Being Strategic About a Suddenly
Stay-at-Home Workforce

Five Best Practices for Adopting Collaboration
Platforms in the Age of COVID-19

March 06, 2020by Robert Cruz and Shaun Hurst

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Addressing the demands of a mobile, virtual and stay-at-home workforce is not a new topic. Hiring the best talent – regardless of whether or not they reside in proximity to company facilities – is a competitive reality for many organizations. But the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has suddenly amplified interest in this trend at companies large and small around the world.

High costs of living and impossible commutes have caused many firms to invest in technology that enables employees to communicate and collaborate with teammates, partners, and customers, wherever they are. Collaboration and conferencing technologies such as Webex and Microsoft Lifecycle Services, Microsoft Consulting Services, Microsoft Lync and Skype for Business are all well established to overcome the limitations of email and phone calls. These collaboration platforms are now joined by the explosive adoption of Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and others.

Many firms, for a variety of reasons, have been slower to embrace advances in technology to support a non-office dwelling staff. Until now. Note the barrage of recent headlines, a list which is seemingly growing longer with every browser refresh:

• The Verge.com: Google and Microsoft are giving away enterprise conferencing tools due to coronavirus

• Chron.com: Twitter orders employees to stay home and cut unessential travel

• BBC.com: London firms send staff home amid coronavirus fears

• The Verge.com: Google Cancels I/O 2020, its biggest event of the year

• Telegraph.co.uk: Contagion Fears in Canary Wharf as thousands of workers are sent home

While most knowledge workers have had experience participating in a Webex meeting, supporting a conferencing technology as a primary means of collaboration and simply getting stuff done across a large organization is a different matter. Should companies consider software that is “free”? How should they adjust policies to outline what is acceptable and what are prohibited uses of those tools? What cybersecurity risks, such as the possible introduction of ransomware or spear-phishing, could be introduced? For regulated firms, how confident are they in the ability to capture, store, and produce business conversations if required by the SEC, FINRA, or other regulatory bodies? And let us not forget those CCPA and GDPR data privacy laws, and the controls we are building to satisfy them.

Undergoing a rapid transformation to a suddenly remote workforce entails a multitude of adjustments in management processes, measurement systems, operational and cost analyses. However, the process of evaluating technologies to support the effort can benefit from those that have previously embraced collaboration and conferencing solutions. From this group of adopters, we can offer five best practices to begin your evaluation:

1. Start with the benefit/risk analysis: Every organization will evaluate the benefits and risks of each new tool before choosing to allow them for use within their business. The benefits include the ability to reduce the number of in-person meetings, improved access to information, as well as a decrease in the use of email. The potential risks that may be introduced to the business relate to cybersecurity, data privacy, and regulatory compliance vulnerabilities. If key stakeholders conclude that the benefits exceed risks – and that those risks can be controlled and mitigated through the use of technologies – then they tend to allow them to be used for business.

What the current coronavirus situation has done is alter that equation. Companies advising employees to stay home need to provide access to tools to do their jobs remotely as an acceptable alternative to the risks posed by maintaining a physical office presence and air travel during this crisis.

2. Beware the freeware: Many collaboration and conferencing solutions have multiple-tiered offerings, some of which are as simple as a user download away from proliferation within an organization. IT leaders, along with security and privacy stakeholders, should be leading due diligence efforts now to explore which offering is sufficient to meet the firm’s data protection objectives, in addition to the comparative evaluation of features across vendors. Premium-tiered offerings may provide capabilities that are not essential but may be the only tier that satisfies the organization’s risk threshold. As noted above, some vendors are currently offering discounted or free access to premium tiers for use during this crisis.

3. Capture and storage: Every collaboration and conferencing provider is unique in terms of the capabilities and support it provides natively to capture and store communications activity occurring on those networks. For firms faced with regulatory compliance obligations or frequent eDiscovery demands, relying upon a vendor’s ability to provide timely response to a request for historical content may not be a risk worth taking. The availability of third-party solutions (like Smarsh) to capture and store content to meet regulatory and litigation demands should be a key component of your analysis.

4. Update communications policies: Common feedback from those abruptly dropped into a new collaboration tool is that it can appear to be a place to socialize, and often a distraction from key tasks. One important step for firms in the midst of deploying collaboration or conferencing tools is to ensure that communications (and employee conduct) policies are up-to-date, and not centered solely on email or other existing tools. Conferencing and broader unified communications platforms offer a variety of capabilities (or modalities), some of which may not be used without taking specific steps. For example, recording a conference with an external party without first having received their permission. Knowing the features of each tool, and how those features would be necessary for an individual to do their job, should be considered in order to make policies relevant and specific to those who may not have had previous experience working remotely, or managing a distributed team.

5. Training, training, and retraining: Remote work can be a major adjustment for individuals accustomed to an office environment, and may not be ideal for tightly knit workgroups with high interdependencies. Those investing in collaborative and conferencing technologies for the first time should work closely with leaders in those groups to design training programs that reflect the nature, timing, and business impact of key deliverables. The goal should be to minimize disruption to the business and to account for critical steps needed to meet key deliverable dates. Ensuring that users of collaboration or conferencing systems know how to find information produced within those tools is vital, but sometimes underestimated. Step in to ensure that the technology can deliver the promised productivity benefits – even if deployed under less than ideal circumstances.

In heavily regulated industries like financial services, the mantra has been to disable or prohibit access to some of the tools and features that were perceived to be risky or too expensive to govern. The risk/cost/benefit ratio was not good enough. The tide has turned rapidly amid a worldwide health crisis. These same companies risk being left behind their competition, piling up the costs of an ineffective home worker, and not realizing the productivity benefits that these modern technologies provide.

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Robert Cruz
Shaun Hurst
Archiving and Compliance Blog

Our Blog explores the news, trends and best practices in electronic recordkeeping. It’s about managing and getting value from your electronic communications data. It’s about satisfying legal and regulatory obligations. It’s all about turning compliance liability into business insight.

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