Encouraging a suitable remote working environment
Given the likely unforeseen nature of an enforced period of remote working and the uncertain length of time it may be required, a sense of proportionality is required when creating suitable homeworking environments.
Tips for effective homeworking
Some general guidelines which may provide a useful starting point for staff include:
- Make yourself as comfortable as you can. Sitting at a desk or table on a sensible chair is likely to be far more productive than slumped on the sofa with the laptop perched on your lap!
- Try to have a clear boundary between work and home by creating a designated workspace, even if this is simply the corner of a room
- Many people benefit from having a clear structure and routine. It allows them to complete work during working hours and focus on home life at the end of the working day
- Encourage regular use of video alongside audio and chat collaboration to enhance presence and support team spirit
- If you feel isolated, or believe that you may become isolated, set up regular contact with colleagues and discuss any concerns with your line manager or a member of human resources team
- Do not try to be both a full-time carer and a homeworker: if there are dependants in the home, then separate provisions must be made to ensure that they are looked after during working hours
- Friends and family may need to be reminded that you are working during your contracted hours and you do not have the capacity to complete additional duties
- Take regular breaks - you’d be amazed how many times your working day is broken up in an office environment. While ‘undisturbed’ working time can often be a blessing, it can also be all too easy to ‘burn out’ towards the end of the day without regular self-imposed ‘interruptions’
Access to core systems
Most universities and colleges will already have existing business continuity and disaster recovery plans in place. It is well worth starting with these to identify which core systems are needed to continue safe, legal and effective operation of the organisation.
Once these systems have been identified, you should consider how access will be maintained, and by whom, particularly if staff are having to work remotely.
In many organisations access to core corporate systems such as finance, payroll, HR and student record systems may not routinely be available offsite for valid security reasons.
In the event of the kind of extenuating circumstances which mean staff are not able to access campus for an indeterminant period of time, careful consideration needs to be given as to whether additional (temporary) access regimes need to be put in place to ensure business continuity.
If so, it is important that you continue to ensure your overall security posture is maintained and, as soon as it is safe to do so, return to your pre-existing configuration.
Practical steps to consider for ensuring remote access to core systems
- Ensure key staff have a secure point-to-point connection to the campus via a VPN to access core systems. (This assumes you have already identified who the ‘key staff’ are for each core system – something which is hopefully addressed in your existing business continuity planning, but if not this will need to be defined)
- Provide relevant staff with access to encrypted corporately managed devices so they can safely access core systems from home, where possible
- Ensure that your IT support staff are prepared for the likely increase in demand and are equipped to provide help remotely, eg by utilising remote desktop access systems such as Bomgar (BeyondTrust)
Access to core information
Again, any pre-existing business continuity and disaster recovery plans should be your starting point for determining which information or records it is imperative you retain access to in all circumstances.
Any corporate records management programme should likewise have undertaken work to identify your ‘vital records’1 - categories of record which are required by the organisation to be able to carry out its essential core functions in a legally compliant manner.
Once identified and located, it is important to establish that the right people - and only the right people - will be able to continue to access them if working remotely, potentially via domestic hardware and their domestic broadband provider.
Using VPN access
As with core systems, virtual private network (VPN) access may well be the best way to provide access to the necessary users.
Should a VPN connection be made to a privately owned computer, note that this computer may not have the same level of software and operating system security patching and antivirus protection that a corporately managed computer would. This could create a substantive risk of compromise or data loss.
In order to guard against this, a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) could be accessed from the personally-owned computer that in effect opens a full desktop that is hosted on the organisation’s servers. The user merely has a web browser window open on their computer that connects to the remotely managed virtual machine. This approach will greatly reduce the chance of information being lost or systems otherwise being compromised as corporate data will only reside on the organisations severs and not on the privately-owned local computer.
If a corporate VPN is left running after core work has been completed that traffic will continue to traverse the corporate network. This may have an adverse impact on network bandwidth, should a large number of users do this simultaneously. Should a user continue to use their computer for non-work purposes, such as watching video streaming services then the traffic will continue to traverse the organisations network, if the VPN remains active. This traffic routing into and out of a network is known as ‘tromboning’. It is suggested that users who have local control of their corporate VPN should turn it off once core work has been completed to avoid unnecessary use of resources at their home organisation.
For those users who do not have control of their corporate VPN, they may wish to limit their use of the corporate device to direct core work only. Many FE organisations use Direct Access, to ensure compliance with web filtering, monitoring, reporting and alerting best practice expectation. In this situation the traffic is routed back into the corporate network on purpose, to ensure that web filtering is applied. The ‘tromboning’ of traffic in this case is by design, and in most cases cannot be switched off.
Alternatively, if it is available but not already being utilised, you may consider using SharePoint sites and/or file storage areas within Microsoft Teams channels or Google G-Suite to transfer the required information for the duration of the incident. In such circumstances, it is important that such records are restored to their permanent location as soon as possible after the incident is deemed to be over.
Platforms such as Office 365 and Google Hangouts can be used to hold effective virtual meetings.
Using their collaboration and productivity tools (eg video capability) will help people to continue to feel connected to their teams and colleagues.
Once again, it is worth checking that all staff likely to participate in virtual meetings have access to the hardware required.
- Do they have mics and/or headsets which work?
- Is it necessary for them to have webcams and, if so, do they?
- If not, how are you going to source them for affected staff?
- Is it easier to empower individuals to source their own through online retailers and reclaim the expense afterwards?
- Are there policies which may need to be amended to enable this to happen?
- If you are introducing new platforms – or even just promoting existing ones to new users – do they have access to the level of guidance and support they will need to be able to use them to a base level of effectiveness, or are you assuming such skills already exist or can be otherwise acquired?
Here, as with earlier guidance around use of the VLE, it may be worth creating shared spaces – perhaps in Yammer, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams – where staff can share tips and ask questions in a supportive and open environment.
Managing remote teams
Encouraging (or mandating) use of online calendars, such as Outlook if using the Office365 suite, helps to ensure appropriate visibility of staff activity and availability when working remotely.
This can help managers to plan tasks and team members to coordinate collaborative activity. If required, it can also help staff to account for their activity during periods of absence from campus – though it is recommended that work diaries are not used as a source of evidence of ‘busy-ness’. Far better, especially during stressful times, is to create a culture which is built on flexibility and trust. If necessary, this should look to monitor results and outputs, rather than surveillance and ‘clock watching’ with all the suspicion and discord that this can bring.
It is also worth considering how frequently and in what groupings you wish to be in contact with the teams that you manage. You may find that in the absence of regular face-to-face contact with staff that you want to arrange more regular catchups and meetings.
An ‘all team’ remote meeting on a Monday morning can help everyone begin the working week with a clear understanding of the shared priorities for the week ahead and to agree the actions and resources required to deliver them. In addition, think about how regularly you want to schedule meetings with your direct reports. There may well be ad hoc reasons to talk in between, but pre-arranging regular ‘keep in touch’ meetings will always ensure a minimum level of regular contact. This will also give you the opportunity to take a step back from day-to-day operational considerations to check in on how people are faring in testing times.
Remote technical support
As staff start using unfamiliar applications it is expected that there would be an influx of support requests from staff using institutional laptops as well as personal ones.
Many institutions already have some sort of IT helpdesk function to prioritise and serve as a request que. However, it should be considered if this would suffice as a remote technical support function.
There are applications available (such as Bomgar) that enable technical support staff to remotely control workstations to resolve problems. These applications such should be evaluated for institutional appropriateness before they are required.
The staffing of the technical support function should be carefully considered, especially during exceptional circumstances many more helpdesk support staff could be required than normal.
- Encourage staff to make their home environment as conducive as possible to effective remote working
- Start with any existing disaster recovery or business continuity plans to help you identify core systems and vital information and records
- Make use of the collaboration features within platforms such as Office365 to enable teams and individuals to plan and work effectively whilst working remotely
- Ensure you provide appropriate support and guidance around the use of such platforms so as not to exclude less confident users
- Try to encourage a management culture which is built around trust, flexibility and outputs, rather than one which leaves staff feeling the need to account for every minute of their working day
- Proactively plan a regular schedule of both team and individual one to one meetings to both ensure clarity regarding priorities and activities and the wellbeing of your staff