Ensure Your Business is Ready For Bad Weather Home Working
It’s that time of year again when storms and snow can start to affect the transport infrastructure. Whilst the UK hasn’t seen any major snow fall yet the country has been hit by storms and flooding which has forced many people out of their homes and in less severe cases – cut off from their place of work.
Even when staff can commute, it could be they are affected by the closure of schools in bad weather and they need to make alternative childcare arrangements. Key staff might be stuck at home for several days, which could have a significant impact on business continuity. Clients and customers are often not very sympathetic to hear your staff couldn’t get into work, even if they themselves have been affected by bad weather.
Don’t let weather affect your operation, be prepared for staff to temporarily work at home with access to all key business systems to minimise disruption to normal service. The time to think about it is not the morning when somebody calls in saying they cannot get into work. So how you be prepared in advance?
The obvious device that will work at home is a mobile phone so we’ll take that as granted. The vast majority of people have reasonable bandwidth Internet access at home and a PC or Laptop. That is all they need to securely access business systems.
If the member of staff has an office workstation then an easy and low-cost solution would be to allow them to take remote control of their office workstation from their home PC. That would need remote access software such as TeamViewer.
Essentially, the home PC is acting as the screen and keyboard for the office PC. This mechanism is easy to setup, uses encrypted network traffic and is password protected. Modern remote control software such as TeamViewer can even wake-up workstations that are in sleep mode using Wake-on-LAN technology. That means you don’t have to leave workstations running.
Another option would be to use remote desktop technology. This allows a virtual Windows desktop to be run in background on a server or workstation and accessed from a remote PC or laptop. It would be necessary to configure a Virtual Private Network (VPN) link from the home PC to the organisations private network to provide a secure tunnel over which encrypted traffic passes from the server to the home PC. VPN technology is included free with Windows and just needs basic configuration. Access is controlled using normal user domain login credentials and security privileges.
If it is not possible to remote control an office-based workstation/laptop or use a virtual desktop then consider what access to business systems can be provided directly over the Internet from a web browser on a home PC.
Top of the list is usually email. If your organisation uses Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook email client then you can use Outlook Web Access (OWA) from any Internet-connected workstation anywhere in the world. OWA provides a rich user interface that supports virtually all the functionality of Outlook from within a web browser such as Internet Explorer. OWA needs to be configured on your Exchange Server and you will need to have setup a domain name to route email traffic over the Internet, into your private network and to your email server.
If your organisation uses any hosted systems that are accessed over the Internet from the office (For example Selima or a CRM system) then it follows these can be accessed from a home PC with an Internet connection.
Access to data files in shared folders and network storage can also be achieved from a home PC. Simply create a VPN connection from home to the office and map the URL (location of the folder) to a network drive in Windows Explorer. This will require permissions to allow certain users to be able to access the VPN server.
If locally installed thick-client software is utilised and remote access is not achievable then consider having a series of laptops pre-configured and tested as emergency workstations. These would link to network resources using a VPN connection. This is a great use for old laptops that have been replaced by newer models. These machines need to be regularly updated and tested. If bad weather is forecast then staff that fear they may be affected can simply take home an emergency laptop just in case.
It’s even possible to distribute your business phone system over the Internet to the homes of staff or any other location with a decent Internet connection. Modern phone systems use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This means the audio is converted into network traffic and sent over a combination of private and public networks. Modern IP telephone handsets are low cost and can be configured to simply plug into a home router and operate just as though they were in the office (extension number and all). You don’t even need to use physical IP telephones as you can utilise free VoIP client software that emulates a handset and uses the PC microphone/speakers or a headset.
So there you have it – several steps you can implement in advance with minimal investment which will allow your staff to work as normally as possible if they are stuck at home. There may still be some slight interruptions within normal service but it is possible with proper care and planning that there won’t be a total melt-down when bad weather strikes.
Of course this is practical advice for organisations that have a lot of desk based employees– you may still need to consider back up plans for employees who aren’t such factory or shop workers. Business owners also need to consider the HR side of things – like having a policy in place for bad weather which may include the option of letting employees use holiday days etc.