4 tech tips for West Michigan businesses planning a remote-work future

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Many businesses in West Michigan — and across the state and globe — have been approaching a watershed moment: They soon must decide how and where they will allow their employees to work in a post-pandemic future and what permanent telework should look like for their organization.

Recent research presents a convincing case for businesses to support some level of location flexibility for their employees. A February study by the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives found that one-third of all jobs in the state — comprising 43% of total wages — can be done from home. What’s more, 54% of remote workers say they want to continue working from home post-pandemic, according to a December 2020 Pew Research Center study.

Plus, Michigan businesses that support telework might gain a competitive advantage in the war for talent, allowing them to recruit rock star employees from around the country or even around the world. Berrien County in southwest Michigan is even offering thousands of dollars in incentives to lure people, including young, educated workers from big cities, to move there.

Yet, the pandemic proved supporting remote work isn’t as easy as just sending people home. That means organizations must design remote-work plans that effectively support teleworkers on a more permanent basis.

Organization-specific policies, such as cameras-on or cameras-optional teleconferencing, will vary depending on the culture. But providing the right technological arrangements is a must-have for any business considering telework — including within hybrid models — on a more permanent basis. Four technology tips can help organizations get it right.

Give IT the tools they need

Many of the initial challenges faced by IT leaders stemmed from the almost overnight shift to a remote work environment. Businesses that had already invested in cloud-based applications and collaboration platforms were better positioned to pivot, whereas others had to roll out new technologies in just a few days, in some cases — a stark contrast to the months or even years IT departments previously were afforded for tech rollouts.

While most businesses have figured out those pieces, future challenges for IT teams will include network and endpoint management. As some businesses shift to permanent hybrid or all-remote work schedules, networks will need to be stronger and more scalable. After all, a network that may have started with only a dozen or so endpoints could expand to thousands if spread across a remote workforce.

To help IT departments create and manage extensive remote networks, businesses need a comprehensive network infrastructure built on technologies that can support remote work requirements now and in the future. For example, software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) offer IT teams simpler, more streamlined remote network management, even as networks expand. Meanwhile, Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions allow organizations to integrate security tools into wide-area networks.

Remove employees’ connectivity barriers

During the pandemic, we’ve considered the lucky ones to be employees whose job functions allowed them to work from home. But, in fact, many of those employees also experienced challenges working outside an office because their home internet connections were not powerful or reliable enough to support business applications.

Connected Nation Michigan found more than 212,000 households in the state lack access to broadband speeds, which the federal government defines as a connection with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second downloads and upload speeds of at least 3 mbps. These speeds are even tougher to come by in rural regions.

During the pandemic, this led some organizations to provide their employees with dedicated, in-home connectivity separate from their residential networks. Going forward, businesses need to have a strong understanding of the geographic bandwidth issues that their workers face and be prepared to find solutions to overcome them. Simplified telework provisioning processes, like VPN, can make it easier for organizations to add and manage connections on the backend and provide their employees with better network connectivity over the long term.

Secure the decentralized workplace

While securing an organization is hard enough when everyone is in one place, it’s even more complicated when a workforce is distributed. Employees who work from home often must connect to a company’s data and applications via home networks or using personal devices, making it difficult for IT to authenticate legitimate users.

To mitigate security challenges in a teleworking future, businesses must:

  • Rethink security policies governing remote access to sensitive business applications and add security protocols such as secure gateways, site-to-site VPNs, application-aware firewalls and network access controls.
  • Ensure employees have the right protections on their residential modems and any personal devices that connect to a company’s network.
  • Provide training and education on various threats and how to prevent them. Employees are the first line of defense against bad actors and awareness is key.

Design a comprehensive onboarding plan

Every organization aims for continuous growth, and the jobs market is red-hot right now as businesses staff up for a post-pandemic future. Businesses that plan to offer telework going forward must ensure new hires who will be fully remote get the tools they need — within the same timeframe, and with the same access to information and resources — as they would if they were in the office.

That includes determining how to get them the necessary equipment (laptops, mice, keyboards, modems, etc.). It also entails designing a structured plan that helps new employees get everything set up and the right applications and software installed, either on their own or alongside IT.

With much of our team working remotely since the start of the pandemic, Comcast has had to completely rewire everything from onboarding new employees to hosting team and customer meetings. While we still have about 20% of our West Michigan workforce working from home, we plan to phase all employees back into the office after Labor Day.

Designing the future of work

As organizations strive to make their remote-work policies and procedures a more permanent part of their business, technology will be a critical component of any plan. While research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2020 found workers to be more productive from home, that productivity hinges on access to technology resources and tools. West Michigan businesses preparing for post-pandemic telework must design the right plans and invest in technology solutions to ensure their employees can be happy, productive, and connected — no matter where they work.

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