COVID-19: How to work effectively from home

IB offers tips for professionals suddenly forced into remote work on cybersecurity, what to do with “free” time, and how to manage those distractions known as kids.
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Despite serious warnings from local, state, and federal governmental bodies, not to mention case studies in action in China, Italy, and other parts of the world, American companies are only now coming to the realization that in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), more drastic measures need to be taken than simply encouraging everyone to wash their hands and stay six feet apart.

Unfortunately, “drastic” for some employers means mandating employees work remotely for two weeks or more (it’s probably going to be more). This actually shouldn’t be a big deal — according to a special analysis done by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, there has been a major upward trend in the amount of people working remotely in the U.S. in recent years. Still, the growth, while significant, represents just a small share of the workforce.

In the span of one year, from 2016 to 2017, remote work grew 7.9 percent, notes the special analysis. Over the last five years, it grew 44 percent and over the previous 10 years it grew 91 percent. In fact, between 2005 to 2017, there was a 159 percent increase in remote work. In 2015, 3.9 million U.S. workers were working remotely. Today, that number is at 4.7 million, or 3.4 percent of the population.

For a lot of traditional employers, as well as employees, this recent shift to prolonged, enforced, remote work is jarring. However, it doesn’t have to be.

Staying cybersecure at home

“We were a little surprised to hear from companies that were not at all geared up for working remotely,” Jeff McCollum, media and PR manager for Infosec, a Madison-based cybersecurity firm, said late last week. Since then, McCollum says things at Infosec have quickly gone from “work at home if you're anxious” to “everybody should work from home.”

“We decided last week to implement our remote working plan because the health and safety of our employees is a top concern,” says Jack Koziol, Infosec CEO and founder. “Social distancing and working from home is a good step toward preventing our staff from becoming ill.

“Beginning yesterday, we had about 99 percent of our Chicago and Madison staff set up remotely. Knock on wood, everything is running smoothly and there haven’t been any interruptions in service.

“Our managers are staying in touch with their team members,” adds Koziol. “It’s more than making sure their tech is functioning. We’re also staying connected to check well-being and we’re trying to make the most of it. Some of the staff are posting pictures of their new at-home workspaces — usually with their pets. That’s been fun. Another team hosted an online get together after work yesterday to chat. It’s a stressful time for everyone, but we’ll get through it together.”

Companies hoping to keep employees safe and stop the spread of the disease — while maintaining regular operations — have to look beyond simply sending staffers home with a laptop, explains McCollum. Practicing good cybersecurity hygiene to prevent exposing the business to cyberattack is as critically important in a home working environment as in the office. “This seems like common sense, but I guess I live it every day, so maybe it isn’t widely understood,” notes McCollum.

McCollum offers these tips for staying cybersecure when working remotely:

Be safer with strong passwords. Don’t develop a false sense of security because you are comfortably snuggled up at home. Many people don’t practice the same strong password habits on their personal home devices as they do at the office. Add a strong password and two-factor authentication to your Wi-Fi and the router, plus any other personal devices.

Know what needs to be protected. Jot down a list of everything you don’t want falling into the wrong hands and determine a security posture for each. Paper notebooks and folders, company phone, company computer, portable hard drives, USBs, contact lists, customer lists — you probably have more than you think.

Using public Wi-Fi. Not recommended. Everybody should know the danger by now, yet 81 percent of recent survey respondents said they still use public Wi-Fi. If you are going to use the unsecured public network at your local coffee shop or library, think twice about exposing your company’s private information this way.

Ramp up your security awareness. While you are using public Wi-Fi and other unsecured networks, be warned that at the same time you might receive a tidal wave of malware-loaded COVID-19 phishing attacks. Cybercriminals are playing off people’s anxiety from the pandemic.

Guard your login credentials. When working remotely — especially in public spaces — take care to guard your login credentials. If they are seen or shared accidentally, you’ve made tracking down illegal access very hard for the security team. 

Be a VIP with a VPN. Many companies have a VPN (virtual private network) as part of online protection packages for remote and traveling staff. For those not in the know, a VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection that tunnels data directly to its destination. If your company doesn’t have one, talk to your boss. VPNs for home use run between $5–$12 a month.

Be smart and ratchet up your security outlook. Keep your family and friends from using your work computer. Install an antivirus program in your home system. Get a copy of your company’s security policy and follow it. Lock up or shred confidential documents — and don’t toss them in your home recycling bin. Don’t leave your laptop, documents, or other devices in your car. Keep track of your smartphone. These common-sense steps will make you look like a security pro.

Making the most of ‘bonus time’

While some professionals don’t feel able to work as productively outside of the office, for others remote work offers the opportunity to actually free up some time for other pursuits.

“How many projects have you wanted to tackle but haven’t been able to because you’ve always been too busy?” asks Laura Gallagher, president of The Creative Company, a Madison public relations, marketing, and web development firm. “For those who travel for business, how many times have you wished you could work from home for a week instead of schlepping all over the world? Or how many times have you thought, ‘If only I had the time, I would …’ Well, now you can. We’ve been grounded for the immediate short term.”

Gallagher says as of today, March 17, 80 percent of The Creative Company’s staff of six, plus several sub-contractors, are working from home. “If you ask me tomorrow, the answer will likely be 100 percent. Everything can be managed remotely.”

According to Gallagher, here are some ways to make the most of this time spent working from home:

Write or draft a plan that is scalable in the time you would normally spend with face-to-face appointments, in-person meetings, or traveling. You’re 80 times more likely to accomplish a goal if you write it down, says Gallagher. “We’re accustomed to getting our news in sound bites but not doing the deeper dive that is often necessary for successful outcomes. This is the season to write a plan, not a PowerPoint. At The Creative Company, we are exploring the idea of starting a podcast, for example. This gap in traveling will provide us more time to develop a well-thought-out strategy, plan guests, and connect with potential sponsors.”

Get accustomed to using Zoom or other video conferencing tools to teach, lead, guide, and connect. Gallagher notes The Creative Company works with several leadership teams that have offices all over the country, so this is the new normal at the agency in some cases. “It definitely saves on travel costs and likely provides more quality of life to our co-workers and colleagues. I firmly believe in the value of being there and that you must be present to win, too. However, for a season, all of us can benefit from a rest from so much activity and use technology to stay connected.”

Communicate using video, webinars or the written word more often. If you’re normally connecting in person and at networking events, now is the time to leverage these tools. They work and are more scalable than one-on-one connections.

Stay in your higher brain. Higher brain thinking is all about solutions, being open to new ways of doing things, and keeping your neuropathways in a position where you can think, says Gallagher. “In all crisis situations, people naturally go into the lower brain. Fight the temptation and stay focused on all of the good that’s in place. Although canceling sporting events, conferences, and school is disruptive and disappointing, it’s likely lives will be saved because of those actions. Plus, as I mentioned previously, you will likely have time to plan, create, think, and make new things come to life.”

One final pro-tip Gallagher offers for managers and team leaders — make sure you schedule regular daily check-ins with your team to stay connected. Perhaps a Zoom video call at 8:30 a.m. and another at 3:30 p.m., she suggests. “It will be more important than ever to see each other, so use the video portion. These can be quick but will help.”

Working remotely with kids

Given that Wisconsin schools will be closed at least through April 3, but very likely longer, working from home now also includes the added potential distraction of kids.

These new “co-workers” often don’t understand or accept traditional office boundaries, so employers and employees all need to adjust expectations a bit during this unprecedented time.

Leah Roe, CEO of The Perk, a Madison-based remote work consultancy, certainly knows a thing or two about working from home with children. Her husband, Dan, also works for the company as COO, and their young daughter often makes appearances on video calls.

Roe has a number of upcoming webinars on working remotely with children and managing remote workers with children available on her website, choosetheperk.com, as well as archived videos on the topic. In a recent post on social media, Roe shared the following tips:

Working remotely with your kids:

1. Don’t work and parent at the same time.

  • Two-parent household? Have a discussion, and sub in and out.
  • Older kids? Have a discussion about what’s going on and set expectations for when you need to be left alone to work.

2. Be realistic about what you can and can’t do.

  • How many hours can you actually work while maintaining your health and sanity?
  • Try something and if it doesn’t work, course correct and communicate.

3. Eliminate screen guilt. Your kids are going to watch more TV during this time and that’s OK. Find something educational for them to watch and let them so you can get your work done.

4. Embrace showing your kids what you do every day.

5. Be gentle with yourself.

Managing a remote team that is working from home with kids:

1. Embrace the previous tips and share them with your team.

2. Lead by example. Be the one to have your child come on a video call and show that it’s OK, or to readjust your schedule because a two-hour block of work time is what’s more productive than a four-hour block.

3. Daily check-ins with your team. Ask them:

  • Given the priorities, what will you be able to get done today to feel accomplished and sane?
  • What are you embracing about working from home with your kids?
  • What is the most challenging thing right now? Let’s brainstorm how I or the company could help.

4. Be gentle with your team.

  • Be compassionate;
  • Assume positive intent; and
  • Trust, trust, trust.

There are many more best practices for remote work during the COVID-19 outbreak that local companies may want to share, so if you have additional tips, please email them to jason@ibmadison.com for consideration for our COVID-19 business resource page, IBMadison.com/COVID-19.

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