Tools of the (Remote) Trade

Tools of the (Remote) Trade

Covid-19 forced businesses to take a hard look at their technological practices and cultures. Now remote work will be viewed as mainstream in many companies.

UCare, an independent health plan provider serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin, got the bad news on March 11, along with everybody else on the planet. The World Health Organization had formally declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.

As the virus continued its spread, leaders of Minneapolis-based UCare decided to send their 1,000 employees home, where they could begin remote work March 20. That decision preceded Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order that took effect March 28.

Because it’s a health care organization, UCare was exempt from the governor’s order. (The organization provides Medicare, Medicaid, and individual and family health care plans to more than 460,000 clients.) The decision to shift to teleworking reflected leadership’s concerns for employee safety and well-being, says Hilary Marden-Resnik, UCare’s senior vice president and chief administrative officer.

The biggest challenge UCare faced with the shift to remote work was that it couldn’t afford an acclimation period.

“We wanted to get our entire workforce home as quickly as possible to ensure their safety,” Marden-Resnik says. The work the organization was doing was essential. “We knew that it was a time when members were vulnerable, had a lot of questions, were uncertain about what might be covered or how to get the care they needed,” she says. “So it was really paramount to us that we acted as quickly as possible to support our employees.” Once the employees felt secure, she notes, they could do their jobs “without missing a beat in terms of the service that our members get.”

Fortunately for UCare, 17 percent of its workforce already worked from home before the pandemic, so remote operations weren’t as unfamiliar to UCare as they were for many other businesses and nonprofits that lacked the technology and knowledge to make a seamless, quick transition.

UCare did need more bandwidth, though, so it turned to its network provider, Comcast, for help.

“Within less than five hours, we were able to migrate a large health care organization from one-Gig to 10-Gig capacity, with no downtime impact,” says Kalyn Hove, vice president of Comcast Business for the Twin Cities Region at Comcast’s regional headquarters in St. Paul.

UCare says that technological preparedness, good partners, and its work culture allowed it to smoothly move into a work-from-home operation.

Put priority on hardware

Getting the greatest benefits out of working remotely depends upon access to the right tools.

Matt Kanaskie, vice president of sales operations for Marco Technologies, says one of the first things he noticed during the pandemic was how many companies were calling in a panic because their employees didn’t even have access to the proper hardware needed to work remotely.

“Most people don’t have business-grade electronic equipment at home,” he says. “This is sort of shocking, but a lot of businesses have people sitting at desktops with no cameras. So when something like the pandemic happens, it’s not like they can just pick up their laptops and go home.”

The result, he says, was a surge in demand at the St. Cloud-based business technology services company. Many business customers wanted fundamental electronics such as laptops, web cameras, monitors, firewall systems, keyboards, and other hardware needed for effective remote work. Many of these items sold out quickly and were on back-order around the country. 

The lesson? Be prepared, Kanaskie says. Don’t wait until disaster strikes to get necessary equipment.

Tools of the trade

Once a company has the right hardware at its disposal, there are many software and application solutions that can help businesses make the most of remote operations.

Remote access

The need for quality internet access for remote work may seem obvious; it’s “the oxygen to everything else we’re needing to do,” says Comcast’s Hove.

“As so many businesses and organizations grapple with the human, business, and technology repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis, connectivity and network resilience play an essential role in that business continuity effort we’re trying to achieve across the country to keep the economy running,” she says. “We’re lucky, actually, because if this [pandemic] had happened 20 years ago, we would have really been in trouble.”

The internet provides many ways for employees to remotely access resources—including applications, databases, file folders, emails, and more—plus centralized servers that exist in an office but cannot be physically accessed when everyone is housebound.

Ucare team on a bicycle built for five
As the virus spread, leaders of Minneapolis-based UCare sent their employees home to work remotely. Because of its health care role, the employees needed to quickly make the shift as UCare couldn’t afford an acclimation period.

VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, allows for a secure connection between two networks via the internet. It can connect an employee’s home network to their business network so they can securely access resources on their company’s server.

Kanaskie recommends that companies not only have a VPN in place capable of handling all of their employees at once, but that they also require dual-factor authentication, or a multi-step login process, to ensure the identity of those logging on. Large network and technology providers like Comcast and Marco, as well as smaller tech companies like Wayzata-based Ostra and Minneapolis-based Coherent Solutions, provide VPNs for businesses large and small.

Adding VPNs was the quickest solution for companies that found themselves unprepared when the pandemic struck, Kanaskie says.

As of the end of April, Comcast had seen a 39 percent increase in VPN usage by its customers compared with the period before the pandemic, Hove notes.

Likewise, Marco had so many VPN requests as the coronavirus prompted stay-at-home orders that it actually had to put together a rapid “triage” team to handle them all.

The cloud

Many businesses store certain resources, including files, applications, and data, on a series of centralized servers called “the cloud,” making them easily accessible from any device with an internet connection.

“[Employees] just log in and get the resource they need through a web browser, and they don’t need a VPN or anything like that,” Kanaskie says. Gmail and Google Drive are examples. “You don’t need anything special [beyond a username and password] to log in because it’s a publicly hosted web app.”

Telecommunications

“Don’t forget about the importance of still having phone service,” says Comcast’s Hove, “but maybe in a more virtual environment that gives you more flexibility.”

There are VoIP (voice over internet protocol) solutions that allow voice calls using an internet connection instead of a phone line. Some businesses prefer “softphones” instead of regular office phones so employees don’t have to be tethered to their desks in the office or use personal cell phones for business purposes.

Collaboration tools

“Collaboration tools” is really a catchall term for any software or internet service that allows people to collaborate and work together on common projects, regardless of their physical locations.

         They can be anything from chat and conferencing tools like Slack, WebEx, or Microsoft Teams to more complex project management tools such as Asana, MiTeam, or Trello to file sharing and management tools like Google Drive and Dropbox.

Having a trove of these tools in your back pocket is extremely helpful when a business is forced—or chooses—to work with employees out of the office, Kanaskie says. (And most are still helpful for increased organization and efficiency, even when the entire work team is in one building.)

“These tools [are] allowing us to mimic these office environments and experiences,” Hove says, “and also giving us the ability to manage our networks remotely.” 

Fortifying security

According to a report from Google, malware and phishing attacks rose more than 350 percent between January and April.

Michael Kennedy, founder of Wayzata-based cybersecurity company Ostra, says it’s more important than ever for businesses to make sure their data is protected—and to let professionals help.

“I’m a DIY home improvement guy, but my wife can tell you that, for two years, we did not have baseboard trim in our house,” Kennedy says. “For small businesses especially, they often look at cybersecurity and try to piecemeal it together to save money, but they almost always forget something.”

And with so many components needed for proper cybersecurity—VPNs or other secure internet access, anti-virus software, multi-point protection on all devices, email protection, and a secure endpoint solution—it’s essential to have expertise within the company or contract with a cybersecurity expert.

People always think a data breach won’t happen to them until it’s too late, Kennedy says. And if you’re not properly protected, he says, it’s not about if it will happen to you, it’s about when.

Proper training

Even the best technology won’t help a business unless every employee is trained in how to use it.

When the pandemic struck, UCare already had most of the equipment it needed. Its leadership knew the digital ropes, as did the employees who already worked remotely, who make up one-fifth of its workforce. So the organization’s challenge was getting the rest of the employees trained on remote operations.

“We had a good portion of our workforce that wasn’t used to working from home,” says David Albright, UCare’s vice president and chief information officer. “But our HR team did a great job of not just teaching and training people on the technology, but also training them on what it’s like to be working remotely.”

Culture matters

Whether shifting to a work-from-home practice succeeds depends upon a company’s culture and leadership’s attitude towards technology, Marco’s Kanaskie says.

Ultimately, he says, all businesses should invest in technology and view it as an integral pillar of their cultures and procedures. Companies that had such values and technology in place when the coronavirus surfaced were relatively unscathed by the move to work-from-home practices.

But companies that had not paid much attention to technology frantically called for help after the pandemic struck.

As tough as the pandemic has been, Kanaskie says the lesson in technology preparedness is a valuable one. “The fundamental thing that’s going to pivot from this is companies are going to realize, ‘If we don’t allocate 10 percent of revenue to technology, we are not a sustainable company in 2020 and beyond,’ ” he says.

Albright and Marden-Resnik agree. It was largely their organization’s culture—which had accepted remote work as a viable option and had invested in the technology—that made it possible for UCare to sail smoothly through the workplace shift.

“It’s not that we previously had a goal of being able to have all our employees work remotely,” Albright says. “Instead, the goal was to be able to enable the company to have the choice.”Home Office with pet

Embracing remote work

The pandemic forced companies to adopt the use of new equipment, adapt their employee policies, and alter their cultures to embrace technology that helps them survive challenging times.

“Business will be forever changed for the long term by the pandemic,” says Hove of Comcast.

Working remotely will become more mainstream, says Derek Burns, chief marketing officer at St. Paul-based technology solutions provider Tierney Brothers Inc. Prior to the pandemic, about 14 percent of the employees in the U.S. worked remotely at least two days a week. The pandemic pushed that number up to nearly 70 percent for full-time remote work, he says. “The workers fortunate enough to remain employed will have proven their ability to be productive in an at-home environment.”

Burns and Kanaskie agree that remote work policies are going to be written into business continuity plans. They also anticipate that many more people will work remotely on a regular basis. As that trend unfolds, up-to-date technology will matter far more to a business than office size will.

“I think we’re going to see companies at least implement mandatory work from home for a week [each year] as a policy for preparedness,” Kanaskie says. 

Albright of UCare says that while he’s not sure what the future holds, he does know that his organization has learned too much about optimizing technology to ever entirely go back to how it operated before the crisis.

         “We want to make sure that employees’ preferences are considered as well,” he says, “so we’re going to continue learning a lot from our individuals over the weeks and months to come so that we can really put together a plan that meets all of their priorities.”

Tess Allen is TCB’s associate editor.