — are cameras and microphones enabled? Even if you didn’t have a planned videoconferencing software solution in place, if hardware is disabled, then even if you want to turn on a dime and just quickly buy a bunch of BlueJeans accounts and get folks collaborating, you now have an additional issue of getting things enabled and showing them how to test.

Having the right hardware is only part of the battle, you have to make sure that everything that needs to be enabled is!

Inadequate accessories for workers to have a GOOD remote/WFH experience

At a company I previously worked at, we were a video-first culture. We had about 10,000 active accounts on BlueJeans and we conducted in the neighborhood of 15-20 million minutes of videoconferences every month. But even in that world, we still had issues. Folks joining calls when driving without a noise-canceling headset. Using their iPhone earbuds, taking video calls while sitting in front of a window. Being unaware of their surroundings and having unintentionally inappropriate backdrops. All of these things can have a big impact on the overall meeting experience for ALL participants. It was not uncommon at all to get a call from the CIO or CTO or others asking us to mute certain parties on one of their calls or to tell us to reach out for some remedial “coaching” on good VC etiquette. When it comes to being an effective remote worker, there are a few things that make all the difference in the world. And these items are things that employers should define and either include with an employee’s desktop setup, or ensure that they can easily order as needed.

  1. Good quality noise-canceling headset. When looking at headsets, we don’t just want the best one from the perspective of the listener (that rejects outside noise). We also need one that has a microphone that can reject noise so that everyone else on the call does not have to hear the remote user’s environment. This landscape is getting better and better all the time and while I have by no means tested all the headsets out there… I was blown away with the latest generation of the Bose noise canceling headsets. The microphone noise rejection is incredible. While the right headsets are not cheap, they both make a huge difference in our experience when working remotely, as well as show employees that we care and want them to be effective. (And to be honest, in the current landscape of smaller cubes and higher density seating, a good set of headphones can be a sanity maker!)
  2. A laptop stand. When dealing with a laptop sitting on the desk, when we have a videoconference, our co-workers are inevitably treated to a view up our nostrils.  And we end up with a sore neck from staring down all day. For about $30, we can raise the laptop screen to a comfortable height with great eye contact and better ergonomics. And as for weight, I will gladly carry a stand that improves my posture and makes for a better experience. (I already carry a small keyboard and mouse.)
  3. A portable/mobile power supply. Our laptop usually comes with some sort of power brick that is in many cases stupidly oversized and does not coil up easily/has permanently attached cables that easily get damaged. For $30-40, we can find a power supply that is optimized for mobile workers. It will have detachable cables, a retractable plug, additional USB plugs and comes with a small carrying case. It makes all the difference in the world.

In order to optimally set up a worker to be successful when working remotely (and let’s face it, these things are useful inside the office as well), we are looking at a one-time cost of $500 at most. These items will make a big difference in both productivity and employee satisfaction. (And honestly, we don’t really need yet another branded water bottle!)

Summary

Enabling workers to effectively work remotely is not just about adding some software tools. It’s about changing attitudes and opening up to new ways of doing things. Notwithstanding our current scenario of forced remote work and collaboration, it just makes sense. Even from an environmental perspective, I don’t think we are that far from cities and states starting to set mandatory work from home policies to reduce traffic on the roads. Remote work is going to become the new normal. So don’t build a team that is just software-enabled, ensure they have the tools, the training and the accessories to put their best “remote” foot forward.

As always, please comment with any thoughts on areas you think I am off the mark, or areas where you have other things you have used to better work remotely.

Good luck, and stay safe.