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

Remote support essentials: 4 steps you can take now to keep friends and family connected

If you're the tech expert in the family or in your neighborhood, how do you respond to a call for help when a personal visit isn't an option? Take these four steps right now to ensure that friends and family members can count on you for support from a distance.

In normal times, computers and mobile devices are just another way to stay in touch. But there's nothing normal about our current world, where we're being asked to shelter in place and maintain social distance to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

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In these decidedly not-normal times, technology is an essential communication tool, especially for the elderly, for whom it can quite literally be a lifeline. So how do you support your family and friends if an in-person visit isn't an option?

I've been practicing for this moment for the last two decades, helping out relatives and neighbors who are hundreds or even thousands of miles away. In this post, I share some of the steps you should be taking right now to ensure that you'll be prepared when you get an urgent tech support call about their PC or Mac.

The key to solving that problem, when it appears, is being able to see the problem. It can be maddening to listen to someone with no technical background try to describe what's happening on their screen. Your grandfather might be an awesome teller of bedtime stories, but you'll get a much better handle on what's happening if you can get them to show, not tell.

To prepare for that moment, do these five things today. For the sake of this article, I will refer to your poor befuddled friend or family member as "the client."

Install remote support tools

For garden-variety problems that don't block startup, it helps tremendously to have a remote support tool that allows you to literally take over the other person's screen. You can accomplish so much more when you can run diagnostics and adjust system settings without having to ask your nontechnical friend or relative to drop to a command line or open a system utility.

The trick is to install and configure that remote support program today, before you need it.

I prefer TeamViewer, a powerful tool that many corporate help desks use. The good news is that TeamViewer is free for personal, noncommercial use. And it works.

teamviewer-free.jpg

TeamViewer is free for personal, noncommercial use.

Update: Several colleagues who previously used TeamViewer to provide free tech support for their online communities tell me that the company revoked their licenses after characterizing that activity as "commercial." Two of them told me they've switched to AnyDesk, which has a similar business model but doesn't penalize people who are active in the community.

After I reached out to TeamViewer, they announced that they have suspended checks for commercial usage of the free software in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus crisis. In addition, a company spokesperson tells me they are working on improvements in the process of checking for unauthorized commercial use so that they can be more responsive to legitimate use cases.   

The popular Zoom conferencing tool also offers free remote support sessions that allow you to work directly with a remote PC running Windows or MacOS. These sessions work with both free and paid accounts and allow the person initiating the support session to request control of the desktop or an application and to request a computer restart. Details are in this Zoom support article.

If both computers are running Windows 10, you have a built-in tool at your command: Just tap the Windows key and search for Quick Assist. (You'll want to show your remote client how to pin that shortcut to Start or the desktop for easier access.)

Google also offers a Remote Desktop tool that works well for ad hoc support.

If you'd rather use an open source alternative, try one of the many variations on the venerable Virtual Network Computing (VNC) utility. The granddaddy of them all is VNC Connect (formerly known as RealVNC), which offers a free 30-day trial but is really geared at paying corporate customers. As a free alternative, check out UltraVNC or TightVNC.

No matter which option you choose, you'll need to go through the (brief, one hopes) inconvenience of setting things up on both ends. Your goal is to create a one-click shortcut on the remote desktop that you can ask your esteemed client to double-click so you can get access to what's bugging them right now.

Install video chat software on desktop and mobile devices

Remote support software is great for some tasks, but it falls apart when the problem is preventing that software from running in the first place. The underlying issue might be physical (a bad network cable, say) or software-based (a Blue Screen of Death on a Windows PC, for example, or an iPhone that refuses to respond to input).

Either way, you want your client to be able to show you what's happening. Which is why you should install a solution on their desktop and on their mobile device so that you can communicate directly when either device is temporarily incommunicado. Here are some options:

  • FaceTime: If both ends of your remote support connection are all Apple, all the time, you can use FaceTime on a MacBook/iMac and on an iPhone or iPad. If the iPhone's acting up, your client can hold it front of the MacBook webcam. If the MacBook is out of commission, you can use the iPhone to get a close-up look at any error messages.
  • Google Hangouts: For those living the Google life, with Chromebooks and Chrome on the desktop, this is a perfectly good option. But it gets tricky as you get further away from platforms Google controls.
  • Skype: I've rarely had good luck with Skype over the past 20 years, but if your client is experienced with Skype and comfortable with its quirks on the desktop and on mobile devices, be my guest.
  • WebEx: You probably wouldn't think of this business-focused tool for communicating with your family, but guess what? It works! The free Webex Meetings plan lets you hold meetings with up to 100 participants, with HD video, screen sharing, and your own personal room. And there's no time limit.
  • Zoom: This is another web conferencing tool that you probably associate with working from home, but a free Zoom account includes unlimited one-on-one meetings and online support, and you can stay in touch with the entire family using group meetings of up to 100. (The free account restricts group meetings to 40 minutes.)

Whichever option you choose, make sure your clients are comfortable with it. Use these tools for casual chats with multiple family members, so that when you need them for troubleshooting, you can count on them working.

Set up a shared folder in the cloud

If your client is using a Windows PC or a Mac, you will eventually want them to install a piece of software to help you help them. Maybe it's a piece of diagnostic software, or maybe it's just an app you think they'll benefit from.

Either way, it's much easier if you can download that app and share it with them. So, I recommend you set up a shared folder using your favorite cloud storage service: Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, Dropbox, or whatever.

Also: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players 

Put a shortcut on the client's desktop and set that folder up so that it syncs automatically on your remote client's device. Feel free to use that shared folder for fun stuff, like photos and music and games, to make it comfortable to use. Building familiarity will make it easier for when you need them to open that folder and install an update package or a device driver or run a diagnostic program.

Get updates and security software in order

Now, while everything is running right, is a perfect time to ensure that your remote support clients have the most recent updates installed and that update settings are configured correctly.

And given the depressing reality that scam artists and online thieves increase their activity during crises like this, it's also time to check that any security software is working properly, especially password managers. Finally, a quick training session on how to identify phishing attempts might be helpful.

All of these steps can help prepare you to help when your services are needed, even if you can't be there in person.