Small Business Work-From-Home Survival Guide

Office worker holding cell phone

Introduction

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now." - Chinese Proverb

Everyone is now well aware of the COVID-19 virus outbreak and the need to reduce person-to-person exposure and self-quarantine. Larger companies have no doubt been busy implementing their business continuity plans to cope with the issue. However many smaller companies don't have the resources available to prepare for these types of disaster scenarios ahead of time. As the reality of this situation starts to take hold, many businesses that were initially reluctant to make adjustments are now scrambling for options on how to continue to conduct business in an unexpected, and likely prolonged, work-from-home environment. Below I've put together some resources and tools that may be of use to those unfamiliar with these types of setups.

Desk Phones

The phone system can be one of the main location-specific pain points. Most small businesses live and die by their main phone line which has been extensively advertised in mailers, listed on their business cards, and included in their email signatures for years. Unfortunately small offices may be using an old phone systems with limited functionality. Some options available to redirect your office line(s):

  • Ideal: Your phone system is already capable of ringing personal phones through an app. If you already use a VOIP provider like OnSip, Grasshopper, or RingCentral this can be as simple as installing their app on your mobile phone or home computer and logging in. Incoming calls will ring on the phone normally, outgoing calls can use business line by calling through the app. The apps work with the service providers central systems, so extension support should already be taken care of.
  • OK: Your phone system allows forwarding to a home number. This can typically be done either centrally, if you have access to the phone admin system, or at each desk individually. Incoming calls ring normally, outgoing calls will come from your personal number. If you just have a single line with no extensions you can normally set up forwarding through the phone company directly (google is your friend on how to set this up with the various carriers).
  • Good enough: If neither of the options above are available, as a worse-case fallback you can sign up for one of the VOIP (voice-over-IP) providers mentioned above which will provision another phone number for you, you can then either give this new number to clients or update the main line's voicemail to instruct callers to call the new number for the time being. This isn't pretty but in some cases may be the only option available. Keep in mind that most retail VOIP providers support multiple extensions so you likely only need a single new line (though possibly a more expensive plan depending on the number of extensions)

Email

Small businesses typically use the major email providers (Google, Microsoft, etc) so switching email to work-from-home shouldn't be an issue on the surface. Some things to keep in mind though:

  • Separate your work and you personal logins: This is particularly true when logging in via a web browser, the large email providers love to link accounts together which can cause issues down the road that range from innocent confusion of which account you are currently using to more concerning cross-contamination security problems. A simple way to avoid this is to use either a different browser all together (say Chrome for personal, Firefox for business) or use the browser's native capability to separate sessions (Firefox has profiles, Chrome has a guest mode)
  • Check your network restrictions: The larger providers allow access from virtually anywhere by default, but if you have a smaller email provider and/or you have set up controls like IP restrictions you may need to revisit them to allow access from employee home IPs (though be careful to not over permit).

Inter-office Chat

Most businesses are already be using some form of inter-office chat system (Skype, Slack, Teams, etc), for those that haven't it's likely time to take the plunge (short of those under compliance regulations forbidding it). As an added benefit, the major chat systems mentioned also provide (at least to some degree) basic video calling and screen sharing which can be very helpful in getting the new workflows up and running. In terms of administrative control, Microsoft Teams is capable of setting the most restrictions, Skype the least, and Slack roughly comes in at a middle-ground between the two.

Call / Video Conferencing

Although some chat systems may provide a degree of limited video conferencing, when you are looking to regularly hold conference calls or meetings remotely you're going to want to use a solution geared for just that. The main players in this market are Webex, Zoom, GoToMeeting and Teams. At one point or another I've used all of these and they each more-or-less satisfy the majority use-cases.

Work-From-Home Policy

It may be the last thing on your mind at this point, but even sketching out a simple work-from-home policy is in everyone's best interests so that there is no misunderstandings of what is expected from the various parties. An outline of a full work-from-home policy is beyond the scope of this post, but what you'll want is, at a minimum, to include the expectations and restrictions such as:

  • Time range expected to be working from home (e.g. 9a-5p M-F)
  • What equipment is to be used (e.g. company provided laptops or staff's personal systems/phones/etc)
  • Software required to be installed (e.g. antivirus, host-based firewall, etc)
  • Expense Reimbursements (e.g. business calls using personal phone, allowances for home-office supplies)
  • Instructions for staff (e.g. who to go to for help, how company mail is to be picked up, checks mailed, etc)

The Human Part

I thought I'd finish with a section on the often overlooked human side of this setup. For those about to work from home for the first time it may seem like a dream come true, but as frequent remote-work horror stories across the internet can attest, there is a sizable risk of depression and feelings of isolation. Humans have been hard-wired for a very long time to be social creatures, and the sudden shift from frequent in-person interaction (work, shopping, recreation) to one of self-quarantine will no doubt take its toll on many, many people. Coupled with the likely continuous stream of depressing and upsetting news, its important to take care of your mental health as well. As someone who made the transition to work-from-home right before the current crisis, here are some tips I can recommend:

  • Establish a daily routine: This is probably the most important one. The human mind thrives on a schedule, it allows it to know when it needs to engage and when it can finally relax and recover. If you're coming off a typical office routine, the lack of structure can be disorienting. Its key to still wake up early, put together a task list, plan out your day in chunks of 1-4 hours each, execute those tasks, then give time at the end of the day to wind down. Beyond the work side of things, this is a great time to catch up on all those things around the house you've been putting off doing.
  • Make an effort to (remotely) socialize: Call/video call/text friends and family, post on social media, etc. Find ways to engage the world at large even if sitting at home. Sign up to a forum you've been interested in, ask questions, help others. At the same time be careful to limit your news ingestion to a reasonable level, reading ten news stories on the same single underlying event will only give you anxiety. Pick a single, broad news source (like apnews.com) and check in once or twice a day max.
  • Exercise / take walks: Exercise is one of the most effective stress reducers. Even if stuck inside there are plenty of YouTube videos on how to exercise at home using your own body weight for resistance. For those in suburban or rural areas, taking a 10+ min walk will not only reduce stress but can help maintain your sleep/wake rhythm.

Final notes

This is a critical period of time where we are faced with a serious outbreak that endangers lives and businesses worldwide. It remains unclear what the total death toll and economic damage will ultimately be, though current projections have been grim. In one way or another we will get through this, and although the adjustments made to normal life will likely persist for some time, the hope is that we will be better equipped going forward.

Stay safe, be patient with your fellow man, and try to be the pillar you look for in others.