Monthly Archives: May 2020

The State of the Union: Where Technology Stands Coming Out of COVID-19

Over the past couple of months, everything has changed. Many of these changes will have ongoing impacts on our businesses. As we begin to see businesses looking toward their futures again. It’s time to take a look at the state of the union. Particularly where things stand with technology, communication, and the workforce of the future.

Shifts in Communication

A popular meme at the beginning of this pandemic said, “we’ll now see which meetings really could be emails.” While we have seen our clients tighten up their communication by shifting to chat platforms like Teams, we’ve noticed an even greater shift toward video communication. In fact, webcams flew off the shelves so quickly that some are still back-ordered. More practical video conferencing ushered in new etiquette expectations for surviving the new workplace, and we expect continued heavy use of video conferencing moving forward. Many offices have seen it is a much more efficient, yet personable way to gather teams together. See the whites of people’s eyes, and check-in on both a personal and productivity level. We highly recommend gathering with your teams on video chat daily. Twice a day if possible. Even as people return to the office. Maintain these meetings to sustain connections, particularly if you have a hybrid workforce with some in office and some remote.

A Note on Web Cams

Webcams are a fantastic lens into your employees’ and clients’ worlds; however, hackers also love to access webcams. They’ll install a backdoor virus on your system through social engineering, a link you clicked, or they could be phishing for information. Then use the stolen info to turn on your webcam without your permission or your knowledge. We recommend limiting the platforms that have permission to utilize your webcam, as well as utilizing a webcam cover when you’re not actively on camera (a sticky note or opaque tape will even work in a pinch).

Rising Safety Concerns

Nefarious hackers are taking advantage of the confusion, frustration, and fear surrounding COVID-19. Social engineering attempts are on the rise as they use COVID-19 related “news” to lure people into giving up their information. People working from home traditionally don’t have enterprise-grade firewalls and anti-virus protection. If you continue to work from home during and post-pandemic, bear in mind these seven necessities.

You also need to consider where the pandemic ranks on your disaster-preparedness planning. Prior to this event, you probably hadn’t considered what would happen if you had to scramble to get all of your employees working remotely or how to keep business operational in a curbside pick-up-only world. Now’s the time to make sure you document your plan. Write down what you did well this time, and what you would change should something like this ever happen again. We have no excuse to enter another pandemic unprepared. Next time, businesses should be able to continue much more smoothly.

Events in Motion

Many industries live and die by their conferences. Some have chosen to cancel in-person meetings for the foreseeable future, while others have pivoted to online platforms. An online event cannot take the place of everyone meeting up at a bar for networking or cruising the tradeshow floor looking for your next business investment. However, we highly recommend embracing the growing virtual event culture.

Lunch and Learns can be moved to webinars. Training events can be moved to streamed sessions. In-person casino nights can translate to online bingo games and video karaoke. We may have gone a little too far with that last one, but the point is, when the world changes we need to embrace the technology. Connections do not have to suffer due to diminished in-person events. You just have to choose the right platform and continue to move forward, which is something we can help you with technologically.

Where is the workforce heading

A recent Gallup poll indicates that between March 13 and March 30, the percentage of people working remotely increased from 31% to 62% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that people are starting to return to offices, 60% would prefer to continue to work from home. Employers who create adaptable work environments will be more likely to keep their top employees and maintain a positive work environment than those who make rigid demands to bring everyone back to the office. Flexible and remote work is the future, whether business owners want to admit it or not.

On the plus side, there will be less need for high overhead office space, upkeep, and on-site framework. On the other hand, employers will have to make a significant investment in culture, productivity tracking, and cloud infrastructure to ensure their teams remain productive. Now is the time to set your remote work policies, determine who and how people can work from home, and create your technology roadmap to keep your remote and on-site workforce on the leading edge.

A Note About Perfect Attendance Culture

Regardless of how you decide to handle remote work globally, decide what you want people to do when they are sick. A traditional “we’ll rest when we’re dead, as long as you still have a pulse come to the office” mentality is not going to work moving forward. First, it’s bad for the health of all of your employees. Second, some individuals are going to be more sensitive to hearing coughs and sniffles in the office; which will impact how often they, in turn, call in sick, or if they’ll leave for greener pastures with more flexible policies. Third, this strange time has provided a glimpse of the potential impact of communicable disease.

It’s time to truly believe and enforce the “if you’re sick, stay home” philosophy. Thankfully, remote work means staying home doesn’t halt all work if an employee feels up to it; but be sensitive to the importance of rest. Put in place a clear policy of when you expect people to stay home when they can work from home (minor illness, family member illness), and when you expect them to take legitimate sick time.

The Bottom Line

We are anxious for everyone to get back to work in however they feel safest. Maybe continuing to work from home, bringing in a skeleton crew, or hitting things full force with your entire staff. Regardless of your path forward. We know that adjustments need to be made to ensure your technology, culture, and strategy are ready for this new-age. May this state of the union point you in the right direction.

Five Tips for Working in the In-Between

We’ve reached an in-between status of this quarantine. Businesses are starting to open back up (with restrictions), but a lot of employees are finding themselves in an awkward spot between working in the office and remaining at home. Doctors are utilizing video and tele-conference appointments but are holding office hours to see patients and perform “elective” surgeries. Companies are requesting that their employees work from home, if possible, but they’re relaxing requirements for coming back into the office. Other organizations are welcoming people back from tele-worker status to full in-office expectations.

With “in-between” operations, we’ve helped our clients through a few technology hiccups and wanted to help you avoid them too. Here are the top five things you need to know when working from wherever you’re expected to be.

The Power of the Web App

The majority of business applications have some type of web version. You don’t have to have the software installed on your system to be effective. While you may not be able to use every aspect of the software (higher processing functions may be limited to the desktop version), test out online versions. This is particularly effective if you’re trying to use a laptop or device with a much smaller hard drive in a remote working environment. For example, you can get to your current emails without storing your past five years of email history on your system’s limited disc space. When using a web app, install two-factor authentication wherever possible to maximize security.

A Note on External Hard Drives

First came the punch card, then tape and the floppy disc; now if you want portable physical data storage, it’s all about external hard drives (USB). They are a fantastic way to easily transport data from one place to another, but there are two precautions:

  • Hackers love to stash USB drives places just hoping that people will pick them up, get excited, plug them in, and then infect their computer and network. Moral of the story only trusts USB drives that you are familiar with.
  • If you are transitioning between a Mac and a Windows system or vice versa, there is a very high likelihood that your external hard drive will not work on both. Hard drives are configured to be read on one type of device, and you usually have to delete the drive to re-configure it to work on another type of system.

Maximize the Cloud

We firmly believe in the cloud for document storage, backup purposes, and accessing line of business applications. When it comes to document storage specifically:

  • Selective Sync Will Save You. If you already have large files stored in your Dropbox/Anchor/Google Drive/SharePoint, you don’t want your system trying to sync all of it to your hard drive for space, time, and speed considerations. Select only the folders that you’ll be using on a regular basis. The rest of the data will be accessible in the cloud. The online-only feature is also particularly helpful.
  • Follow basic sharing rules. Pay attention to read-only or editable sharing links. If you want someone to collaborate, make sure you give them the right to edit. When sharing, you can share a file or a folder. If you share a folder, bear in mind the recipient will have access to everything currently in the folder, as well as everything you add to it later. Never delete files that you did not create. It’s entirely possible that you delete the file for everyone while attempting to simply delete it from your system.

Security

Your safety is our biggest concern whether you’re working in the office, at home or a mixture. In order to remain secure, invest in:

  • Enterprise-level security: Install an enterprise-grade firewall, anti-virus, and monitoring system on every computer.
  • Two-Factor Authentication: Like we mentioned above, enable two-factor authentication wherever possible.
  • Complex Passwords: When you’re utilizing multiple systems, you may feel tempted to simplify your passwords because you’ll be logging in numerous times. Instead, store your credentials in a password vault to protect all of your passwords, and rotate your passwords regularly.

Backup, Backup, and More Backup

We have seen a surge in interrupted power and Internet connections, particularly with people working from home. Nothing is more frustrating than losing all of your work right in the middle of a project.

  • Install a battery backup on any mission-critical system (AKA anything you’re using for work). This will kick over and maintain power in case of a surge, and keep you running for hours in the event of a longer outage.
  • Ensure that your laptops remain fully charged. The myth that you can overcharge and shortcut long-term battery life is completely false. Most laptops today have lithium-ion batteries and have an internal circuit to stop the charging process when full-charged. Charge away!

Deploy an effective network-wide backup solution so that you can restore data whether you lose a single file due to an employee mistake or lose a significant amount of data in the case of a disaster or breach.

The Hidden Costs of Hiring an IT Tech

If your business is at the point where you’re thinking about hiring a fulltime IT tech, congratulations! Having enough consistent needs to fill this role means you’ve worked hard and made good decisions that drove business growth. Our best advice? Don’t stop now!

Moving forward with hiring requires a lot of analysis to avoid major consequences down the line, though. One of the biggest decisions whether you’ll hire someone directly or use a third-party MSP (Managed Service Provider). In this article, we’ll get into the specifics of both scenarios.

Why Do You Need an IT Tech at All?

In the past, business people and tech people were two different breeds. Over the years, the gap has gradually shrunk to the point that many people are tech-savvy enough to get by for the little things. As your business has grown, though, you likely have needed to delegate many of your previous duties, like IT — even if you feel perfectly capable of handling them yourself. After all, when do you think was the last time Jeff Bezos packaged a shipment? Your IT needs have also likely grown much more complex.

If you don’t choose to delegate now, you fall into a major pitfall of leaving IT duties unassigned. In our current landscape, leaving an IT post open could be a death wish. Cyber attacks of all types are on the rise, and the amount of damage each one could impose is ballooning. For example, in 2016, the average ransomware attacker demanded $522. In 2020, that average sits around $84,000! Sadly, many of these attacks take place as a result of not having someone the wheel.

In addition, there’s the issue of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Being lax over time can make your systems out of date, making it harder for everyone to get their work done at a reasonable rate. In addition, only replacing equipment when it’s broken and not when it functionally obsolete can create situations where portions of or your entire workforce will be unable to do any work at all for a time.

An In-House Solution

So, let’s say you’re on board with having one or more people make up your IT team, and you make the decision to hire them directly. One certain benefit is that you can look through a collection of qualified candidates and pick just the right person(s) that you want! But then the other shoe drops.

Just like any other employee, before you hire someone for your IT needs, you have to consider the costs. For instance, the average price of an IT professional is $60,000 per year. Alright, so you budget out $60,000 — then you’re all set, right? Far from it!

Where is this person going to work? Maybe you already have space for them, but these professionals require more expensive hardware and monitor setups. Additionally, you need to factor in the network diagnostic software plus any industry-specific software. Since they’ll generally be on call, they’ll need a phone with a good plan so you can always reach them and possibly a company car (or at least some form of vehicle reimbursement) if you have multiple locations. Don’t forget that expense account!

Besides the specific expenses mentioned above, remember that this person is still an employee, so you have all the other general costs your other employees have associated with them. This can include health/life insurance, vacation time, sick time, 401K plus any bonuses or overtime pay they may rack up.

And what do you do if they leave? The implicit and explicit costs can be truly staggering when you take the time to add it all up.

A Safer Option

In the past, the above option was the only choice most employers had available to them. Based on the high costs (both known and unknown) associated with hiring an IT professional, it’s no surprise that companies have flocked to an alternative option: MSPs.

With an MSP, you have all the benefits of a fulltime employee without the downsides.

They will be consistently available, knowledgable in your network, and focused entirely on IT rather than other day job expectations. Need assistance when it’s time for regular upgrades or maintenance? Want someone to redesign your entire IT setup? Looking for someone to completely take over your IT operations, including telephone, so you can focus 100% on your core business? These are the sorts of services you can get out of an MSP.

Even better, the price you sign in the contract is the price you know you have to pay month after month, unlike the many unknown costs of an employee. There are no HR issues to worry about and the work is on the shoulders of a company, not an individual.

If your company is at the point where you know you need dedicated IT personnel but are unsure about which direction you’d like to go, contact us ASAP. We would be more than happy to go over your needs and discuss the best options.

No Business as Usual

Currently, there is no such thing as Business as Usual. Every day, small and medium businesses are re-inventing how they function. The most unfortunate side-effect of this COVID-19 crisis is that many small businesses have closed, and many of those will not re-open. The economic repercussions from this event will ripple throughout the landscape for decades. Only the strong will survive.

For those who will survive this paradigm shift, now is the time to re-structure your business model and build a new foundation for the future. With many employees working off-site, businesses are noticing that they may be spending too much on their overhead, and they are also looking closely at the size of their staff. In the past few weeks, we have discussed laying-off and even furloughing employees, but in this blog, we will look toward the future and offer a few things to consider while moving forward.

Many businesses will be looking to restructure their operations once we come out of this mess. One huge change will be the need, or the lack of a need, for office space. With the average reduction in staff hovering around 50%, we’re seeing lots of empty office space these days. The first instinct is to hold onto that space and await your employees’ return, but there is a very good chance most of that unused space will remain unused.

Some financial experts tell us that there will be another Real Estate crash soon, but this time commercial properties and office space will be part of the cause. Besides the businesses that close, many businesses will either give up their current space or downsize to smaller spaces. What was once nothing more than bragging rights, large conference rooms are no longer needed. Now that we’re getting used to holding meetings through Zoom, Skype, and Teams, even our best clients might get annoyed if we asked them to drive to our office for a meeting. The fact is that we now have more options, and along with those, we have to opportunity to run a leaner company.

With fewer employees actually working from the office there’s no need for all that extra space. Even if a few employees do split working at home and coming into the office, you can stagger their days and multiple employees can share the same workspace. But, the fact is, many businesses are discovering that they can keep things running without everyone working from a centralized location. What was once unthinkable is now becoming the new norm.

Another thing to consider is evaluating your employees during these times. Now is the time to find out who your ‘A’ players are. Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out to work remotely. You’ll soon discover who your top performers are and who misses deadlines or causes delays. The bad news is, you may have to let some people go. But the good news is that there has never been such a great workforce available to hire. Tough times require us to make tough decisions, and, as business owners, we need to make decisions that are best for our company.

Jason Rivas, the head of human resources for a growing California business, says he is getting a lot of questions about assessing employees during these crazy times. Jason says, “Business owners ask me, is it fair to judge my staff now that some of them are working from home? My answer is always the same: Yes, it is. It’s not only fair, but it’s also a good thing for your business.”

Jason goes on to explain, “Now, I know when you hear the phrase, spotting your A-players, you immediately start thinking, “Well, that means there are favorites in the workplace.” It’s not that. When I call the best employees our A-players, I’m doing so because they’re not necessarily the favorites, they’re just the best-playing team members. Yes, it’s possible to not like someone but, at the same time, respect them for the great work they do.”

“We need to think about this as a baseball team. There’s always the first-string that goes out on the field to start the game. Then we have second-string, third-string, and so on. Even bench warmers. We have people in the dugout, people in the bullpen warming up. But your A-players are the ones starting the game. You lead with your best, then fill any voids with other employees as needed. It’s survival of the fittest.”

As employers, we have the responsibility of making judgments and keeping our A-players on the field as much as we can. While we may have situations where furloughs, layoffs, or even temporary reduction in workforces have occurred, we always need to be mindful of spotting our A-players, and, even more important, spotting those employees who are putting in less effort.

It’s our role as business owners to make the decisions that keep our business going. We didn’t ask for this event to happen, and we sure weren’t prepared for it. But, as business leaders, we need to take actions that will shape the future. Life as we knew it has changed forever, and business will never be the same – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better than it was. Act now. Decide if you’re paying for too much office space. Figure out if you can run an efficient business with remote employees. And surround yourself with the best employees you can find.

Do these things and you’ll be ahead of the competition when we come out the other side of these strange times.

How Do We Make This Work? 5 Ways to Adapt in this New Work World

You’ve probably grown tired of hearing the words “adjusting to the new normal.” Unfortunately, though, there’s really no other way to say it. This pandemic has permanently changed our work environment, whether you’re already back in the office or remain in quarantine for several more weeks. We must create a new normal for how we work, manage network security, and maintain productivity across a more widespread team.

For example, a client earlier this week asked with their employees working from home, how are they supposed to ensure HIPAA compliance? What if someone innocently leaves the computer screen open, or takes a note with a patient’s name and walks away from the notebook? Here’s how we recommend redefining work parameters to create the greatest opportunity for compliance and security in all work situations.

1. No personal systems. If you allow your staff to utilize their personal systems to work, store company data, and interact with customers, you’re just asking for a data breach. First, you have no control over that system. You can’t log in to perform updates, ensure it has the latest virus definitions, or wipe it if they left the company or were terminated. Second, they are probably not running the strongest virus protection, intrusion prevention, and monitoring. Supply systems that meet minimum standards. Some companies have sent employees home with their work equipment. As long as it’s properly documented, this is a safer bet than letting someone go rogue (intentionally or unintentionally) on an un-managed personal machine.

2. Clear Expectations. There is a difference between working from home and lounging on the couch in your pajamas getting work done. If you’re expecting people to be effective remote workers, set clear expectations for their work setup and communicate clearly. For example:

  • Do they need an office with a door that closes?
  • Can they utilize their cell phone for business calls or do they need a VoIP/softphone tied into your network?
  • How often do you expect them to check in on a daily basis?
  • If you can’t get a hold of them immediately, how long do they have to respond?
  • Can they attend meetings via phone, or is video required? 
  • How do they connect to your secure information? VPN? Firewall?

3. Signed Employee Agreement. Whether you expect remote work to be a temporary situation or believe it’s a permanent shift, put in place a clear remote worker agreement. It should lay out all of the expectations that we listed above. If you’re expecting employees back in the office, reiterate the temporary nature of the arrangement. If it’s a trial, state that. Working from home is one of those things that seems really appealing at the beginning, but depending on the worker, it may or may not be effective. As the employer, you want to maintain the option to bring them back into the office, if necessary.

4. Regular Communication. We recommend touching base via video at least once a day and having one other scheduled touchpoint – video, phone, email recap, something that is scheduled and required for each and every employee, whether they’re on-site or remote. You cannot underestimate the power of water cooler conversation throughout the day, so you need to find some way to replace that in order to keep your employees engaged and effective.

One of the ways we do this is by opening each meeting with a “good thing.” Every team member shares something good (personal/professional) happening in their lives. When you’re in the thick of it, sometimes it’s hard to come up with something good; but it sets a positive tone for the meeting and allows you to get to know a little bit more about your staff. We also encourage shenanigans more than usual. Perhaps set up a chat feed for funny memes, allow people to use filters on their video calls, just something that brings a little levity and lets people connect outside of their daily tasks.

5. Effective Administration. Ultimately, adapting to this new normal is all about effective administration. Have the right policies in place, communicate the standards and expectations, follow-up with your employees, partner with an MSP that specializes in creating secure, remote workspaces. Together, we’ll continue creating this new normal.