The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen all businesses, save essential services, asking their employees to work from home, in an effort to practise social distancing and lessen the impact of the virus.
Remote working is effective on multiple levels. It ensures that employees are safe and productive, and transforms businesses, by equipping them with resilient and adaptive ways to engage with their stakeholders and deliver economic value, writes Stefan Mayer, Managing Director at Corporate AV Integration.
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Health and safety
However, it is not without its hurdles. “As many of us start to work from home, we are learning of the immediate challenges we are facing,” says a spokesperson from Corporate AV. “These affect us from different perspectives, including the company in terms of making the appropriate decision from an investment or efficiency point of view, those being in charge for the IT infrastructure, and any employee who is working remotely.”
Firstly, let’s look at bandwidth and connectivity. “Companies need to figure out how much bandwidth employees need to work from home and stay connected. Technologies such as video conferencing (VC) need to receive and to transmit data, meaning looking at the download speed only isn’t enough. The highest common denominator is needed here – 10 Mbps internet connection isn’t necessarily symmetrical, it could be 10 Mbps down and only 2 Mbps up, meaning the common bandwidth is 2 Mbps. In addition, other users within the household need to be factored in.”
Then there’s the question of whether the Internet is plugged in or WIFI. “This is a crucial consideration. We live in the wireless world and expect everything to work perfectly wirelessly, but this is not the case. Few wireless routers or access points have the necessary throughput, so running a network cable from the router to the home office location, is ideal.”
The way remote work is handled varies from company to company, he adds. “Many will have IT policies in place, which need to be adhered to. Remote workers might be required to work via VPN’s in order to access shared resources on main servers, which can have an impact on network speeds and suchlike. Currently, many IT departments are figuring out the best route to go, as many are unprepared, and are scrambling to work it out as quickly as possible to avoid downtime and lost productivity.”
The spokesperson says VPN’s are an effective way to maintain firewalls and safety on corporate networks, and remote users are monitored and software updates can be managed.
When it comes to SMMEs, he says most smaller entities have no hard and fast system in place for remote workers and are now figuring out how to connect their remote workers. Many will ask their staff if they have a home Internet connection, then will work out data allocation, and either offer to pay the monthly fee or supply a LTE router with a contract.
“Once the hardware and environmental challenges have been dealt with, businesses need to focus on the software they will employ for their video conferencing and productivity needs. Again, in large enterprises, this will be covered, as most have tools such as Office 365 in place with a Teams license or Google G suite with hangouts. For smaller companies who don’t have a set way of doing things remotely, there are a plethora of tools available, such as ZOOM, WebEx, Teams, Google Hangouts, Bluejeans, Pexip, Skype, GoToMeeting, Zoho, to name but a few.”
According to him, choosing the appropriate solution requires understanding the pros and cons of each. “In principle, they all work the same, so questions such as who employees will be VC calling with is key. Should they be mainly connecting with other remote workers within the organisation, then it makes sense for all to use the same platform. Should they, however, be calling external clients, there might be a number of different systems being used, which is why many software applications work off a Web-based platform allowing users to send a URL link to whomever they wish to call, who then need only click on the link and the browser enables the call or a temporary software app gets installed.”
He says the majority of software codecs are free to download and to use for limited periods. “Some keep all one-on-one calls free but will limit the time of each call, others allow multiparty calling but without a scheduling function, and some limit the time on multi-party calling or offer free session recording. All software-based operators have a paid-for, prime version with enhanced features, unlimited calling duration, up to 100 participants in multiparty calls, unlimited recording time and suchlike.”
Camera, microphone, speaker and headphone
When it comes to the above, businesses need to decide whether to use external or internal devices, or a mixture of both. Most laptops come with a Webcam, but they tend to angle up the user’s nostrils, meaning an external camera is your best bet, says the spokesperson.
“This should always be positioned at eye height to ensure the eyes can be seen by the far side. Moreover, there is nothing worse than not being able to hear the far side, so a good microphone is essential. And while many use Bluetooth earpieces, or wireless air pods, these are not great in my opinion. The microphones don’t pick up well enough, as voices project forward. On the plus side, most external cameras feature built-in microphones, which, as they are positioned right in front of the user, pick up voice with perfect clarity. Other options include a desktop Jabra speak 510 speakerphone, Shure MV51 or a Logitech external microphone.”
The spokesperson says next, companies need to consider whether to use a single or dual monitor setup. “Without a doubt, a good setup will require screen real estate. Workers need to have the requisite space for their various tasks, so it becomes a question of how to arrange the layout effectively. Do we use a laptop with one external monitor or a desktop computer with two? Many employees who were previously office-bound employees won’t have laptops and might be given their desktop PC to use at home. In this scenario, all external devices will need to be considered such as monitors, speakers, mics and cameras.”
He advises avoiding buying the cheapest monitor available, as these might not be suitable. “Careful consideration needs to be taken to establish the real estate required, and what resolution is appropriate. Often, extra-wide monitors, which have the ability to show multiple documents side by side, will often eliminate the need for two monitors side by side and come only at a slightly higher cost.”
Finally, he says when an employee will be working from home indefinitely, an ergonomically comfortable workspace needs to be created. “Things to consider here are seating position, type of chair with back arch support, head position, and the position of the monitor becomes of vital importance.”
“Few have given much thought to how they should behave in this new reality,” he adds. “Employees are still technically ‘at work’, so would wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt be acceptable? Are we permitted to let ourselves go as we believe we likely won’t be seeing anyone today? These are all considerations, which although might seem trivial, are not necessarily. People who have been working from home for some time, understand that discipline is key to a successful workday. Many think working from home means sleeping in, binging on Netflix shows and similar. However, having a daily routine in place is key to making this work, and managers need to stop micromanaging their employees and manage based on outcomes.”
Lighting, makeup, clothes
Another consideration, says spokesperson, is where the light source is coming from. “Cameras must adjust for different contrast etc, depending on the user’s skin tone and the amount of natural light, as otherwise faces can appear to be too dark or light with varying degrees of shadowing taking place. A desk lamp positioned from above to reduce shadows as well as light up your face is recommended. Users who wear glasses should conduct some tests to see how the light reflects on their lenses, as people on the other side are able to see the reflections on their screen.”
In terms of what to wear, he advises to keep things professional, and quotes Karl Lagerfeld, who said: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
In order to be clearly visible, spokesperson says it is good practice to use a neutral background with little to no movement – think curtains and blinds, which can move in the wind. The colours users wear should also to be in contrast with their environment, to ensure they stand out in the video. Many VC software applications have the ability to add a virtual background. This is a great idea.
A final word of advice
“Working from home is the new reality, and will be for the foreseeable future. It is also bound to have a profound impact on the way we work in the future. We all need to grab this opportunity and embrace it, and transform our workplaces now, before we get left behind,” he ends.