Remote-working checklist: 10 top challenges you'll face during the giant work-from-home experiment

Now that millions are working from home, the challenges will become clear. Here are 10 to watch out for.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

The office coffee machine has never been quieter at 10 o'clock in the morning on a weekday. As governments ask workers to stay confined to fight back against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical offices are shutting down one after the other, and businesses are entering the world's largest work-from-home experiment to date. 

Employee laptops are being stockpiled, whiteboard meetings have switched to shared-screen video conferences, and after-work drinks are surviving in the form of Slack channels. For many employees, remote working means less commuting and a new reality and new worries. For most CIOs and their teams, who have been working behind the scenes of the transition, the shift to remote working is just the beginning.

If you are an IT leader, you might find useful advice in the following tips from experts and analysts, to help you keep the company ship afloat – while also preserving your sanity.

1. Reassess your immediate priorities

The urgency and pressure of setting up staff for remote working is likely to shuffle your priorities, whether that means assigning staff differently to make sure that the growing number of IT requests are taken care of, or adjusting your budget to the company's more pressing needs. 

Guannan Lu, analyst at consultancy firm Forrester, suggested putting aside the necessary IT budget to make sure that your organization's core infrastructure is ready to cope with the switch to remote working. In particular, Lu warned that sudden spikes in cloud use may arise, either from internal remote connections or surging online business traffic. "Make sure you're tracking and optimizing cloud spending on a daily basis," said Lu.

It is also important to secure enough bandwidth to support VPN and remote-desktop access. Lu advised that CIOs allow employees to save local copies of their work data to avoid overloading the bandwidth. Bear in mind that employees will need plenty of broadband at home for all that video conferencing; it might be a good idea to offer reimbursement for workers who have to spend extra money to stay connected

2. Prepare for a surge in hardware support requests

Not much can happen to a laptop when it sits on a desk in the office all day. At home, things are different: devices fall off the coffee table or get whacked against a wall when workers are roaming from one room to the next. In the current climate, with most schools shut, work laptops are at risk of falling between the hands of young, bored children – and the outcome is unlikely to be pretty.

CIOs, therefore, should expect an uptick in requests for hardware support. Forrester's Lu recommended reaching out to your vendor-support team to make sure that you understand their supply and service situation, and that you will be able to get help when needed. And if you have a local hardware inventory, regularly review your stock level for critical components.

3. Make no concessions on security

Although decisions will have to be made on the fly, and under a lot of pressure, it is important that security concerns stay top-of-mind throughout the entire process. A global crisis is a playground for cyber criminals, and the threats posed by crooks amid the COVID-19 pandemic are only increasing.

Add in the personal stress felt by some employees, and the home environment in which workers are more likely to let their guard down, and you can be certain that phishing scams, DDoS attacks, ransomware and other risks will continue to proliferate in the next few weeks.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Forrester's Lu listed strengthening security tools as his very first tip for CIOs. This includes ticking off the basics, like making sure that employees don't lose VPN connection because they forgot to update their password, and can't get a new one remotely; to the less obvious, like double checking how far you are from the end of your VPN license. "And for stricter security, you may need Zero Trust Network Access solutions that give less privileged application access," said Lu.

4. Supply the adequate tools for online collaboration

Right now, for most CIOs, the focus is to get basic communication and collaboration going within the business. That's particularly true for firms that are not as far down the digital transformation line; it might be a challenge to remotely coordinate work streams across different teams. "CIOs may feel under pressure to accelerate digital transformation," said Lu.

Forrester's analyst identified four tools for communication that are the absolute basics that CIOs need to secure: video conferencing, phones, file sharing, and team messaging. On top of that, said Lu, you might want to try various different enterprise-collaboration tools – but if you do, make sure you pick the right one, as service quality may vary from one vendor to the other.

Lu also suggested having a backup provider as an alternative for busy meeting slots. With many businesses using video conferencing at the same time during peak hours, like 9 o'clock on a Monday morning, you may see some services frustratingly crash; having access to a plan B will be a welcome bonus for many employees.

5. Don't assume that everyone knows the basics

For digital-savvy employees, dialing into a Zoom meeting might be as natural as picking up their phone, but CIOs should never expect that the entire workforce has an intuitive understanding of online resources. 

Lu explained that, in China, some employees found themselves using enterprise-collaboration tools for the first time: "They assumed it would be like using FaceTime," he said, "but encountered a number of issues, including device interoperability, poor desktop-sharing experiences, and difficulties adjusting audio devices."

CIOs and their teams, therefore, might have to explain to some employees how to set up a video call, or what options they have if their reception is poor. Understanding that you shouldn't type while your microphone is on might seem obvious to someone who is used to working from home, but it isn't a reflex for an employee who is normally based in the office. It is through the lens of traditional office-based workers, however, that tech leaders have to approach the new normal.

6. No question should be left unanswered

With the switch to remote working disrupting the way that many employees carry out their day-to-day activities, CIOs should prepare for a surge in IT requests for support of all kinds. It might be worth forming an IT crisis-management unit to connect to key teams within the business, so as to prioritize urgent requests. 

Meanwhile, to make sure that all employees find answers to their questions, CIOs should think about sending around detailed instructions and help documents, or setting up FAQ forums to address basic issues, which will provide an easy way to get instant solutions. 

SEE: Working from home: Success tips for telecommuters (free PDF)

Some formats are more effective than others to get information across to employees. For example, in the UK, the IT team at Leeds City Council noticed – as they switched a 10,000-strong workforce to remote working – that although written "how-to" guides were good first steps, employees responded better to video instructions. Snackable, minute-long interactive tutorials might therefore be a more intuitive way forward to help colleagues understand the technicalities of home working.

7. Teach your colleagues how to be productive with the tools you have put at their disposal 

You may have done a great job of setting up your colleagues with the appropriate tools for remote working, but in many cases the real challenge will be to help people make the most of those tools to work productively. Making the technology available is a first step, but the switch will be effective only if it comes with a cultural change. 

Those accustomed to office-based work might need, therefore, some guidance to work their way through remote working. Suzanne Adnams, VP analyst at Gartner, told ZDNet: "The best thing CIOs can do is focus on the engagement and productivity of their team members. In order to get through this, workers need a sense of stability and direction before they can become productive."

The first step she recommended taking is to leverage communication tools to engage personally with each team member, and raise awareness of any signs of stress or distraction; and then to provide managers with techniques to help their team members focus, for example by using clear and specific assignments with short-term, achievable objectives. 

8. Communicate, more so than you ever have 

Cloud-management company Box, in addition to the now staple virtual happy hours, has been carrying out Peloton meetings and online cooking classes over the past few weeks, to keep the team spirit going. The company's CIO Paul Chapman also told ZDNet that his team was also regularly checking in with colleagues who are confining alone, to make sure that they aren't suffering from isolation.

It's not enough to set up daily catch-ups with managers, or company all-hands meetings once a week, therefore; CIOs should jump on the opportunity to engage with their teams more, and differently than usual. Gartner's Adnams suggested encouraging managers "to keep team members involved creatively by looking at new ways to do things", which includes innovative approaches to collaboration and sharing. 

SEE: How a massive five-year transformation plan was delivered in a week, because of coronavirus

This is especially the case as workers may find themselves in situations that are unusually stressful, added Martha Bennett, principal analyst at Forrester. "It is stressful for a lot of people, so you have to put back a little bit of normality in people's lives," she told ZDNet. "You have to keep the human element going, and even increase it as much as possible."

9. Cut people some slack

There's a global health crisis going on outside, and the current climate is anxiety-inducing for many workers – especially those whose isolation scenarios are particularly difficult, for example with young children stuck at home or vulnerable relatives. "Listen to people and cut them some slack," advised Forrester's Bennett. "On the whole, your employees will act responsibly when their organization needs them."

Some companies have even launched initiatives to help workers cope with the situation, for example through COVID-19 portals that relay relevant and reliable information about the pandemic, while also offering tips and tricks to relax and clear some head-space.

If applicable, remind employees that the exceptional circumstances mean that some standards have been relaxed; in other words, certain things that may have come across as unprofessional previously are likely to be tolerated for the time being. Employees won't be named and shamed for kids playing in the background or dogs barking during a client conference call, for example. 

10. Start planning for the next time

"Build resilience into your systems, and don't assume things like COVID-19 just don't happen, because it just has, and it will again," noted Forrester's Bennett. If there is any lesson to be learnt from the global work-from-home experiment that the pandemic has forced upon businesses, it is that every CIO should have disaster-recovery plans sitting in a drawer, and that scenario planning is crucial to keep operations running when events take an unexpected turn.

While the short-term priorities are, and should be focused on, the day-to-day operations of organizations, IT leaders should ensure that they are planning for long-term business continuity as well. Making a note of their company's weak spots and highlighting the areas that need better planning is a good start. "The current crisis has shown that anybody who has got strong disaster-recovery plans has found it much easier to adapt," said Bennett. "From there, you can pay more attention to your people, and to making sure your team is holding together." 

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