According to the U.S. Labor Department, 71 percent of American workers can't yet work from home. However, for those who can, a new question arises: Just because the possibility exists, is a workplace equipped to do so?
An effective work from home policy all starts with business continuity planning, and there are three elements to handling a fresh demand in work-from-home accommodations, says Rick Barr, chief operating officer of unified access management platform OneLogin.
First, check to see if employees have everything they need to be able to work from home. Second, check to see if the hardware and services employees would rely on to work remotely can handle it if the company's user load doubles, triples or quadruples overnight.
"Then the third piece, [which is] really important, is communication," Barr said. "Particularly with a remote workforce, [IT management] needs to be a little bit more sensitive to the fact that folks don't get that sense of what's going on when they're not in the office. Communications from the company are really important as you go through an event."
Thinking through workers' tech needs and how they'll be supported is another area in which IT departments will need to work with business units and operations personnel when preparing a suitable work from home policy.
"We will see a change of behavior," he said. "Here's an example: Let's say I'm responsible for everything post-sale – so, customer support, customer success, professional services, education and training. My support folks need access to phone lines, the internet, and a VPN.
"So, the questions I ask myself are: Is my VPN going to be stable and allow my workers to work remotely? What kind of phones are they using – they can use softphones anywhere. They need access to the production infrastructure, and I can provide that via VPN. For all intents and purposes, a support center or technical support, in its totality, could operate at home indefinitely. Well, that's a really good feeling."
(A softphone is a software program that allows users to make telephone calls over the internet using a general-purpose computer.)
In addition to anticipating the needs of workers, checking to ensure any support tech like VPNs can work at capacity is important for an organization's work from home policy to succeed, as is building in redundancy. This way, if a core application or service goes down from overuse, workers know they've got a backup – and know how to use it.
Automation can play a key role here – both in testing setups and in assessing the scope and severity of a situation if a company is affected by something that disrupts normal operations, like a medical quarantine or weather-related event.
"What you want to do is be able to quickly get an assessment as to how many people are good and how many are unreachable. Once we know, we'll go down the next decision tree of how to communicate," Barr said.
"This stuff is reasonably basic outside of the infrastructure: How do you communicate and what do you want your employees to know? Do you have a backup way to communicate with them in case your first option doesn't work?"
IT departments that haven't planned for and tested how to enable company-wide communications in a remote-work scenario had better do so as part of their brief for enabling business operations "This is the new normal and people are going to have to rethink how they do things," Barr said.