Getting Ready for Going Remote
Getting Ready for Going Remote
“We have remote truss designers all over the country, from Arizona to New York,” says Dale Nord, systems administrator of Huskey Truss in Franklin, Tennessee. Dale’s primary responsibilities are related to deploying suitable technology and devices, while maintaining the company’s IT infrastructure security. And because he has this broad viewpoint, he completely embraces the reality that when distance isn’t an issue, the “pool of talented employees is much bigger.”
Many component manufacturers are increasing the number of remote designers they employ for a variety of reasons. Like Huskey, some companies are finding they can secure more capable candidates if they’re willing to look outside their geographic area. Others, like Shelter Systems Limited in Westminster, Maryland, are finding that the standard 8 to 5 work hours just aren’t cutting it anymore. Both employees and customers are looking for more flexibility.
There are a handful of recurring themes around remote employees, most of which relate to technology. Whether it’s determining which device and accessory package is fast but affordable or ensuring your data is up to date and secure, there are a number of considerations to explore before you hire your first, or tenth, remote employee.
Provide the Right Tools
“Increasingly, our customers expect a higher level of service,” explains Jason Hikel, information systems manager at Shelter. “We need to have the ability to pull up information quickly and efficiently from anywhere and at any time.” Jason also emphasizes the need to be portable, not just for working at home, but also for taking the information out into the field to work with customers or collaborate with the sales team. “This is about putting the right tools in their hands.”
That often means trying to control something that is entirely out of his hands: remote internet speed. Jason notes the “user experience is limited by the bandwidth on the remote end,” meaning remote employees who can't upload and download files quickly, due to their home internet speed, often become frustrated. (They are also inefficient, potentially hindering the production schedule.)
No one wants employees sitting around waiting for files to upload or download, which led Huskey to think outside the box. Rather than rely on fast internet outside of the office, they’ve moved to a nearly 100 percent cloud-based model in which managers and designers use online storage services to transfer files to and from the office. “We’ve really moved away from having a direct connection to the facility,” Dale explains. “We put the raw materials they need to get started in their cloud storage, and they put the finished product back in the same place.” A simple email lets the office know the work is done and uploaded.
Keep Security and Usability in Mind
Dale’s cloud-based system also works as a solution to another common concern: data security. “Everything our remote designers need is either in the cloud or right on their laptop,” says Dale, “which means they are fully divorced from the infrastructure on our end.” With so many potential security pitfalls, from run-of-the-mill malware to productivity-halting encryption viruses, running a tight ship is critical.
“The security risks we potentially take on with remote workers can be scary,” says Ken Zimmerman, IT manager of Littfin Lumber Co. in Winsted, Minnesota. But Ken is quick to acknowledge “those things can affect people in the building, too, so you always need to be cautious.” Ken continually evaluates the tools he’s using to keep his systems healthy and invests in the hardware, software and services the market deems most reliable to keep the threat level low.
Jason notes that any time your devices (including phones, tablets and computers) and your data are leaving the confines of your building, there are plenty of matters to be concerned about. “It’s difficult to maintain security on internal systems when we can’t control outside resources,” he clarifies. For 2018, Jason is refining the standardized set of tools he pushes out to his team. Finding the perfect blend of components that work internally and externally is also helping him hone in on a more easily, and centrally, managed system.
Dale and Ken take a similar approach to devices and accessories and supply a consistent technology package to their designers near and far. It simplifies the process for everyone involved and keeps asset management at a minimum. Dale notes that “ensuring everyone has the same equipment also ensures it works.”
There also seems to be consensus among the IT-minded that sometimes it makes sense to find an expert for the really complicated or high-end technical stuff. “I’ve been engaging my wireless providers,” says Jason. “There’s value in outsourcing some of the legwork.” Software and service providers can look at a system and provide recommendations or introduce tools that enhance the existing infrastructure. The overarching opinion is that, at least for some things, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Don’t Overlook the Basics
It’s clear that providing and securing all of the right technology is a big part of the equation, but it’s also clear that communication is vital to success. Jason notes that when a remote relationship fails, at least historically, it’s been less about technology and more about management. However, technology has changed enough in the last few years to make managing remote employees much easier. New tools for online collaboration and less dependency on paper have made a big difference.
“One of the technologies we deploy is an actual desk phone,” Dale explains. “We have a VOIP system that they can hook into, so we can call them with a four-digit extension and it feels just like they are in the office.” This also means that if the remote employees need to talk with a local architect or building official, they have a local number and it looks like they are in the local office.
Ken’s phone system solution is similar, providing quick connections and local numbers for people inside and outside of the building. His remote designers are just another extension in their virtualized phone system. Companies are also finding that messaging programs, such as Lync and Skype, are excellent tools for quick questions.
The potential for finding motivated, competent employees is higher when you have a large pool from which to choose. If that means hiring a remote employee, it’s clear that having a good plan in place for technology and security are critical. “We make sure that our communications here are solid,” Dale says, “and beyond that, we just try to do all of the same things for our remote people as we’re doing for our local people.”
You might also consider hosting your own cloud server using open source or purchased software. There are numerous free and paid resources if you’re interested in a home-grown approach; just keep in mind that this path requires a bit more knowledge and, of course, the servers and drive space necessary to make it work.
Looking for insight from the rest of the industry? Join the conversation in the SBCA IT Committee Slack channel by visiting sbcindustry.com/it-slack, and keep an eye on sbcindustry.com/webinars to participate in future educational sessions and roundtable discussions on remote employees, virtualization and more!