Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Working in a coronavirus world: Strategies and tools for staying productive

The trend of working from afar is experiencing a major boost as businesses shift to digital channels and more people avoid physical gatherings. Here are key approaches and tools to get the most from remote work.

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While each of us certainly hopes that coronavirus won't become a major health event in their part of the world, the reality is that businesses are already considering every contingency plan with a close eye towards avoiding serious disruption of their operations.

Remote working, or the practice of working for an extended period outside the formal office, is growing steadily in popularity, enabled by a whole host of digital tools of virtually every description, from Web conferencing and e-mail to mobile collaboration applications and virtual event platforms.

In my long experience with digital productivity and collaboration trends, when it comes to remote work I find that most organizations are still either in the fairly early stages or have not committed enough yet to invest in full-blown strategies and enablement. Consequently, no matter who you are, there is usually considerable room to improve the digital employee experience when working outside the office.

So, to help organizations as they prepare for a surge in remote workers as the coronavirus story unfolds around the world, I've put together a fairly comprehensive quick start guide below. This guide will help those organizations just getting started as well as those who may already have existing remote work programs but would like to significantly upgrade their effectiveness to minimize impact to their customers, workers, and suppliers. 

The Transformative Possibilities of Remote Work

In both cases, the strategies and tools below will offer noticeable improvements immediately to the remote working experience and delivers improved downstream results, such as higher productivity, more engagement, better work/life balance, and greater overall work quality.

Also: How coronavirus may accelerate the future of work 

In general, when I've had to choose between presenting a basic strategy or tool, or the best overall solution below, I'll identify what the basic options are but recommend the best practical approach that will stand the test of time better or produce improved overall results for a reasonable level effort. Just keep in mind that the better approach may be slightly more complex and time-consuming to realize.

Pro tip: Although the consumer tech world has long known this, most enterprises still don't value the importance of simplicity and usability. We tend to prefer the choice that ticks all the technical boxes and/or is the most trusted/cost-effective. However, if you want your investment in remote work to pay off, pay special attention to whether the average worker will be easily able to use your solution, as tools for digital access span the range of complexity and user experience. Whenever possible, put a strong emphasis on tools that are simple, straightforward, and "just work." The risk in not doing so is that your support costs for remote work will simply be higher, with less to show for it in terms of preserving productivity, as workers spend more of their time getting the solution to work. 

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review. 

Four Strategies for Remote Work

There are four levels of strategy when it comes to enabling remote work, and they should, in general, be approached in this order:

Strategy 1: Create a safe and effective foundation for remote digital access. First and foremost, this means providing secure access to IT resources within the business as well as to the internet itself, typically through an internet provider and virtual private network. This requires attention to every part of the connected tech stack, from internet access itself to providing secure means to reach and interact with corporate networks, data, communication channels, and applications. This is also the overhead of managing and supporting the whole process.

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  • Internet access. Don't assume workers have adequate online access at home or elsewhere. While many will, some won't have reliable or fast enough service or only a mobile device. Quickly survey or otherwise gather data from the workers included in your remote work strategy and determine where the gaps are. For some workers, be prepared to invest in mobile hot spots and associated data plans, as well as providing stipends to establish home internet access plans or upgrades to existing access, which can be especially important for workers that live in more rural areas.

    One of the largest blind spots is in knowing how much bandwidth workers will need to be optimally productive, and quickly assessing this early will pay dividends. Remote workers, especially at first, often have to sync their files and data. For some industries, this could be a lot of rich media and data that has to go back and forth regularly. How fast it goes will determine remote work productivity. More significantly, the types of applications that are used regularly, especially web and video conferencing, can determine bandwidth needs as well.

    Finally, ensure you have a clearly articulated remote work policy along with a plan, communications program, budget, training, and support for ensuring sufficient internet access wherever the worker will be working remotely. Preparing quickstart guides, like those used with consumer technologies, are a big help to shave the initial learning curve off of any new tools or technologies. Organizing power users to support new remote workers, answer questions, and share techniques is also a big help. Normally all of this is part of an overall remote work program, but may be separate depending on who is responsible for providing different services inside your organization.
  • Remote work devices. There are two major forks in the road when it comes to devices. Either a) workers can use their own, which is a bigger security risk, but quite a bit cheaper and faster to deploy if their devices are up to the task, or b) a company can provide the devices that are needed. Given that the prevalence of Shadow IT (workers using unsanctioned, unofficial apps to get their work done) is generally higher than most enterprise IT departments are willing to admit -- meaning that company data is already on many personal devices anyway -- I advise companies to seriously consider assessing workers existing computing hardware to see if they are capable, as they are least expensive and quickest option to enable for a crash remote work program. Organizations can rent, lease, or buy devices as appropriate for those that don't have them or are not suitable.

    What devices are needed? Presumably one smartphone and one computer or tablet, plus any internet access hardware. But your specific business requirements will dictate what is needed. In addition, when providing a superior remote work strategy, there are a number of accessories that can greatly improve the experience, with minimal cost. These include:

    - A webcam for web conferencing, if the worker's base computing device does not have one. 720P is the minimum acceptable resolution for quality results, but that is usually standard now in most webcams.
    - A high-quality headset or headphones with mic. While workers almost always have headphones, you'd be surprised how many don't have good enough microphones in their headphones for phone or web conferencing.
    - An "On the Air" sign. Workers located at home or shared locations are at risk of being disturbed during remote meetings by those around them. Inexpensive On the Air signs with remote controls can be purchased at Amazon and make a real difference in the overall quality of the remote work experience during meetings and at any time. For the budget-conscious, On the Air door hangers are also available. The positive impact of using these signs to ensure smooth communications and collaboration is surprisingly high.

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  • Secure remote access to business assets and online services. Typically this is provided by a virtual private network (VPN) solution, which sits on the PC, laptop, or mobile device and creates an encrypted network connection that makes it safe for the worker to access IT resources within the organization and elsewhere on the Internet or other networks. VPN solutions come in a wide variety of flavors, and some well-known vendors aren't always the best, and fly-by-night solutions are indeed ones to avoid in this category particularly, for security, reliability, and support reasons. As noted above, usability is key here, as is reliability, because almost every other part of the remote work solution provided will use the VPN as the core foundation it uses for secure Internet access.

    In general, the worker should never do any work for the organization without the VPN on their device(s) being turned on. This includes online services on the internet. This is because the VPN ensures a higher level of security and safety between the remote worker and the service. In reality, your mileage will vary on when workers can use a VPN, for reasons I'll go into in a moment. So your VPN usage policy must be crisp and clear on what workers are allowed to do with the VPN on, and with it off.

    It's important to note that the VPN will be the single most important link in your remote work chain, so ensure your solution works on most target devices, works reliably (there is a surprisingly wide gamut of effectiveness, depending on where workers are actually located, which can get complex with global organizations using local internet services, with many IP addresses blocked for a variety of reasons). Be sure to test all the service providers, devices, and locations to be used at the very least, and ensure performance is sufficient. Some VPNs route traffic through central hubs located throughout the world and are often overtaxed during business hours. In addition, strongly consider two-factor authentication (2FA), instead of just user IDs and passwords, to significantly boost security. 2FA fobs (hardware devices that provide PINs to further authenticate users) are inexpensive now. Workers can also use their mobile devices as a 2FA authenticator.

Also: These are your best, most secure VPN options CNET

The reality is that your IT department should have worked through a number of these issues and will likely have a working remote access solution using VPN, including a policy and support. But as you ramp up to a wider variety of workers and greatly increase the numbers working from afar, you'll have to make sure that your core remote work foundation is truly up to the task, including acquiring enough licenses for all the intended workers. There are many nuances in ensuring a quality remote access experience, and even most organizations won't have deployed all the items above fully and in a manner that is easy enough, fast enough, sufficiently robust, especially with the various little details that really make a high-quality remote work experience. Be prepared to chip in to improve training and support, and ensure the approach is not just checking the boxes.

Lastly, I'd be quite remiss in noting that a VPN is not necessarily the only solution to providing remote access, nor is it often sufficient, even though it's probably the most well known. One issue is that VPNs can ultimately end up being a tricky solution to implement and manage. There are several alternatives but secure remote desktops can often do the job if you don't have the IT resources, skills, or budget to operate a VPN everywhere it needs to function. Solutions like Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops or Blackberry Digital Workplace, or the always popular TeamViewer for smaller organizations, offer solutions for high security yet maximal ease of use that take much less effort on the part of the organization, other than some initial provisioning, rollout, and training. Again, test everything upfront, including usability, and ensure you do this by putting actual workers in front of your intended remote work access solution(s) to see how well it actually works, or risk low adoption/effectiveness and high support costs.

Strategy 2: Provide access to productivity, line of business applications, and communications/collaboration tools. Business today revolves around teamwork using shared knowledge assets including documents, files, reports, spreadsheets, rich media, and both structured and unstructured data. Such assets are created and used with applications that include the usual office productivity suites like Microsoft Office365 and Google G Suite, local content/document management systems, the corporate intranet, HR systems, CRM, ERP, and countless other systems. 

The average 100,000 person organization has between 1,500 and 3,000 applications in all that run the business. This number of applications scales down surprisingly slowly. Even a 100 person organization will have 100-200 applications they rely on at least, many of which will need to be used in remote work. Ensuring all of these work well via remote access can be solved partially with remote desktops, as noted above. In general, strongly prefer cloud solutions for your remote work efforts, as installing native applications on compatible devices can be surprisingly difficult, whereas cloud solutions will work with most common browsers and are especially enabling access to mobile applications.

Key Success Factor: Go the extra mile with remote collaboration

In general, you can count on the usage of business applications remotely to be about the same as when the worker was in the office. This is in stark contrast with the other side of the equation: Communication and collaboration tools.

Due to its inherently isolating nature, remote work relies much more on digital communications and especially modern workforce collaboration tools such as team chat (Slack, Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook, etc), enterprise social networks (Igloo, LumApps, SAP Jam, etc.), unified communications/instant messaging solutions, as well as business mainstays like e-mail, phone, and web conferencing/meeting tools like GoToMeeting and Zoom.

Remote work itself can be quite challenging for people who are either not used to it or where it's not a good personal fit. Thus it's usually well worth the extra effort to make remote work easier and more engaging for this cohort, as well as all the others. With coronavirus likely to push people not inclined to work remotely to do so, it's advisable to consider several outside the box solutions that make remote collaboration feel more like the office or make it more immersive. Some potential innovative solutions to consider:

  • Sococo - This online workplace provides chat, voice, and video that offers a virtual office overlay which I've found to be especially effective at making people feel like they're still in an office. Workers can visit each other in virtual dedicated offices of their own and shared meeting rooms by working like they would in a physical space.
  • Mural - A visual collaboration tool that provides workers with shared artifacts similar to a whiteboard, Mural gives people higher bandwidth and more direct connection to their teamwork. Teams can organize on an online canvas using lists, flowcharts, diagrams, frameworks, methods, and drawings to help them stay aligned and well-coordinated.
  • Status Hero - How is everyone and what are they doing? These are the questions that this tool answers by centralizing the status of workers so that a cohesive team picture automatically emerges. Status is pulled by the app both by querying workers occasionally as well as pulling activity from other systems. It then broadcasts major events and achieved goals automatically so people have awareness of what's taking place with their colleagues and teammates.

On the cutting edge of digital collaboration, there is telepresence robots like Double Robotics that have been around for a few years, and while somewhat costly, can help workers retain some of the benefits of physical office presence by enabling them to take turns dropping into the office virtually so they can visit or meet with colleagues that are still there. 

On track to become more mainstream than ever in 2020, augmented and virtual reality is getting quite inexpensive, especially on the virtual reality side with goggles like the Oculus Go ($149 currently for a complete unit.) I've used the Go in a business context and found it to be quite effective at wrap-around experiences that feel like an office. What's still missing is effective and widely used meeting software for VR platforms, although apps like Rumii and MeetinVR are finally starting to change this.

But technology is only part of the remote working equation. The other side is worker skills. These must be developed as well on the worker side to take advantage of the powerful and sometimes amazing digital capabilities that can be provided today. Skill-building software with the rapidly emerging category of digital adoption platforms can help address this shortfall to some degree, although structured learning can help as well.

Strategy 3: Develop remote working skills. The reality is that it is fundamentally different to work remotely. There's a loss of hallway chatter, camaraderie, and serendipitous experiences with other colleagues. Everyone is much less visible, and it takes a toll on collaboration because it's just harder to connect with co-workers, even with all the digital tools in hand. 

Over the years, a sense of the key skills that remote workers in particular need in the digital space has emerged. Here are some of the ones to teach at first as more workers become remote:

  • Working Out Loud - In this process, popularized by the book of the same name, workers narrate their work into digital tools. This helps us support each other, keep in touch, align, and collaborate in an agile-like process, while substantially raising visibility and putting tacit information out on the network to work 24/7. I've called this one of the most vital skills of modern digital collaboration and it's particularly important for remote workers so that co-workers stay connected and engaged with each other, by returning some of the positive aspects of a physical workplace through regular streams of conversational activity.
  • Work coordination - Many collaboration tools are quite generic and aren't adapted to help ensure a business process is coordinated amongst a large distributed team. The process of work coordination uses a central hub, these days based on dedicated software tools (my latest list here), to efficiently ensure marketing, sales, operations, and creative pursuits are tracked, analyzed, optimized, and driven to effective completion. But it's the process of working in such a decentralized, yet the highly coordinated way that is a new way of working. Workers will develop the skill to spot opportunities to structure work this way and know how to create much more coordinated and digitally supported processes using the available tools and technologies.
  • Using the right mode of collaboration. Now that we literally have dozens of types of collaborative tools, workers moving to a remote location and handed a large toolbox of options too often either get analysis paralysis or use a less effective option for a given situation than they should. E-mail is often the worst tool for collaboration, for example, but often the first tool to be reached for. Or a worker might use Slack for a situation that is more suitable for a mass collaboration platform like an enterprise social network or work coordination tool. The action item for enabling remote workers is to proactively provide them a cheat sheet on which tools they are best used for various tasks, and especially why, so they can apply the knowledge in situations that no guidance is available for.

Strategy 4: Cultivate a remote working culture and mindset. Going beyond the individual, it helps to prepare the broader organization to create an environment that's more effective for remote working. Especially since digital tools are so core to enabling remote work, it's important to understand how much they shift the art of the possible, not just on individual digital skills and habits, but how these digital tools change and improve the culture of the organization itself. Or more accurately, what's possible digitally and how the organizations innately thinks and works co-evolves together. 

However, when a rapid change happens, such as moving to remote work in a short period because of the coronavirus, the cultural shift needs an acceleration process or the technology can pull well ahead of what the organization is ready for. Here are some cultural and mindset changes that the more open and participative nature of digital tools enable, especially in a remote working environment:

  • Open participation and inclusion. Digital processes and business activities in the latest generation of digital tools is far more inclusive, more of what I call an "anyone can participate" model. This is vital to embrace when workers feel disconnected from the home office and not sure of where they belong. However, not everyone is ready to have stakeholders digitally show up and not just watch but actually join in. Open-source software and crowdsourcing have become mainstream and have shown this model not only works but is amazingly powerful. Yet organizations are not always ready for this kind of hierarchy-busting. Proponents of remote work should prepare the ground for this and get these ideas out into the organization to be ready for the types of powerful new modes of work that remote workers will tend to gravitate to overtime. This includes mass collaboration, self-organizing around problems/exceptions/opportunities, and wielding influence over the network at scale. It's also highly advisable to create a remote working community or digital innovation group within one of the organization's collaboration platforms to have this conversation. Get senior leaders on board and involved in what is essentially a digital transformation of the workplace using communities of change agents and digital support groups.
  • Digital learning and sensemaking. Workers must be given extra time to study and learn the tools and the skills of remote work. Culturally, an expectation should be provided that learning going forward will be much more continuous and frequent. Back this cultural message up with educational opportunities, new tools, and relevant content about remote work regularly. Some organizations also have a remote work support team that engages with remote workers, provides help upon request, and uses analytics to find workers who need help and guidance. Creating and demonstrating a supportive environment for getting up to speed on remote work must be a top short term objective and medium-term investment. This includes sensemaking, or dedicated time to organize their lives, ideas, and knowledge around new operational realities involved in remote work.
  • Network leadership. It's now easier and more effective to lead and engage with an organization as a leader (any kind of leader, such as executive, subject matter expert, process owner, etc.) in digital channels than any other way. While in-person leadership will remain important, it's being eclipsed by what is now possible with modern digital channels. Leaders can wield great influence and visibility within an organization and establish tone, culture, and communicate broadly with great efficiency to drive organizational objectives forward. The Corporate Executive Board noted in a landmark report that the network leader is one of the most important new skills that modern executives must adopt, yet is the one that is also the least taught or supported. Teaching this is key not only to make remote working successful for remote executives but for them to create the more evolved digital culture that properly enables and supports remote work and the new possibility it enables.

Summary: How to go digitally remote during the coronavirus

As I've recently noted in my recent analysis of why the digital employee experience is so challenging today, you can't change the technologies that people use, without also helping them change their skills and habits in the process. While many organizations will be tempted to pave the cowpath with remote work, just replicating what was in the office at the home or local co-working studio, this would be a mistake and a missed opportunity for many organizations.

Instead, as coronavirus may end up making us -- at least temporarily -- far more isolated than most of us ever have been at work, we may likely have a key opportunity to create a compelling new digital remote work environment that is far more engaging, participatory, and full of human connection, context, and contact that we've ever had before. I urge you to try innovative new tools, establish important news skills, shift your culture digitally, and prepare for whatever is beyond coronavirus and the current distractions it is causing us. Let's use our new remote work effort to begin to build a genuinely better and more effective organization.

For more information, please catch my live Webinar "A Guide to Remote Work During COVID-19" on Wednesday, March 11 at 11 AM PT/ 2 PM ET. It will include an updated and enhanced exploration of this vital topic. I'll also be taking questions as well.