Staying operational during a pandemic

Welcome to the March 2020 issue of the Global Micro newsletter. In this issue we discuss some practical advice on ensuring business sustainability during a pandemic like COVID-19.

10 tips to make working from home work for your business

They say IT people fly desks for a living. Most of us have laptops, cameras and mobile connectivity. As part of our ISO 27001 accreditation, we regularly rehearse work-from-home scenarios. But even with all this planning, there is a big difference between enabling your team to provide critical business support functions vs empowering your business to continue to operate on an engaged and productive basis.

I wanted to share with you the top 10 lessons we have learned to help you prepare if the COVID-19 pandemic requires your staff to work from home on an extended basis:

  1. Load shedding. As South Africans we have lived with this problem for a long time. It has a great impact on staff who work from home, particularly when we enter Stage 4 – with no power for 8 hours of the day. We purchased a UPS for every staff member (1200KVA) which provides 4-6 hours power to a laptop, mobile phone, external monitor and a router. We ordered ours from UPS warehouse. Here is a link to the model we use:
  2. LTE and capped accounts. Many of our staff members have capped LTE accounts at home. The user experience is very inconsistent and performance is particularly poor on uploads, which affects video and voice quality. Most lower-end plans are 2Mbps; higher end plans are 4Mbps until you reach your cap. We also ran into situations where staff exceeded their caps because we need to constantly update and patch machines to keep them secure. We took the decision to move all our LTE-connected staff onto uncapped plans. This provides them with speeds of up to 10Mbps. It also allows their families, who are also all at home, to use the Internet for distance learning and entertainment. A cautionary note though: when load shedding hits, LTE base stations lose power after 2 hours. So wherever possible, we have migrated users to fibre.
  3. Educate your staff. Not everyone in your tech company is tech savvy. While this may seem strange, it is very true. We sent some of our administrative staff home with their office computers but later found that they didn’t know how to connect the machines, how to use a web cam or connect the UPS. Why? Because there is usually an IT whizz at the office doing this for them! While you could send a technical resource to help them, it’s better to make sure your general staff know how to connect their machines. Label all the cables and let them practice at your office. As a side note: laptops generally have built-in microphones and cameras but if you are sending your staff home with their office PCs, you’ll want to keep stock of USB web cams for them to use.
  4. Group Policy. We make extensive use of Group Policy to secure our machines. Some of those settings (like disabling the camera) had to be deactivated so people could utilise this functionality while working from home. However, you need to be on the network to update the policy, so we had to install a VPN client on everyone’s machine and teach them how to connect. I recommend making sure your office firewall is configured for VPN access. Most include one or two licences so you may not need to spend any money to allow people to periodically connect to the network for updates.
  5. Push bookmarks to the browser. People need to learn new skills fast when working from home for the first time. We used Group Policy to push bookmarks to their Chrome web browsers: Covid Information, Online Training, Additional Software download links. There is no additional cost for this capability if you have a Microsoft Active Directory domain. Google provides the templates for free. We are happy to share our templates with you.
  6. Forwarding calls to your cell phone does not scale. We use a Broadsoft Cloud PABX. Our sales teams use a Soft Client on their cell phones. However, most of our staff use a desktop IP phone. We very quickly found that forwarding calls from people’s desk phones to their personal cell phones did not scale. We contacted out PABX provider and they provided us with temporary Softphone licenses (R20 per month) so that we could all continue to route calls through the PABX. I recommend setting up soft phones for your staff. We sent out instructions, but many phones (particularly Androids) have multiple permission settings which users don’t understand. They need to be set correctly for background operation.
  7. Background noise. Schools are closed. Our kids are at home. Doors are always being opened and slammed. I found this handy app – ‘Krisp’ – which eliminates background noise. It’s easy to install on your PC and it works with most conferencing solutions (Zoom, Webex, Teams, Slack). We are still testing it, but so far I am quite impressed. We may even offer it commercially to our customers at some point. I will let you know if we do. If you want to check out their free trial, here is the link:
  8. Dress for your online meetings. This worked really well for us. We insisted that everyone working from home dresses in business attire for meetings and we require that their camera is activated for all meetings. It sets the tone that it is business as usual. We scheduled a stand-up meeting for each five-person team every morning. Action items for the day are presented for each member. At the end of the day, they provide email feedback to their team lead. The next morning, only the items that need discussion are dealt with in the meeting. Like many companies, our top-down communication is good. However, we haven’t always been the best lateral communicators. The morning stand-ups have improved our inter-office communication. Everyone is accountable. We will continue with this practise even when we return to the office.
  9. Discipline. Our leadership team has insisted on discipline throughout this process. Time sheets must be completed on time, lateness for meetings is not tolerated and online statuses must be maintained, particularly if one needs to step away from one’s desk.
  10. Lead by example. In times of crisis, it is very important that you lead by example. I encourage you and your leadership teams to be hyper visible. This has really worked for us.

If you have any other lessons you have learned through this crisis, please share them and we will include them in a follow-up newsletter.

As always, stay safe and healthy.

JJ Milner

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