Even before COVID-19 coronavirus disrupted the planet, remote work had gone from that rare unicorn of workforce arrangements to a standard component of many people's workweek. Way back in 2016, Gallup conducted a poll that found 43% of employed Americans logged at least some out-of-office, on-the-clock time. A full 31% of those who worked remotely at least some of the time spend four or five days a week out of the office. A Gallup poll conducted near the end of 2020 found that currently some 58% of American workers are working from home at least part of the time.
In other words, the pandemic has hastened a trend long in the making. Some of it has to do with the rise of the freelance worker. Nearly 50% of millennials are freelancers, and employers are limited in how and when they require contract employees to be on-site. But the wind has been blowing this way for some time, and the pandemic has now forced companies with both freelance and stable on-site workforces to reevaluate their stance on remote work. Many of those companies have had to scramble to solve urgent security, data, and collaboration issues related to remote work without much preparation, leaving them vulnerable to security risks and introducing unnecessary inefficiencies into their workflows. Early evidence, meanwhile, suggests that productivity actually rose during 2020 thanks to remote work—and that employees may be working more hours than they would have otherwise.
Many employers are now mandating remote work or encouraging their traditional employees to work from home, and for good reason. While the battle rages on between proponents of out-of-office time on one hand and the serendipity of workplace encounters on the other, it turns out there are some compelling benefits to remote work arrangements that shouldn't be overlooked.
What are the biggest benefits of a remote workforce?
For employers, those benefits come in the form of a larger potential labor pool. When an employee pool isn't geographically restricted, the likelihood of finding the right employee rises. Out of area employees can also be cheaper in many cases, saving employers money.
There's also evidence that remote workers are more productive, including during the pandemic. According to a recent Global Workplace Analytics survey, a full 53% of remote workers reported they were likely to work overtime. That's compared to just 28% of in-office workers. According to a recent Prodoscore Research Council (PRC) survey, remote workers have been putting in longer hours than they were when working on-site.
Remote workers spared a hellish commute also report feeling less stressed. In one study, Swedish researchers found that couples that have at least one partner commuting longer than 45 minutes per day experience rates of divorce 40% higher than those with shorter commutes. The aforementioned coronavirus also highlights a critical advantage of remote work: It could help keep workers online and healthy in situations where going into the office puts team members at risk. With increasing climate uncertainty and related consequences such as wildfires and drought, a distributed workforce can keep companies online in the event of a crisis.
Maybe the best argument for remote work is that many of the longstanding barriers to having distributed workforces have been toppled by technology. Here are some of the best tools to help your remote team collaborate productively, creatively, and seamlessly.
What are the essential tools remote workers can use to connect and collaborate?
Want to jam on a slide deck from home but all your visual assets are on your office computer? You'll need a good remote desktop app. Same goes for workers who are a hundred percent remote but have a home desktop they want to access while traveling.
TeamViewer is available for Windows, OS X, iOS, Linux, and Android. File transfer, clipboard transfer, wake-on-LAN, and easy setup make it a great option for remote workers who need basic desktop access. No port forwarding is necessary, and very little firewall futzing is required to get it going. It also supports two-step authentication. The single user version costs $50.90/month when billed annually.
A good alternative to TeamViewer. SplashTop supports low-latency transfer and it's the closest you'll get to actually sitting in front of your computer while miles away. The solo version is $5 per month. Like TeamViewer, it supports screen share, which is handy if you're an IT pro walking employees through just about anything technical.
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Robust, native options if you use one of the two predominant operating systems. ARD offers complete remote management of systems, including software updates, while RDC offers slightly more limited remote access. Then again, RDC is free and ARD costs $80.
Telepresence hasn't exactly swept the remote work landscape, as many continue to expect it will. But using robots and table-top devices to embody employees while they're not in the office is at least no longer far fetched. Cisco, for example, has saved tens of millions of dollars using telepresence to beam in members of its distributed workforce. In fact, there are a number of telepresence machines vying to be your next remote worker meeting avatar. Below are two great options.
Double 3 is essentially an iPad on a teleoperated Segway. The current version costs about $3,999, which is the low end of embodied telepresence. The pitch is that being physically embodied enables more authentic interpersonal connection. Mobility also generates the kinds of random interactions that many advocates of in-office workforces value.
Meeting Owl is video conferencing done right, a 360-degree video conferencing camera that automatically focuses on the people speaking in the room. Eleven-inches tall, it uses an eight microphone array to pick up sound and lock in on the person speaking. Remote viewers on the other end get a panoramic view of all the meeting attendants and a close-up view of the current speaker, meaning no more leaning into the shot when you get stuck at the corner of the table.
Real-Time Communication Apps
Whether you're down the hall or halfway around the world, Slack is the clear frontrunner in real-time team chat. The basic premise is that Slack spares email inboxes and reduces the number of clunky ccs and bccs you need to manage. Teams can be created around departments, projects, employee fan clubs ... really anything you want. Messages are sent out to teams over the transom, or you can DM individuals or smaller groups.
Slack integrates with both Google Docs and DropBox. It has a robust API, enabling IT pros to tailor Slack apps for specific team needs.
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Teams, which is part of premium Office 365 subscriptions, is a full service collaboration and communication suite for Windows users. You can make video and VOIP calls within Teams, direct and group message other users, and share work from other 365 apps, such as PowerPoint and Excel.
Slack is so dominant in this space that it really comes down to Slack and a bunch of alternatives. If you subscribe to an open source ethos, definitely check out Mattermost, which is an open-source, private cloud option that actively emulates a lot of Slack's functionality. Rocket Chat is another open source option worth a look, especially if video conferencing is a priority.
Forming an accidental nursery rhyme of funny-sounding words, the myriad Slack alternatives include Ryver, Glip, Twist, Fleep, and Flock.
If you have big team meetings that include lots of remote workers, Zoom is a video chat application that supports Brady Bunch mode of dozens of participants (Google Hangouts, a good free alternative, recently upped the Hangout participation limit to 25). Large meetings with up to 500 participants are supported as an add-on feature. The pro version of Zoom is $149.90 per year, which you'll need because the free version caps meetings at 40 minutes. (Google Hangouts, again, is free.)
Microsoft is aiming to take some of Slack's market share with its Slack clone Teams. Part of that play includes an enterprise version of Microsoft-owned Skype. Currently, both Teams and Skype are available as part of the Microsoft 365 bundle, which starts at $5 a month per user with an annual commitment.
No plugins, no apps. Join.me is web-based and sells itself on simplicity. A cool feature called whiteboarding enables teams to chalk up ideas on a shared document during chats, which is helpful when brainstorming or trying to stick to an agenda.
What are the best tools remote workers can use for project management and time management?
As a company, Basecamp is a refreshing anomaly in a tech world predicated on major funding rounds and big market plays. The web-based project management platform evolved out of an in-house communications suite designed by a web design company named 37Signals. The spinoff company has taken very little funding, but it remains the best known project management solution out there.
Basecamp's core functions include task management, messaging, collaboration, file sharing, scheduling, reporting, and a universal search function that makes everything easily and quickly retrievable. Basecamp is $99 per month.
Monday has been advertising aggressively in hopes of positioning itself as a viable Basecamp alternative. Kanban-based and visually stunning, the cloud-based project management platforms is aimed at small and mid-sized teams and uses labels to clearly identify who is working on what when.
The big drawback is the price. A basic version of the service runs $24 per month, but you only get 5GB file storage. The standard version with more functionality is $30 per month and offers more automations and integrations.
Asana's big strength is workflow management, though it does a nice job with task management as well. Its new timeline feature puts it more firmly in the camp of Project Management tools, as opposed to being more strictly a task management and collaboration tool.
In its simplest form, Asana allows different teams to track projects and assign tasks and sub-tasks. The strength (and for some applications, weakness) is in the flexibility. Managers can set up Asana pretty much however they want, using it as a task assignment tool, for example, a project map, or an ongoing log of company activities. The flexibility comes with a learning curve, and it also means someone needs to take point on setting the system up the right way from the beginning.
Trello is about as simple as it gets when it comes to project management, but that simplicity belies incredible organizational and task management power. Trello is built around the notion of bulletin boards. Each board can represent a project, for example. Within each board, teams create lists, which they then populate with cards. The cards can be assigned to specific team members, labeled, stamped with a deadline, and crammed with comments or attachments. The hierarchical nature of the system makes it flexible while still preserving a baseline simplicity.
If you use a calendar to carve out chunks of time to work on dedicated projects, Timely is a great time tracking app to check out. Unlike some time tracking systems, which only track time while you work, Timely allows you to schedule tasks and track the time spent on projects in real time. It works with a calendar interface. For hourly employees, it also tracks earnings.
If you want a free time tracker that allows you to label how you've spent every minute of every day, Toggl is for you. It's a great tool for personal productivity measuring, although it may not be appropriate for managers hoping to get an accurate picture of how employees are allocating time resources across projects. The reports are useful, although the company has a reputation for emailing users a lot, which can become annoying.
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This web-based service is the best at tracking team members' availablity. Everhour synchs with a lot of the productivity apps people already use and allows some lightweight scheduling functionality, as well. It has a timer function, which allows contractors to track billable hours or teams to keep track of how much time different projects and tasks are taking.
How can remote workers minimize security vulnerabilities?
Newsflash: Password or no, that coffee shop WiFi probably isn't too secure. One of the problems with distributed workforces is that remote workers make prime targets for those wishing to exploit vulnerabilities. That's a huge concern if your employees are dealing with sensitive data, proprietary information, and client contracts. Here are some things to keep in mind.
This one is obvious but can't be repeated enough. Strong, frequently updated passwords protect businesses. Check out my colleague's excellent roundup of the best password managers of 2020.
Best practices for keeping devices safe
It's good to have a set policy in place for how remote workers manage their physical devices. A basic rule of thumb is for employees to keep laptops and devices in sight at all times (meaning no leaving them in hotel rooms or checked luggage).
If the company owns the device, the company should be ensuring that the device is properly protected with up-to-date antivirus, device encryption, and firewalls. Cybersecurity policies should designate which devices (organization-owned vs. employee-owned) can be used for which kinds of business activity.
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Email is a gateway for potential threats, and email encryption is a must for distributed workforces. So is a strict email policy outlining what constitutes suspicious messages and how employees should handle them. Mimecast is the most popular choice for Microsoft Exchange email management and protection.
Public Wi-Fi and computers
A firm policy here could avert disaster, and abstinence, at least in this arena, is the best policy. Organizations should prohibit remote workers from using public Wi-Fi and shared computers for work-related activities.
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IT pros need to play an even bigger role in security when dealing with a remote workforce. Network monitoring needs to be a 24/7 affair and IT professionals should feel empowered to institute whatever security protocols they deem necessary to keep the network safe.
Top productivity apps for Android and iOS
What are some tips for managing a remote workforce?
Focus on goals
One of the main reasons employees may desire a remote work situation is to escape the office pressure of always seeming busy. Remote work, by its nature, lends itself to goal-oriented, not activity-oriented management. As a manager, focus less on how much time employees are spending on tasks and more on their deliverables.
Communication needs to be open and expectations need to be clear
With distance, it's harder to synchronize expectations. It's also easier to let dissatisfactions fester -- and that's true for both managers and employees. Therefore, it's important teams are communicating often. It's also clear everyone knows what's expected of them and by what standards their work is being judged. Setting deadlines and scheduling standing check-ins is a great way to keep everyone on the same page and working toward the same goals.
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Figure out how to foster community
It's difficult, but not impossible, to instill a company culture in a virtual environment. Team members should be encouraged to interact online in ways that engender community and camaraderie. Little observances, like birthdays or sales goals met, can be opportunities for celebratory digital interactions. The right communication and collaboration tools will also lend themselves to spontaneous interaction.
Finally, scheduling regular on-site get-togethers is another way to instill company culture. The takeaways from a retreat or office visit can serve as the foundation for a strong team culture even when workers are physically separated.