Work-from-home (WFH) options for companies during the coronavirus outbreak

"Home office" by MONOCHROME BUREAU is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many companies to have their employees work remotely in accordance with the CDC's prevention recommendation. This has presented some challenges for companies that did not have existing telework solutions in place. Companies are also asking their IT administrators to provide the means for remote access within a short period of time. Fortunately, there are several solutions that meet this need. This article will address some options in remote access and communication tools.

Remote Access

Two of the most used options for remotely accessing the corporate network are remote desktop (RDP) and VPN. Each has its areas of strength which make it suitable for different use cases.

RDP

A remote desktop connection provides a user with direct access to the desktop of their work PC. The advantage of this tool is that it provides the user with virtually the same UI experience they would have if they were seated at their office desk. All the users's settings, desktop icons, Outlook signatures, and browser favorites are available since the user is remotely controlling their desktop. In addition, Microsoft has greatly improved the graphical performance of RDP in Windows 10, and it is now fast enough for someone to watch videos or even do basic edit work in Premiere. Compared to third party remote access tools which utilize an ongoing subscription model, RDP requires only a one-time purchase of one Remote Desktop Services (RDS) CAL per user which is a perpetual license.
An important thing to remember with RDP is that it is never a good or secure practice to open RDP port 3389 in the firewall because it can expose your network to brute force attacks. A better approach is to configure a Remote Desktop Gateway which uses Network Policy Server to control access into the network.

VPN

VPN (virtual private network) is a way for computers to remotely connect into the corporate network. With a VPN connection, a user seated in a coffee shop or in an airport could access network file shares and be protected by the company's firewall in the same way they would if they were actually connected to the company's WiFi network. This is particularly useful for those who use a laptop as their primary work machine. For example, an accountant could begin using QuickBooks at their desk, take their laptop with them to the airport for a business trip, and continue their work from where they had left off without the need to remotely connect to a different machine. This is because the VPN virtually connects their laptop to the corporate network.

Remote Communication

Besides remote access to computer and network resources, there is also the need for communication between employees and people outside the company. Two types of verbal communication needs are phones and video conferencing.

Phones

Most VOIP solutions, whether on-prem or cloud-based, have an option for a mobile client which allows users to make and receive calls from their work number via an app on their personal smartphone. These apps usually allow the user to place calls either with their cellular minutes or via the app itself which uses a data connection. Audio quality is very good in either scenario, but utilizing the cellular minutes will provide a more reliable connection. In addition, these apps also allow users to listen to their voicemails and access the company directory.
For conference calls, users can create and join meetings by dialing into the conference bridge exactly as they would in the office. If they are working from home on a personal or company-issued laptop, they also have the option to use their computer's on-board microphone and speakers instead of dialing via phone. The computer method provides better microphone quality than that of a phone.

Video conferencing

If your company already has video conferencing solutions like WebEx or Microsoft Teams, employees can continue to use these services remotely since they are cloud-based tools. If video conferencing is a new requirement for the company during the remote work period, you can consider utilizing the free version that each of these solutions offer. Webex, Teams, and Zoom usually limit video meetings to about 45 minutes in their free packages, but if your company is not in a position to pay for longer meeting times, UberConference has temporarily increased their free package meeting time to 5 hours and 100 participants.

Conclusion

Today's technology provides many ways for employees to access company resources and communicate remotely. While employees may be unable to be physically present in the office during this time of "social distancing," remote access solutions allow them to continue being productive from whichever location they work remotely. 

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