Strategies for Enhancing and Securing the Virtual Workplace

by Francine Breckenridge, Compliance and Legal Officer, U.S. Money Reserve

As we all navigate the new work-from-home world, companies need to do a few things to keep the workplace safe and comfortable.

Working remotely, in some form, is officially here to stay. There’s just no question about it. The pandemic is lasting long enough to make changes that are both long-term and permanent for many businesses. As companies like Microsoft, Google, and Reuters announce that they are instituting a permanent work-from-home option, it’s time for compliance leaders to narrowly focus on how we can best enhance and secure the new virtual workplace. Here’s the best way to start.

Build a solid technology and policy foundation

As I have written before, any solid compliance plan begins by leveraging technology that works for both the company and your employees. There are so many platforms to choose from that the options can sometimes feel overwhelming. At the most basic level, you need to create something both secure and easy to use for everyone inside the company.

A few of the core basics follow.

Secure access to the internet and IT resources within the business

Home WiFi networks are notoriously unsafe because most people don’t know how to set up a secure platform. Offering your workers access to a simple guide to connect securely or secure their own networks can do wonders for both morale and the ease of conducting business virtually. You should also consider some form of VPN, cloud services, or a remote desktop option to ensure workers have access to your systems in a secure manner.

One other key point to consider is that companies shouldn’t assume their employees have secure or stable access to the internet. In fact, not everyone in the U.S. has internet access, let alone high-speed, reliable broadband. According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study, there were more than 14 million people without any internet access and 25 million without faster and more reliable broadband access at the time of the study.

While that’s the most recent data, it may not accurately reflect reality. The FCC data is based on census blocks and not households. That means the data may show that a broadband provider serves a particular census block, but that doesn’t mean every household in that block has access to the service. Microsoft did a study that calculated the numbers more accurately. This study shows that more than 163 million Americans lack connectivity, and any number of your employees could be one of those 163 million. The pandemic has brought this fact into stark focus as more of us try to school our kids at home, become our own IT support, and figure out how to navigate the tricky world of working from home. The internet has become as vital as water or power in the new normal, work-from-home world.

Devices used to connect to work

This is another source of great debate within the tech and compliance communities. Do you allow workers to remotely access your servers, email, and other tools using their own devices? Or do you require secured business devices to get your employees online? It’s far riskier to allow private and personal devices to have access to business servers and employee work tools in most cases. Like the issue of internet connectivity, the average person doesn’t know how to properly secure their own private devices from hacks, and allowing employees to use their own devices to join your network can leave your business extremely vulnerable to attack.

On the flip side, there are plenty of work applications that employees use on personal devices because employees simply do their best to find a way to access work content on one device. That’s typically going to be a privately owned piece of equipment. According to a story over at ZDNet, this is called “shadow IT,” and it has its upsides. Mostly, it can serve as a tool of both innovation and productivity; it’s just a lot more challenging to secure personal rather than work-issued hardware.

Outside of computers, tablets, and smartphones that access critical business software, it’s also essential at this stage to consider small upgrades to make your employees’ lives a lot better. Employees could use items like webcams for the countless video conferences we now all attend and headsets so that they can hear and be heard on those conferences. Perhaps offer employees the option to utilize small lighting kits so that we can all look a bit more professional, even if we all rock pajama pants while we do the carpet commute. These tech upgrades can help make employees much happier as they work remotely and can ensure that they are consistently connected and ready to work when the business needs them.

As you consider how your employees access the network, you should also consider which applications and tools to use to connect your remote workforce. There are plenty of well-known options out there like Zoom and Slack, as well as some less-known, more advanced platforms that incorporate virtual reality and robots to help your remote workforce feel more “at home” with their new work environment.

Teach employees to use the tech and tools you choose

At the heart of making all this work, at least from a high level, is the core tenet that you must educate your employees on how to use the tech and tools you implement. In many cases, your IT department might have to grow in order to support the increase in demand for everything from connectivity issues to security problems that crop up with your remote workers. If you teach your employees how best to use the new technology, you can ensure you’ll have fewer problems (and IT calls) over time.

Standardize security platforms and policies in real and virtual life

Once you have sorted out all the technology that you might need to get your remote workforce up and running, you need to consider standardizing your in-office platforms and protocols. Companies must also implement policies for the new and ever-evolving digital world.

The lockdowns caused by COVID-19 have offered a prime time to do some spring cleaning on your out-of-date or out-of-touch compliance strategy. They have also provided an excellent opportunity to rethink how you want your employees to connect and behave in this new work-from-home world. If you need an excellent place to start thinking about how to revamp your strategy to standardize the rules of the road across virtual and real life, you can check out my recent piece on Medium.

Since the remote world offers new challenges, it is essential to consider some of the added compliance complexities you’ll need to address. These include:

  • Pay, taxes, and withholding if an employee does not live in the same state or country as your business.
  • Workers’ compensation, since rules vary from state to state.
  • Permits for remote workers. Do your employees need special licenses or permits to do their jobs in their homes?
  • Unemployment benefits.
  • Temporary worker rules. These also vary from state to state, depending on where business is actually conducted.

You’ll also need to consider things like information transfer laws and rules in each of the locations your employees may work.

While this seems complex, if you tackle compliance one task at a time, you can get a comprehensive and standardized compliance system up and running in no time.

Test and test again

Any shift in business or change in the way we work requires thinking about and approaching problems and challenges in new ways. That means there are going to be moments where a system, standardization, tool, or app you thought was going to work for your business simply fails. When that happens, companies are going to have to iterate and iterate again to fix the problem.

A crucial part of that iterative process is testing everything to the best of your team’s ability before rolling it out to the broader company. As you and your team test products, platforms, hardware, and software, you will learn what works best for both the business and its employees. Don’t be afraid to fail. It merely means that you and your team are learning more about what both your employees and the business need in this new environment.

The bottom line

We are living in an entirely new world, and there’s no sign that it’s going to return to the way things used to be anytime soon. It makes good sense to take the time and the money to invest in developing a set of comprehensive strategies for enhancing and securing the virtual workplace at this moment. Without these strategies, your business will be dead on arrival.

The pandemic utterly blindsided the entire world. While maneuvering in a crisis environment is never ideal, if you take the lessons we’ve learned in this new world and apply them to your modern, remote workforce, you’re sure to be even more prepared for the next big business disruption, no matter what it might be.

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