Leading Remote Teams: 5 Questions for a CIO

Posted on Apr 2020

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Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, a large number of teams have had to abandon their normal office environments and are having to stay productive from home. As an employer or manager, what are some things to consider, and common pitfalls to keep in mind, when transitioning your team to remote working?

It is important to consider whether your staff are used to home working or not. Especially if they are not, make sure you know what you can expect from them - will they be able to do the exact same work as they would in the office? Don’t expect them to be available around the clock just because they now have their work environment at home.

One of the biggest issues with remote teams is running high performing meetings. Now is a good time to go back to the basics of meeting etiquette. Having a clear agenda and framing your questions and issues clearly helps ensure participation when it is so easy to do other things like being on your phone or going through emails while on a conference call. It is useful to have a facilitator and someone who will recap outcomes and next actions at the end to keep the momentum going on projects. When we are in the office, most of us probably ignore half of those golden rules but now is the time they become crucial to help us stay productive.

Another one of the pitfalls is ensuring your IT support is adequate and supportive of home working. Most Internet Service Providers aren’t offering any channel support at the moment because they've shut down all their offices. It is reassuring to know there is help available through your organisation because being unable to connect at a time like this is incredibly frustrating. Consider supplying those who don’t have a strong and stable internet connection with a 4G home router.

The other thing in the IT support space is, if you're using software that allows remote access to employees' desktops, then patching and rebooting the devices needs to be considered and downtimes communicated.

Essentially, there needs to be a sound strategy on how you keep all the infrastructure running.

Can you give some recommendations for cyber security best practices that need to be in place when your team is working remotely?

If your team is using corporate equipment then there is very little to worry about over and above the cyber security measures that would already be in place in the office. It may be wise, given the extended nature of our current situation, to review what the security measures are and see whether you need to introduce some stronger protection. Maybe you're not using Two Factor Authentication, maybe some of your security stuff is not quite up to date.

You know you have a good level of protection if the technology you are using ensures separation of the machine from the local network in the home so you can't have infiltration into the corporate network.

The more tricky area is where employees are using their own hardware while using software supplied by the organisation. Unless that is strongly separated at the desktop layer, there is the opportunity for infiltration. There's also the risk of the employee unwittingly exfiltrating data onto their own machines. A classic example of a cyber security risk is that a lot of printers connect to the internet. So unless it is set up properly, it's a direct route into your home network. Making sure that there is a clear separation of the corporate from the home is very important in this area.

If you're having to introduce technologies because you didn't have them before, don't go for the free ones and don’t introduce tools simply because others are. It is vital to make sure the solution is robust. There's been a lot of noise in the IT community about weaknesses in Zoom for instance. I know a number of organisations are distributing lists of prohibited technology tools, which is worthwhile doing. Organisational leaders need to think very carefully about technologies they’re using and whether they truly are of industry strength and offer good protection.

Now is also a good time to remind your employees of their data protection responsibilities. You should reinforce cyber security best practices such as phishing email vigilance.

Speaking of what needs to be communicated to employees: What training and information should employers share with their staff now to allow them to work from home as efficiently and securely as possible?

Employers have a duty of care to their staff, whether they're working from home or not.

If you're sending people home for extended periods, then you need to be very aware that you should be sending out health and safety policies and providing information on the best ways of working. That includes all the classics like seating, height of monitors and taking breaks. The employees need to be able to understand their responsibilities and the responsibilities of the employers.

This brings us into the question of how to keep people’s morale up in this current situation.

Reiterate to your staff the importance of operating a Clear Desk Policy. Unless they have a dedicated room allowing them to lock the door and walk away from it, they should tidy everything away when they finish the day's work. Staff shouldn't feel like they’re always at ‘the office’.

As well as providing people with the best working environment as you can in their home, keeping in touch is very important - not just through meetings, but trying to maintain some social rhythm. If you had Pizza Fridays, you can still have Pizza Fridays on video. When setting up social networking, make sure to use corporate standard secure methods and don’t suddenly set up a Facebook group.

Try to keep track of the hours that people are working, and generally make them feel they're included in the team, especially given that some people are now isolated and totally on their own without even the joy of having a dog! So making sure that they are safe, well and happy is as important as making sure that machines are secure.

Once we go back to normal, can you imagine that some of this remote working could have longer lasting effects on how we work?

We are doing more and more business with clients remotely. Whereas previously we may have felt the emotional need to jump on a plane and sit in front of them, now we’re managing to do that without that carbon footprint and, following this COVID-19 crisis, people may feel more comfortable working remotely. We may start to question the old ways. Do we really need to travel for that hour and a half meeting?

I think the other thing is that it may reduce management's resistance to home working for back-office staff and people who traditionally have not been offered home working opportunities, simply because their management didn’t believe they would do a solid day's work if they're not constantly under supervision. That could lead to a better work-life balance for those individuals. It can also lead to reduced operating costs for the companies and we all know that most companies will be under extreme financial pressure - during this period, and after it.

We've seen many service companies in smaller offices in central London move to more home working in the past few years as they might have otherwise run out of desk space. Even in professions like law, where it used to be considered essential that the staff were huddled around a table 24 hours a day. I think we may see some more changes in that area.

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