When I set out to write this article I wanted to make sure that I was merely giving advice to other businesses without falling into the trap of just creating a sales pitch. Well for those of you that know me, I do not tend to do a lot of sales pitch talk anyway. I would rather help people out, give them some honest advice and let them make their own mind up, being there for them if they need our services. As a result, whilst I will mention how we can help your business, my aim is to open your eyes about the technology available to make working from home more productive and feasible.
My wife and I started our business ten years ago as Open Sauce Systems providing custom software to make businesses more efficient. This morphed into The Rosetta Group as technology evolved and we provided more and more services. Like most new businesses, we started in our back bedroom so we already have a history of working from home! As the company grew and we took on more staff, we did the traditional thing of taking on bigger and bigger offices. This allowed us to collaborate on projects, communicate efficiently and manage our staff and workload.
Or so we thought.
Quickly it became apparent that we would not all be in the office at all times. We might be out visiting customers, traveling on a ferry or sitting at home waiting for a tradesman to call or looking after a sick child (or dog). Our intelligent team did their usual thing and came up with better and better ways of working from home whilst allowing us to carry on as normal. So much so that when we were forced to send everyone home due to Covid 19, we quickly realised that it made very little difference to how we worked and most of our customers did not even notice.
Let me first list and then describe some of the technologies we use to help our company truly say it is “business as usual”.
- Instant messaging
- VoIP phone system
- Cloud file sharing
- Video conferencing
- Virtual Private Networks
- Remote desktop access
I appreciate that not all these will be of use to all businesses but it may well be that it gets you thinking about how you could work more efficiently and more decentralised.
Instant messaging (IM) allows teams of people to communicate more efficiently than systems such as email. Email is great for some forms of communication but is often dreadful for quick, chat like conversations. We have all been tied up in those huge email chains where more and more people are copied in until nobody knows what is going on. IM lets you create rooms for specific purposes and only give certain users access to those rooms so you do not get swamped with irrelevant messages.
Some IM systems have mobile apps, desktop apps and web apps. These allow users to stay connected wherever they are and however they are connecting to the system. Some systems allow some form of automation so you can receive automated notifications e.g. to monitor systems or events.
Using an IM system instead of email allows users to chat in a more friendly, conversational style without all the formality of email and without filling up your inbox with unneeded messages. As the system is restricted to users, there is no need for junkmail filtering as nobody else can post messages. Once people get accustomed to communicating using an IM system, transferring to working form home is made much easier as they are used to having discussions, either one to one or in groups, on the IM. Where you are becomes less relevant than what you have to say.
From a technical point of view, most IM systems offer encryption of some sort with some having end to end encryption for complete security. It is even possible to link in other systems e.g. by adding a web chat form on your website so that potential and actual customers can speak to someone in your sales team in real time. Some IM systems include voice and video calling so it is easy to switch from text to voice and video when needed.
We use a system called Matrix which is an open source product that we host on our own servers so we have control over the whole system. Other systems are available such as Rocket Chat, Slack and MS Teams.
A VoIP Phone system is becoming more and more standard for businesses these days. If your phone handsets plug into a network socket rather than a BT style socket then you may well already be using a VoIP system. VoIP uses your network and the internet to pass your calls around much like a computer uses the internet to pass emails.
There are many advantages to a business in running a VoIP system but I will not go into them here. Get in touch if you want to know more. I shall concentrate on how they can help you to work from home.
First of all, with a decent VoIP system you should be able to unplug your phone from your office and plug it in at home and it will just work. Next, you can make and receive calls in exactly the same way you would at the office with outbound calls showing as your office number and being charged to your work account as normal and answering inbound calls should be as simple as picking up the phone. All your normal features should work in the same way, for example, transferring calls to other users, making conference calls and joining sales queues. There really should not be any difference from being in the office and your customers do not need to ring a different number or ring your mobile.
Some VoIP systems allow you to set up software extensions so you can use an app on your mobile device or install one on your laptop and use a USB headset to speak to people.
We use our own Virtual Phone System that we sell to our customers. You can ring us wherever we are and we can deal with your call in the office, at home or on the road. Other providers also have VoIP services for businesses.
Cloud File Sharing (CFS) is something that most people know about but not many consider it for business purposes. Most people have used services such as Dropbox, G-Suite or One Drive for their personal files and there are good reasons to think hard before using one of those services for your business data. See my section below for things to consider when choosing a system.
A CFS is simple in essence. Instead of storing your files on your laptop or PC or on a server at your office, you store them on a CFS service. In this way you can access the files from anywhere you have an internet connection, either on a laptop, desktop or mobile app. You can even get to them on the web which is handy for that moment when you have forgotten the presentation you were about to give! No more copying files back and forward between home and the office using insecure USB sticks or, worse still, emailing them to yourself on your personal email account.
We use a system called Nextcloud which is an open source product that we host on our own server so, again, we have total control over the system and the data. Folders on our office and home computers are synchronised with the CFS and we even have an app on our phones which gives us access to the files on the go. As an added bonus we are able to edit the usual documents and spreadsheets in a web browser for urgent, on the road, work. I have already mentioned other systems that you might want to consider above.
Video Conferencing is all the rage now and I do not think anyone has not heard of Zoom or Skype. Often a typed conversation can be improved by a phone call or conference call. In the same way, a conference call can sometimes be improved by being able to see the person you are talking to. It is also possible to share your screen for giving presentations or when “Words fail me. See picture”.
Skype has been the front runner for many years and is still used by a lot of people but it has its limitations. Zoom seems to have taken the lead at the moment as it allows multiple people to video conference all at once and also allows you to record the meeting which can be very useful.
For internal video calls we use our Matrix IM system as described above, but externally we use Zoom and find it very simple to set up and operate although most people forget to take themselves off mute when they first go into a meeting! Even though we are regularly chatting with each other on our IM system, it is always nice to have a video conference at least once a week to remind each other what we look like. Other video conferencing systems are available but they vary in features, ease of use and, more importantly, cost.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) often get bad press as some people see them as a way of hiding your identity (which they can) or they see hackers in films using them. However, as the name suggests, they are simply a secure, virtual route to where you want to go. If, for example, you are working in your office, you are probably used to connecting to a printer to print documents or a server to see files. When you are at home you cannot do that for security reasons as your office, quite rightly, is protected by a firewall to keep the bad people out. A VPN can be used to connect your computer to your office network. In that way you can access everything that you could in the office but while you are sitting on the sofa at home.
Everything you do over the connection is encrypted so that nobody else can see it, even if you have set a simple password on your home WiFi. This is why a VPN is also useful if you are doing business out on the road and need to use those free, insecure WiFi access points in pubs, coffee shops and the like.
We use VPNs to connect to our work network and also to some of our bigger customers’ networks so that we can work on their systems as if we were on site. Your IT team or whomever you use to support it should be able to help you set up VPNs.
Remote Desktop Access (RDA) is a useful last resort if you really must have that file that is on your computer or you need to run some specialist software. As with all services that let you access things remotely, consideration should be given to the balance between security and convenience. There are a number of easy to use RDA services available including, Anydesk and Team Viewer, that can be easily downloaded and run in a couple of minutes. Once installed, you use an ID and a password to connect to your computer from anywhere in the world. It really is as simple as that.
We use Anydesk to provide support to remote customers as it is easy to explain to somebody how to download and install it. We normally delete the programme when we have finished using it so as not to leave a potential security hole on the customer’s PC.
Other systems available include MS Remote Dektop Protocol and VNC and their ease of setup and use varies. Please make sure you speak to your IT manager or support company before installing remote access software as it introduces a potential risk to your security.
Things to consider when choosing a system
Hopefully I have whetted your appetite for trying out some of the above systems and services but, before you rush out and try them all, please take a moment to conisder a few things.
As with most things in life there is a balance between what you want to pay and how easy these systems are to set up and use. If you just want to click on something and it works then you will probably pay more, and give away some control, than if you spend some time and skill setting up and hosting something yourself. As cloud services providers, we fill in the gap by providing, setting up and managing systems for our customers so they do not need to. If you want to do it yourself then you can but it can be a steep learning curve.
Also bear in mind security. If you are getting a service for free then consider how they are making their money. All these systems cost somebody to setup, host and manage. If it is not you that is paying in hard cash then think about how they are getting paid. Are you giving away more data about yourself than you want to? Do you have control over your data? Are you signing your life away in order to get a simple to use product? Is the product hosted in this country and does it comply with the GDPR regulations? I am not saying do not use them but just consider these points before blindly leaping in.
In summary, there are a lot of great systems and services out there that can transform the way you work. Getting used to them now while we have an enforced lockdown can make sure that our work practices are more flexible and efficient so that when we go back to more normal times, we will already be working more effectively. You might well find that those expensive offices and endless meetings are no longer necessary!
If you would like to ind out more about anything I have mentioned in this article then please get in touch.