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Bad weather: The business survival kit

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6th Jan 2010
Editor in Chief AccountingWEB
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As waves of snow sweep into Britain from Siberia, civilisation as we know it appears to have broken down. With transport and infrastructure severely disrupted, up to 20% of workers were unable to get into work on this morning (6 Jan). According to the Federation of Small Business, the resulting lost productivity will cost UK businesses £1.2bn or more.

It's not as if we weren't warned, but the weather-induced chaos has presented an ideal opportunity for technologists to remind businesses that we now have the means to lessen the impact of bad weather. Mobile and remote working tools make it possible to be productive in almost any location and the aptly named Cloud Computing can take care of all your processing needs on the internet.

This article presents an overview of remote working options, and offers tips and links to more detailed advice on how to go about it.

Top survival tips

1. Situations such as this week's snow disruption should be part of your business continuity plan

2. Common sense and appropriate use of remote working technology can minimise the impact for many, says the CIPD

3. For information industries, Cloud Computing lets you work from almost anywhere - as long as you've got an internet connection

4. Have a back-up system at home, with software and applications ready to go for remote working

5. Put appropriate policies and security precautions in place

Sensible HR advice

Coping with bad weather conditions isn't just a matter of modern technology, notes Rebecca Clarke of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). 

While some employers still hold the view that they expect to see employees at their posts 'come Hell or high water', expecting them to travel in dangerous conditions can affect staff morale and can be risky from a health and safety perspective, she advises.

Common sense should prevail on both sides. Employees shouldn't use the weather as an excuse for an unscheduled holiday and should make their situation clear if they are unable to get to work or are suddenly faced with unexpected childcare duties.

For their part, "Employers should make clear to employees that they should not risk life and limb to get to work, and be understanding if employees need to leave early to avoid getting stranded unnecessarily on their way home – particularly if conditions worsen during the working day," Clark advises.

Where employees have to drive for work, employers have a health and safety duty to ensure they are allowed extra time to complete journeys and factor in alternative routes – and that they are not pressurised to complete any dangerous journeys, she adds.

We have the technology

While it may be impossible for distribution, manufacturing and process industries to carry on without their workforces in situ, it's perfectly feasible for many of the country's information workers - including accountants - to log in to work from home.

This flexible approach makes it possible for many service businesses to continue uninterrupted whatever the circumstances and can deliver additional benefits.

"The crude millions-of-pounds estimates of the cost to the economy of bad weather often don't take into account the millions of motivated workers who will be remotely working or if access to emails is not possible, using the time to focus on planning or reflecting on work processes and practices," says Clarke.

Cloud Computing, where applications and data are stored in a central location on the web, has become increasingly widespread in the past few years and greatly expands the scope for remote working.

Bristol-based Cloud accounting developer Pearl Systems reported in Any Answers that its customers were still busy on Wednesday morning. "From our logs it looks like most users are still managing to crack on with business as usual," the company says. "If you’re stuck at home with all your information on the computers at work, you’ll appreciate how nice it would be to access everything remotely... and if you're a boss sitting at work thinking 'where’s my team?' then wouldn't it be nice to know that your business is running at full power with everyone working from home."

Simple Cloud applications such as Pearl or virtual business environments such as the recently introduced IRIS Hosting sit at the base of the remote working pyramid. If you're prepared to invest time and money, far more powerful systems are available that can make your workforce fully productive while on the move, whatever the weather conditions.

Tim Thaxter is responsible for championing what is known as unified communications at Siemens Enterprise Communications. By combining voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephony, office data and applications into an interlinked environment, these systems make it possible to move beyond email to conduct business via online collaboration and web conferencing. "This is reducing the amount of time being wasted when staff are stranded or attempt to travel in very difficult road and rail conditions," he says.

Working from home - practical issues

Even if you haven't kitted out your team with laptops, web-compatible smartphones and online collaboration tools, they probably have a home computer with an internet connection. That's all you need to be productive with a Cloud application.

Very often, home networks will include a wireless router. This is likely to be one of the many risk points you encounter with any home working arrangement. Reminding staff of good IT security habits is always a good idea, and in this situation start by ensuring they know how to alter the default password setting for their home wireless hub, or you may discover they're sharing your company data with their neighbours.

On the hardware side, if you'd like to expand your remote operations consider buying laptops and docking stations for the office rather than desktop machines. The laptops can be maintained and protected as part of your office network, and many modern applications will automatically 'synch' back with the office server when users return to the office and reconnect

If you're a small, owner-managed operation, keeping a separate stand-by computer at home is not only a good idea for coping in emergencies, it's also an ideal way to back up (and restore) your business data and systems. If it wasn't bad weather you were facing, but a disk crash at work, you could go home and be up and running again on the home-based shadow PC in a matter of minutes.

Inevitably the remote worker will need to refer to a document on the office server or to share a file with a colleague. In the short term, more organised workers might have the foresight to carry active data with them on USB memory sticks, or staff can email files to each other. In the longer term, this approach is impractical and can create all manner of data management and security problems.

One technological solution is to extend your office network to remote workers via a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN can either rely on encryption software to scramble all the data that travels to and from the protected office network, or it might rely on a protected data 'tunnel' through the network firewall that remote users sign into using private system IDs and passwords.

In a Cloud environment, however, data storage and back-ups all take place online, so the information is available wherever you are - and as long as you verify the location and data management arrangements of your supplier, they are likely to be more methodically managed than the usual tape/CD back-up and home PC arrangement employed by most small businesses.

Security and other management issues and risks

Remote working can mean safer, happier and more productive staff, but raises a number of management issues beyond misplaced laptops and data sticks.

Any new communication technology - whether instant messaging, VoIP or social networks such as Facebook and Twitter - creates new security challenges. Once a remote worker is away from the office, you have less control on the websites and services they access and the types of files or malware infections they may be receiving.

Ergonomic workspaces and equipment such as adjustable chairs/desks and screen setups are a given in an office situation, but as with security and appropriate use policies, it is easy to overlook these issues with 'out of sight, out of mind' home workers.

If you rely on remote working as an occasional contingency, the use of personal computers and internet connections - and attendant risks - may be balanced by the benefits and convenience of the arrangement for both employer and employee. But longer-term home use should be formalised and agreed as part of a wider business continuity and flexible working plan. For more detailed advice on the issues involved, consult some of the articles below.

Further reading

Replies (7)

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By onesys
06th Jan 2010 15:48

Business Survival, Technology and Six Inches of Snow

Perhaps a few inches of snow can achieve what a decade of technology sales and environmental adverts couldn't...

Imagine what a severe winter like 1963 could do for the way we work!

Home working has transformed my working and personal life.

Early adoption of affordable hardware and software has greatly benefited me and the software company I work for.  There is no need to switch to Cloud Computing / SaaS systems, as you can stick to the traditional computer / server-based software you are familiar with. For instance the applications I use (Sage Act! and Sage Coretime) are browser-based and are ideal for home working but the same applies for the accounting packages we supply.

As an added personal and environmental bonus, remote access has saved me 480 hours per year in travelling time and it has taken one car off the road that used to do 20,000 miles per year. Like me and my colleagues, many of you could save a small fortune.

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By carlreader
07th Jan 2010 10:32

How we managed to continue service yesterday...

Here's an article from our local news website about how we dealt with the snow...

http://www.thisiswiltshire.co.uk/news/4835799.Technology_beats_the_snow/

Carl

 

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By naomi2000
07th Jan 2010 10:36

A timely reminder ...

... may I suggest a follow up article on video and teleconferencing ? I know that a lot of first timers find remote meetings a bit unnerving and I expect a lot of people will be trying them for the first time over the next few weeks.

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By Richard Lees
07th Jan 2010 14:06

Working from home

Well, a company called ANS seem to have carried on business as usual by remote working. Despite only 2 out of 85 staff making it into the office today due to the Snow its business as usual for ANS Group.

 

Thanks to Cisco and its Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA) staff are able to access all the systems they require to work from home including the Cisco Telephony System which allow users to log in on soft phones on their laptops just as if they were in the office.

 

Managing Director, Paul Sweeney who battled for 2 hours to cover 8 miles early this morning to open the office said "It's a great time to practice what we preach, we invoked our Business Continuity Plan this morning at 7.30am communicating to all office based staff to log on from home and work as normal, all systems and accessible and all DDI's and hunt groups work as normal".   

 

Manchester City Centre saw it's worst snow conditions in decades with over 6 inches of snow in the centre, effectively crippling business just as they get started in the New Year.

 

Sweeney said "As many of office staff use Virtual Desktops is very simple and secure to connect via a broadband connection and continue to work"

 

When asked how he was going to get home tonight he said "That's a great question, to which I have no answer yet, I've checked the Kitchen and there plenty of Milk and Sugar though!"

 

Might be worth contacting them if anyone is interested in lookin into this.  Their website is www.ansgroup.co.uk

 

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By Anonymous
07th Jan 2010 17:55

Cloud computing

This is all well and good, but I am dubious about the merits of having confidential data stored on a third party server somewhere in the cloud. Surely the server owner/administrator would be in a position to override any security I put in place or at the very least able to deny me access to my own records.

I already have the ability to remotely log on to my corporate network from anywhere over the internet, so what advantages does the cloud have over this setup?

 

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By markwev
07th Jan 2010 18:52

Updating staff and customers

A very convenient way to contact staff and customers to notify them of latest updates is to use SMS (text messaging).   We can offer organisations access to an online portal with built in address books and all sorts of features for just £10 per month and 6p per text (no lengthy contracts) so you can contact 500 people for just £40.

Worked very well for the schools that were using it today.

www.smilessms.com

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By cymraeg_draig
25th Nov 2010 23:43

Trust

Do firms really have so little trust in their employees that they think they would use bad weather as an excuse for not going to work?

If that is the case, then I suggest those firms need to look at the way they treat their staff because they obviously either have a poor selection process, or, they treat their staff so poorly that they dont gain staff loyalty.

 

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