Long before companies sent their employees home to work during the coronavirus pandemic, the business in which Grant Meyer works was well prepared for remote-based work.

That preparation didn’t happen overnight but was something that, with foresight and ingenuity, the engineering and environmental services business had worked on for years.

“We’ve been prepared for quite a while,” Meyer, chief executive officer for AE2S, told Prairie Business during a conference call on the morning of March 30. Meyer, who is based in Maple Grove, Minn., was using the same technology that many of the company’s employees, scattered across other states, were using that day; other tools used were video conference applications such as Microsoft Teams. “It’s been a bit of an evolution over time, I suppose.”

He said what started out trying to be prepared for when an employee might need to work from home for a day or two benefited the company well when most of its some 300-member staff, spread between eight offices in five states, were sent home during the pandemic.

Remote work was something that began trending with many companies before COVID-19, but in March, whether or not businesses were ready, it became one of the biggest trends of the year. Meyer said his company just happened to be prepared.

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Foreseeing what home-based work would look like in the future, Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), told CNBC that the pandemic was “going to be a tipping point.”

“We plodded along at about 10% growth a year for the last 10 years, but I foresee that this is going to really accelerate the trend.”



The challenges and benefits of working from home

Home-based work during the pandemic brought on an array of challenges and opportunities, including differing perspectives.

Kevin Roose from the New York Times said from his observations the response to remote work has been mixed. While many people said they like the isolation from the work office, others find it difficult to function without the in-person camaraderie of their colleagues.

While the home-based worker might be more productive than in the office, he wrote, “they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking.” He noted a study that said “team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.”

However, Michelle McDonald-Trostad, AE2S human resources generalist who works out of the company’s Grand Forks, N.D., office, said she was working from home even before the pandemic and enjoys the experience because she can be with her kids while still getting things done for work.

She wasn’t quite sure what to think of having a permanent virtual office, but she quickly got the hang of it.

“Now it’s kind of like, hey, this is a good gig,” she said. “I feel like I’m at work just like I would if I were in the office. I don’t have my people to chat with down the hall. … I can’t walk down and say hi to my peers, but we’ll message.”

She said team members will send virtual smiles and check in with each other throughout the day to see how everyone is doing, thanks to the company that provided the technology to its employees.

Meyer said the company was considering criteria and equipment to have additional employees work remotely even before the pandemic, but the worldwide emergency accelerated those plans. Luckily, he said, the company’s IT team was on the ball and got everyone connected and up to speed quickly.

Sean DeKok, senior client and human resources leader with Ulteig, said his company also was prepared to act quickly when the social distancing orders came into effect. It helped that out of its 600 or so employees, Ulteig already had a number of staff whose positions allowed them to work remotely.

“We’ve had staff working remotely for a long time,” said DeKok, based in St. Paul, Minn., noting the company’s IT team had prepared long in advance to make sure all employees had the tools they needed to work remotely. “We really prioritize flexibility for our employees. They all have laptops versus desktop workstations, so that allowed us to really transition quickly to the current climate. … I think compared to many companies it was a very easy transition for us.”

Other companies that weren’t quite prepared had to jump in with both feet, in essence, and hope for the best.

“It quickly went from most businesses not doing remote work to the majority of businesses having their workforce work out of their homes,” said Sean Todd, director of security at Network Center Inc in Fargo, N.D. “It’s one of those decisions that came fast and quick, and unfortunately there wasn’t the ability to do a lot of planning.”

He said many businesses new to home-based work did the best they could and plowed ahead with the necessity to get things done. But as days stretched into weeks people have started settling into a new routine and were able to better access some of the communication and other tools they needed.

“They’re able to connect, they’re able to start doing video conferencing, they’re able to access their information,” he said. “But the next step is, how do we control that?”

One thing that upped the HR concern was data protection.

“They’re able to connect, they’re able to start doing video conferencing, they’re able to access their information,” he said. “But the next step is, how do we control that?”



Protecting data while working remotely

At one point during the pandemic, 46% of American businesses had implemented remote work policies, an increase of 173% since 2005.

With so many people working remotely, Todd said it’s important that companies evaluate what risks they’re willing to take when employees work remotely, and leverage safety measures as much as possible to protect company data.

“When you’re within the four walls of an office you connect with a server that is internal or resources in which you’re not having to traverse the internet to get to a lot of (applications and data),” he said. “Today we’ve put that on its head and almost all of the resources we’re trying to access are sent across the internet. … So the challenge is how are we securing those communications?”

Some security options include making sure web addresses visited and signed into have a “locked” icon in the address bar, meaning it’s a secure site, and leveraging virtual private networks (VPN) to connect to the home office to retrieve files.

“If we’re not using a VPN, what file-sharing programs are we using and are they secure?” he said.

He also said multi-factor authentication is especially important right now. What that means is when signing into an email account, for instance, a pass code is texted to the user to verify that it is the correct person trying to access the account.

He also said companies should leverage their password complexity, making sure passwords have a combination of letters, capitals and lowercase, numbers and symbols.

“Don’t use your home password at work,” he said, “and don’t use your work password at home because if it becomes compromised in one area it can become compromised in both pretty easily.”



Connectivity and the end user

The technology that many people and businesses have taken for granted, such as video conferencing tools and mobile applications, has “never been more utilized than they are today,” Todd said.

Because so many people are online and using the same technology, some people may experience intermittent connectivity problems.

“Every issue can be slightly different but there has definitely been an increase in the usage of the various video conferencing platforms and at times it has introduced some potential issues with connectivity,” he said. “Some video and audio will cut out.”

But another problem lurks behind the curtain – or in files and links attached to emails.

Todd said scammers have been paying attention to what’s going on in the world and are taking advantage of it through an increase in phishing, in which they try to fool people to click on links or open attachments in an effort to gather personal and company information.

Don’t do that. If an email looks suspicious, it most likely is suspicious.

“People are trying to exploit COVID-19, specifically in light of some of the bills in the House and Senate,” he said. Emails have been sent by scammers trying to fool the user into thinking they’ll be getting a payment in the mail but that they need to click on a link or answer questions to verify their name and address.

“If it looks too good to be true it usually is,” Todd said. “The federal government most likely will not contact you through email.”

Some tips are to take a look at the email sender carefully, see what links might be misspelled or replaced. And, he said, it’s always good to verify with the agency or company by calling the proper business number, not necessarily the one attached to an email, to verify if what was sent is legitimate.



Keeping employees productive while working remotely

Another HR issue is ergonomics and injuries at home.

For instance, Michelle Knockson, a physical therapist at Essentia Health in Fargo, said more people are reaching out with back pain because their home desks aren’t set up ergonomically, and there are more reports of injuries from people working from home during the pandmeic.

Another issue is making sure employees are staying productive when they’re out of the office and don’t have a supervisor looking over their shoulder throughout the day.

DeKok said one way Ulteig makes sure employees are staying productive is by providing them with the tools they need to keep busy and be able to do their jobs. He said it also utilizes communications tools, such as Microsoft Teams and Cisco Jabber, so that employees can collaborate with one another.

Video and other communication tools are “just part of our normal routine for business,” he said. “With the number of offices we have in a highly matrix organization, video conferences are a daily part of our operation.”

Meyer knows that all of the tools in the world won’t make employees effective workers.

“You can put all the technology and all the software you want around this (remote work philosophy) and you could still not be very effective,” he said. “I think a big part of what we have done and may continue to do, especially now, is stress the importance of really having a mindset of teamwork, collaboration and communication. If people aren’t committed to working that way, even with all of the tools in the world, it’s just not going to happen. … We’re trying to create a culture where people want to do this and to engage that way.”

Meyer said he doesn’t consider it a challenge, however, but rather an opportunity to teach and grow as a team.

“I would say the biggest challenge, and I’m going to call it an opportunity, is that we really have to work together,” he said. “We’re really trying to invest a lot of energy.”

Some employees with the company have virtual lunches with their teammates as another way to socially interact while working apart; some also started doing virtual happy hours.

Still, Meyer understands the challenges that many employees might face working at home, where their spouse may also be working in the same environment and the kids are out of school.

“There’s probably a lot of responsibility around them,” he said.

There’s something else Meyer expects: When people start coming back to the office, he’s pretty sure there’ll be some employees who will inquire about the possibility of working remotely from now on, at least every so often.

According to some economists, that’s a likely scenario across the board.

“People will change their habits, and some of these habits will stick,” Susan Athey told the Washington Post. “There’s a lot of things where people are just slowly shifting, and this will accelerate that.”

Before the worldwide emergency, around 56% of employees said they had a job where at least some of what they did on a daily basis could be done from home, according to Global Workplace Analytics. And about 80% said if they had their way they’d prefer working from home more often.

Lister, with GWA, projects the longer people work from home, “the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles.” She estimates that 25-30% of the workforce will continue working remotely on multiple days of the week over the next two years.

Meyer said: “We’ll probably see a little bit of both, people who want to get back to the office and people who will want to stay home.”

Prairie Business editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276.