As this year continues to unfold and the conversations (and arguments) concerning the re-opening of businesses have heated up, I think it’s important for us to remember the lessons we should have learned from our Covid-19 experiences. From a small business standpoint, the most important lessons can be found in terms of remote employees and the tech solutions that exist to assist them.
Of course, working remotely or, as we used to call it, telecommuting, has been around for over 40 years. Many jobs in the past had the “earn money while staying at home” label, so this concept is far from new. But the reality is the Covid-19 crisis forced Work-From-Home into the spotlight. In fact, it has now become so main-stream that it’s even earned its own abbreviation – WFH.
Now, my goal here is not to extol the virtues of the remote workforce, though I do believe there are a number of positives that can be found for a small business. Among them are: 1) without commuting and wardrobe expenses some employees are willing to accept a lower salary, 2) typically there will be a decrease in absentee-ism and sick-time taken, and 3) in-office expenses such as rent and utilities can be reduced simply due to the office requiring less square footage. But, while I acknowledge the value in empowering employees to work from home, I also understand there are instances where it doesn’t fit well with a specific business so there are employees, managers and owners looking forward to getting back into the office. Let’s face it: an employee who has to work at the dining room table because they don’t have a viable home office isn’t a good long-term plan. Additionally, there are many small business owners who believe employees can’t be as “responsible” working from home – that is, without someone looking over their shoulders constantly. In that case I might find myself suggesting better hiring practices, but that’s a different issue.
In truth though, the most valuable lesson from working through this pandemic is not about working from home. I believe the bigger lesson, or perhaps it’s a challenge, is to remember to keep the protocols created to accommodate Work-From-Home practices in place even after the work force returns to the office. Many small businesses had to scramble to implement new ways of getting work done to continue doing business through this crisis. These new methods of work shouldn’t be seen as short term solutions. Getting back into the office shouldn’t necessarily mean getting back to “business as usual.”
In most cases the protocols required to allow for work from home are built on technologies that, although around for a long time, have often not been utilized to the fullest in the small office environment. And so, getting up and running remotely required many small businesses to quickly learn about their options and then implement them.
Remote access to employees’ office PCs was provided to allow access to office resources like file servers and apps. In most cases, this required investments in new or expanded VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure), and remote desktop applications like GoToMyPC and RemotePC.
Online conferencing and collaboration had to replace face to face meetings so there were trials and investments into video conference and teamwork solutions like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and GoToMeeting.
Even the simplest tasks of document handling had to be improved. In some cases, getting the work into the hands of the newly remote employee was the biggest obstacle. Offices that had survived using printed documents needed to come up with “new” ways of transferring files, leading to expanded use of cloud-based file storage services like One-Drive, DropBox and Google Drive.
So, as we make plans to re-enter the office, it’s critical that the changes implemented to get through this crisis should now become the new norm, not go away like a short lived fad. As I said earlier, these “new” technologies have all been around for a long time, but it’s taken social distancing to bring them into the everyday aspects of small businesses. The reality is these tools were developed to improve overall workplace efficiency and productivity, yet small businesses did not embrace them in the past; choosing instead to follow the path of “this is how we’ve always done it.” Now that we’ve invested time and money in getting these systems in place, we shouldn’t let old habits creep back in. The use of digital document handling and online collaboration tools can streamline office operations while also cutting down on paper use and printing expenses. Not only will the office end up being more productive day-to-day, but along with remote PC access, we’ll be better prepared to handle any future need to work remotely.