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.
- IT Zone library - remote & mobile working
- Focus on business continuity planning
- Focus on remote working - tools, tax and techniques
- An accountant's guide to remote working
- Cloud Computing discussion group
- An introduction to the wireless internet
- The business risks of home WiFi networks
- The promise of unified communications
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AccountingWEB’s interim Editor in Chief has been with the site since 1999 and returned to the editorial hot seat in March 2020 to support the team through the pandemic. When not tending to the needs of AccountingWEB members and geeking out on their technology habits, he devotes much of his time to an oddball collection of stringed instruments...