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We are clearly in an age where all our critical data and business processes, even the value of the business itself, is in a technology system somewhere. Many would like access to this business data for various nefarious reasons, and these security threats and methods are evolving daily. At Keystone, we call it a “cat and mouse game” – where the mouse hides, the cat finds the mouse, the mouse hides in a better spot, the cat finds them…and on and on. That is the game we are playing with numerous hackers. To have a chance of winning, we must evolve with them. We need security solutions for security threats today.
The threat is real – so we need Security Solutions for Security Threats NOW
There are many ways to quantify the threat – here is data to help you size it up.
- In the past 12 months – 61% of SMBs experienced an attack, and over 54% had a breach. (Source: PoneMon Institute)
- Nearly half of the cyberattacks worldwide are against businesses with fewer than 250 employees.
- Data breach costs $38,000 per breach in a small business on average; this is a very conservative
- A cyber-attack happens every 39 seconds.
- Business email compromise (BEC) attacks cost organizations an estimated $1.77 billion in losses in 2019, reports the FBI, which received a total of 23,775 complaints related to this threat.
- There are 15 billion credentials (that is YOUR passwords) available for purchase on the internet today. That is about twice the number of people in the world.
- Even if someone has little skills, they can hire someone to do a security hacking campaign on your systems, about as quickly as they could order lunch online.
To summarize, the threat is broad, and your business and personal data are not immune. The danger is constant – using scripts and tools, hackers can bring continuous pressure on your systems. And the risk is expensive for your business and society at large. The threat is real.
The Methods are Real
The threat is real because the methods are real, and they vary. There are numerous ways hackers gain unauthorized access to data. The most frequent are:
- Social Engineering and Phishing – In this case, they use online sources about you, like LinkedIn and Facebook, to know your “high school mascot” or the “city you were born in” and start working to gain access. Or they send a very legitimate-looking email from what looks like your bank and says you must log in to unlock your account. In both cases, they use you and information about you to break in.
- Weak passwords – Using systems capable of guessing thousands of passwords per second, hackers can test different words and phrases to see if they work to gain access. So, using a weak password or reusing passwords from other sites gives them a significant advantage.
- Business Email Compromise (BEC) – one of the fastest-growing methods, hackers use the first two methods to get access to your email, where they create rules to hide their activity, and begin using data in the email to gain further access or have those you deal with redirect payments to their own accounts.
- Poor infrastructure or software design and management – This goes beyond the end-user; in this method, hackers find and exploit the weaknesses in the systems themselves. They identify old, unpatched firewalls, PCs with operating systems the vendor no longer supports (like Windows XP and Windows 7), or poor programming on a web application that allows a SQL injection attack, and so many more.
- Fake WAPs – Wireless Access Points (WAPs) are the most common method of our access to the internet, and it is elementary to set up an access point in a coffee shop and call it “Starbucks Free Wi-Fi.” You may see this and connect, and it sends all of the data you need back and forth from the internet, but also examines it and looks for passwords, bank accounts, etc. and saves them for use later.
These are just a few of the methods used to give you a flavor of the types of attacks possible. The ways are real and evolving constantly. We need security solutions for security threats that exist today; if you are still focused only on yesterday’s threats, you are way behind in the cat and mouse game.
The Solutions are Available
We need real solutions to real threats – the ones of today – and not just hope and pray. We must acknowledge no solution is 100%; tomorrow will bring new dangers. You must have the right team, tools, processes, and mindset to help increase the chance your organization is safe.
As we have shown, there are continually evolving threats, and it is going to take a new investment to protect you. If we compared it to physical home security, gone are the days past when a simple lock on a door will do it. You now need deadbolts, steel doors, cameras, and home security systems with monitoring. It costs more, it also protects you to a much higher degree, but never 100%.
Keystone’s Security + and Security Premium
Keystone has always focused on keeping our clients secure, and we are proud of our record in this area. We have assembled basic security tools and methods, which have worked, but looking into the future, we must meet the evolving threats.
We have been providing what we now call “Security Basic” – the minimum you need, but still leaves gaps. It includes managed anti-virus, protection from known malicious internet sites, system patching, essential protection from ransomware, and simple email protection. It meets the threats of yesterday, but its continued effectiveness will be limited.
Security+ is our new suite of tools and processes intended to meet today’s most prevalent threats. In addition to everything in the Security Basic offering, we add the following: Enhanced email protection, Multifactor access on Virtual Private Networks and Remote Desktop access, User security training along with phishing test campaigns, BitLocker encryption on PCs, and regularly running a security risk assessment on client environments. You may note the parallels between these additional components, and the new threats we see today.
Security Premium is our top tier offering and includes everything in Security Basic and Security+. But also, we add Annual Security Penetration and Vulnerability tests – to find any holes in the environment, user skills, and policies. This service identifies and categorizes all the potential weaknesses in your environment.
Summary – Security Solutions for Security Threats Today
We understand your need for security, and the means to provide for it against today’s threats. We also understand what will be valuable to you in this goal. The threat is real, the methods are real, and we have created real solutions for you.
We encourage you to contact us and discuss how you can access these new protections. Send an email to us at Info@KeystoneCorp.com or call us at 330-666-6200
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We’re all feeling the Covid-19 impact on the economy, and business is making decisions they didn’t envision at the start of the year. Keystone is not immune to this and has reviewed and adjusted plans to meet the new challenges we all face. We asked ourselves: what has or could change because of the new business climate? What were we doing that had little value? What new things are we doing, which we would not have considered, and have long term positive impact? We asked our employees and clients about this and developed a survey to establish potential enhancements. We encourage you to examine your organization for long term improvements.
One question we recommend you ask yourself is, should we go to a Managed Service Provider (MSP) now to handle our Information Technology? In times of economic expansion, companies look for how IT drives growth; what new ideas and capabilities can we develop? Conversely, in a shrinking economy, companies need predictable, and hopefully shrinking costs. A predictable monthly fee removes an item of doubt from the financial plan allowing you to focus on the needs of the business.
In the 2008-2009 economic recession, I joined Keystone, and we added many new clients seeking the knowns and improved reliability in a world that was unknown and unreliable. Many of these clients remain with us today. We are seeing the same now: a need for knowns and reliability, a trusted advisor.
What companies should ask this question? While any can, it is best considered by small to midsize (SMB) organizations that want to have an appropriately sized IT Team for their overall employee and technology base. If you have between 25 and 400 employees, you should be asking this question. If you are more substantial, you may still consider an MSP for tactical needs like server management, backups, and Disaster Recovery, etc.
What if you have an IT staff and may add to it? Should you go to an MSP now?
An IT staff in a small business is a small staff! This means you will be limited! How?
- Limited time (40 hours a week, so scaling for projects and special needs is a problem).
- Limited knowledge – IT is very broad. Generally, you need nine people with nine skills to operate IT, even in the smallest business. One person does not possess all the skills to the depth required to support your needs.
- You will have limited insight – Leadership will not know what IT is doing and are in many respects at their mercy.
What is an MSP, and what will they do for me?
A Managed Service Provider (MSP) is a company with skills in information technology, who agrees to take care of your IT needs. At Keystone, we operate as the IT department for most clients, and sometimes, supplement an existing team with specialized skills and bandwidth.
Having an MSP allows you to focus on your business. Unless information technology is a competitive advantage for you (and unless you are Google or Facebook, it probably is not), it really should be considered.
Why go to an MSP now?
It is always good to consider an MSP for all the reasons listed here, but with the Covid-19 issues, it is a timely consideration. Making a change now will remove distractions and allow you to focus on critical and urgent business needs. If you are filling out a PPP loan form, and IT is taking any time, you are missing a great opportunity. If you cannot move your employees to effective remote work, you are at risk.
Having an MSP like Keystone will solve the three fundamental problems of IT in an SMB listed above: you will have more bandwidth of time and knowledge, and will have greater insight into what IT is doing for you (or, and forbid it, to you). Keystone has a large team ready to help you with varied skillsets to provide expertise. We just moved entire user bases for many companies to remote work and allowed them to continue to thrive with little disruption. And finally, we have clear agreements for service which you can and should expect.
But, in a more detailed review of what you get, you will have an agreement with a firm to provide these essential benefits. In the list below, we cannot vouch for every MSP’s having the same capabilities, so we focus on what Keystone provides as a benefit to you.
- Service Level Agreements (SLA) – an agreed to response and system availability, so IT and user support are reliable.
- Easy to understand deliverables – we have noticed that the business does not understand what the internal IT tech needs or does, and the IT tech misunderstands the business; this makes it hard to align with and understand what IT is doing for you. A firm like Keystone has a group of business leaders with excellent IT skills. You will know what you are getting.
- Fixed Monthly Fees for Fixed Monthly Services – Our client agreements are for a defined, but liberally defined, set of services, and we bill the same amount every month. Our philosophy is any invoice should not surprise you. We set up your services for what you need, and only charge for those.
- Single Point of Contact when Issues occur – An MSP can manage third-party services like Office 365 and your internet and will assign an account manager to make sure you are receiving great value. One phone call (unless we are already on it), and we have it.
- Multiple Skills in an MSP team – When technology and markets shift, you will realize the need for a new skill or perspective. An MSP manages various client environments (Keystone has a view of managing the IT for hundreds of organizations) and can meet your requirements when you need a new capability to get over a growth or cost hump.
- An MSP brings their tools – How would you like it if you hired a company to put in a new driveway and they asked where your backhoe was? Keystone delivers high end, current tools properly configured to bring your IT to a new level of technology immediately. It would take years to do that internally. An MSP should provide the latest and most capable patching, monitoring, and help desk management tools.
- Shifts costs from CapEx to OpEx – While not all MSPs offer it, Keystone provides services like Hardware as a Service, where we bundle expensive servers into the monthly fees; this allows you to shift your costs significantly. It also means we are now responsible for the equipment, meaning you can hold us to a higher level of accountability (which we prefer)!
- Applies Best Practices – Technology is a changing target, the consensus is it changes every five years, so if you are doing it as you did five years ago, you need to evaluate what you are missing. Keystone goes to conferences and sets aside 2% of payroll hours for training for every team member, so we keep up with the latest and best practices. And for best practices, we consider them as “best-fit practices” – they work for many but may have to be tailored for you. We have created and documented best practices for IT Project Management, Design, Change Management, Patching, Automating, and User Support.
- More Secure – When security hacks happen, and they do, we can see them across multiple environments, and have a toolbox of approaches to respond to keep you safe. How can we best say it? Like our clients do: “the crypto locker virus our user clicked on was a like a blip on the radar for the organization of over 400 users”.
- Strategic Counsel – Sometimes you need more than the geeks, you need a seasoned business professional with IT skills. Keystone’s Virtual Chief Information Officer (VCIO) provides you with an experienced technologist who can help with decisions like “do I need a new ERP?” or “How can I manage my costs”?
Keystone has been providing IT services to organizations like yours in northeastern Ohio since 1997. We have the skills and capabilities described here. Now is the time to consider the question, “Why go to an MSP now”? If you want more info call 330-666-6200, or email Info@KeystoneCorp.com
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How should you manage a remote workforce, and what differs from “just managing?” We shared some helpful info on remote work, including Ten Tips to Work Remotely, How to Get Connected to Systems and Teams, and How should IT respond to the Covid-19 Virus? These articles should help workers and IT smoothly and securely move to a remote work setting, but this creates the question, “How do I manage a remote workforce?” The principles of proper management are generally known, so a lot of this is the things we as managers and leaders should do. But the disconnected nature of remote workers creates new challenges which is the focus here: how can we apply sound management principles to a remote workforce?
In this article, we will tell you how to assess your team and technology, set expectations, communicate effectively, and manage successfully.
Assessing your Ability to Manage a Remote Workforce
The first step is to make sure you evaluate and plan the team and technology for moving to remote work. In response to Covid-19, we all had to move without a lot of choices quickly, but the exercise is essential to maximize success. There are several things to consider.
Determine which roles can / need to work from home
Not all employees will need to work from home or can. A manufacturing production or maintenance employee will still need to be onsite for operations, along with some accounting personnel to an extent (AR and AP), and some others. Review your organizational chart for those who can work remotely.
Review your Technology with your IT Team or Provider
There are a lot of moving technology parts, and you must provide three things at a minimum: Security, Reliability, and Ease of Use. You must consider what devices/clients can access your systems. Will a Virtual Private Network (VPN) be required? Is a Remote Desktop or Terminal Server needed? What is the minimum connectivity parameters for remote network connections (e.g., internet speed)? Keystone can help you evaluate all of this.
Communication capabilities are another area to assess. How will your team communicate remotely? Is there a secure video conference tool you can use? Do you have access to collaboration tools, like Microsoft Teams or Slack? Will users have access to the corporate phone system either by taking a device home or using a softphone?
What must be purchased to provide access? Typical costs include new client devices like laptops, VPN licenses, and headsets. You should create a budget for any services needed to configure this.
While you are doing this, include a security check at every step. You are not immune to a security breach; in fact you are more likely to have one: 36% of organizations have experienced a security incident because of a remote, insecure worker. We recommend that a person with security skills and mindset review each decision and that you also do a Penetration and Vulnerability test, along with regular phishing test campaigns and end-user training.
Check and update your business continuity plan. These changes may expose new holes, and any differences should always be evaluated and updated.
Other Concerns to Assess
Next, do you have a written policy for employees or users to sign that indicates the terms and use of remote access? Does it protect you from personal devices, or costs for using their internet, etc.? Keystone has a sample policy for this available upon request.
In a related note, consider a legal review of the ability and need to work remotely. Will any issues be raised because FLSA non-exempt employees may work odd or additional hours? Are there any other legal or employment issues that may arise? We suggest consulting with your legal counsel, particularly those in HR law.
Expectations When You Manage a Remote Workforce
With change comes new ways for people to think about their work. You must set expectations for productivity, availability, and communications.
First, this is where we remind ourselves that sound management principles are always good management principles. Good managers set expectations. We do not leave it to the masses to decide what we accomplish, or when, or how. It is incumbent to still manage the remote workforce to objectives and processes. You will imprint your personality and approach, but every good manager considers at the very least productivity and communications, and in this case, availability.
What are your expectations for productivity? Can, and do you expect the same production from a remote employee, as you may see when they work onsite? You probably should at least for a start, and often you may see better productivity. There are new distractions by working from home or elsewhere, but if an employee follows our guidelines for Ten Tips to Work Remotely, they will increase productivity by 5% or more. Be clear about what you expect in terms of productivity. It is unlikely the metrics you use will change but consider the target goals.
Next, is communication – how and when do you expect communications? Is there a regular check-in call? Do they record activity in tickets or order records, etc.? Set a minimum period for emails to be answered. If you call, how should they respond, drop everything and answer, or call back? Be clear, while acknowledging the new normal of remote work.
And finally, availability, what hours are they expected to be available? Are you shifting hours to account for family needs, or drive time, or new customer needs? And remember the legal aspect mentioned above, FLSA laws do not change for remote workers. Treat your employees as human and be clear on availability.
While listed above, communication deserves its area; this is the crux with remote workers: you can no longer assume you will run into them at the water cooler or see them in the hallway or staff meeting.
Be Regular with the Team
The first principle is to communicate regularly. You may hold quick daily huddle calls for a while to deliver the latest status, check-ins, etc. A quick call at the start of a shift will set expectations, communicate issues, and allow for team connectivity. Our service manager, Bill Mastrobuono, holds a call with his remote team every morning. In the call, they go around on an informal basis and do a check-in. They discuss any client issues and make each other aware of any projects that may affect support functions, and then do cross communication from other meetings. Finally, they discuss any change in the process or tools. The call usually takes 15-30 minutes.
And our squad leads meet with their team every Friday.
Be Regular with People
I have found, deliberate, planned phone calls from leaders go a long way to helping to care for and connect to employees. They also get to share what they are working on and how they are doing. Regular communication is essential, and frankly, it may be easier to do than in the office. When I say deliberate and planned, I do not mean a scheduled call, but a block of time and list of people to call and track the calls to make sure no one goes missed for too long. When on the call, I casually check in on the following items:
- How are they doing? Personally: Self, family, health, etc.
- How is work progressing?
- Are there any teammates struggling that we can help?
- Are any customers struggling that we can do better?
I have also found that note cards in the mail are an excellent way to connect tangibly. We can’t see each other, so seeing a card with some quick notes can be a more intimate and physical way to interact.
We recommend using a convenient communication tool like Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Basecamp. These tools are multifaceted. Microsoft Teams allows 1:1 chat, group chats, entire communication forums, voice chats, video chats, and full meetings with a team with most of these at once. It also provides file storage and sharing capabilities and screen sharing. It is very effective at bringing people together and making them productive. Teams is included in most Office 365 subscriptions, so you may already be licensed for it. Slack has similar capabilities. Here are some functions Teams or Slack provides.
When you move into these tools, establish their expected use. What is the information architecture of the setup? Where does ongoing work go? In a chat instead of a channel? Will email still be used, and if so, for what? Organizations for years have complained about too much email; this is an excellent chance to break out of that.
Teams has two primary ways to have group capabilities: Teams, and then under teams are channels. At Keystone we have a KTC channel, a Huddle Channel (for weekly project huddle calls), Health and Wellness Channel, Support Team, and Client team. Under the General Team, we have channels for various needs, including General, Engineering Day, Ideas, Tech News and Tips, and Training.
One channel we recommend is the water cooler channel. At Keystone, that is the “General” channel under KTC. It has naturally become a catch-all for pictures of kids, funny videos, world news, and general updates. When a team works remotely, they can lose a sense of each other; the water cooler conversations have always driven cross-communication. In fact, Steve Jobs designed the Pixar headquarters with central bathrooms so employees would bump into each other. A remote workforce won’t get that, but the water cooler channel can help. It also causes people to visit the communication system more often, and by looking for some happiness of a funny video, they even stumble across information needed for today’s work.
Allow and train users in managing notifications, so there is not a constant pop up in the corner of the screen for irrelevant (to them) notifications.
Video Conferencing Rules
We recommend you establish expected norms for video conferencing. Some suggested requirements:
- Join five minutes early to avoid delays due to issues with technology
- Everyone should focus on the meeting: do not answer email, etc.
- Focus on voice, not video – some people think you need an expensive HD webcam, but that just generates more traffic and can affect the voice transmission. Others in the conference will be impacted more by a weak, stuttered voice than by poor video.
- Watch background and lighting. Have a non-distracting background. Most services now allow a custom background, where you can upload your photo, and provide stock images of a landscape, etc. Use these, or just make sure the background is not overly cluttered. Also, make sure the background lighting is not so bright that it creates glare, and you look like an angel descending from the sun. If you have some Phillips hue lights, you can customize color and brightness. And finally, make sure the light on your face will present an even tone and level.
- Teams vs. Zoom – We use Microsoft Teams at Keystone for most communications. It is easy to start a chat with someone, and smoothly move to a video call with screen sharing, and then quickly ask additional people to join. But it is limited to seeing four people at a time on the main gallery view (they have said they are increasing this to 9). We have found Zoom works much better for a high number of participants, such as an entire company meeting. The quality is better, and you can see up to 25 people on screen at once and scroll to see more.
Use a Higher Default Mode of Communication
Remote workers need a higher level of connectivity to replace face to face. So, if you previously used email, go to a phone call; if you called on the phone, go to a video chat. Be personal and close.
Other Helpful Tips for Communications
We have found the following to help keep everybody together and communicate professionally and personally.
- Virtual Happy Hours – Every Friday at 4:30, we hold a virtual happy hour. It has been a lot of fun, and for some, the only time they may see some others on the team. Each week we have a different host, and lately, they have been coming up with fun themes. We use Zoom for this, as mentioned above.
- Company Staff Meetings – Keystone has for over a decade held an all-company meeting on the first Friday of the month, and then set the rest of the day aside for fun (with a small staff still on support). It is part of our culture and essential to us. We now do the monthly staff meeting on Zoom, with the same agenda and “feel.”
- Affirm success publicly – People may not see what others are doing and hearing about progress, which creates a vacuum that can affect the perception of the times, the company, and how we are doing. Take some time to send out communication of what is going great, personal and professional success, and big wins.
And now we get to the actual management. Until now, we set a framework for assessing your organization and team, setting expectations, and establishing good communications. If everything was done well to this point, your ability to manage a remote workforce should be smoother. You will note that a lot of the ideas below are just good management techniques, but with some nuances for the remote team.
Manage Yourself First
If you manage others, you must first look at yourself. Set a high standard, keep your promises, and be consistent. Consistency is key here; in a world, with many unknowns, a consistent manager can be a rock. People will drift from each other and best practices, so set the expectations, and model and require them.
Know the Team is #1
You probably spent a lot of time building the team. Defining positions and relationships between them, recruiting, onboarding and training, developing, and coalescing. Do your best not to lose anybody due to extreme circumstances. Remote work may not work for all, and you will find that out, but be persistent with reiterating expectations and communicating to support them as individuals and reinforce the expectations. It is expensive and potentially damaging to lives to replace people.
Also, know your team. At Keystone, we use several tools to assess our team and position them for success, starting during the recruiting process. We begin with conversations that are real and do not let things just slide by. If there is a concern, it should be said. We add assessments that tell us a lot about the individual. We have four primary tools:
- StrengthsFinder (now called CliftonStrengths) – a great tool to understand where a person will shine on the team.
- PXT Select – We use this to assess people for how they fit a job. In the case of remote work, one factor it reports is Independence – how much managing will the person need or want? People with low independence should be checked on more often.
- Predictive Index (PI) – this provides a report of the way a person will behave in life, and the job. We use the PI Behavioral assessment, which looks at a person’s drives and needs, ultimately generating their work habits. It is cognitive (how a person thinks). We also cross-check this against other team members.
- Kolbe A – This tells us how a person works (conative). We are a team of FactFinders, which is typical for an IT firm 😊.
If you were playing a football game in a snowstorm, “you would not focus on long bombs, you would focus on not fumbling the ball.” That is somewhat the way you need to think when managing a remote team. We are not saying you will not achieve phenomenal results, you can, but you need to simplify the process.
A few years ago, we did an exercise with our team where we had everybody take a sheet of paper, and closed their eyes. I then gave instructions like:
- “fold the paper in half.”
- “fold it again.”
- “tear a corner off.”
- “Unfold it.”
- “fold it into thirds.”
- “tear a corner off.”
And so on. We opened our eyes, and everybody had a very different result. This told us that simple, clear, and complete instructions were essential when you can’t see someone, like a user or a co-worker.
It needs to be simpler than face to face requirements. Simplify everything.
Plan the long, manage the short
Plan for monthly and weekly objectives and set accomplishment goals. Then break it down into weekly segments. Then weekly break it down into daily parts for that week.
Each month, and each week, ask yourself, “What are the big three we need to accomplish in this period?” Then manage daily, what three things did we accomplish to the goals?
Watch for everybody being coordinated. With disconnection comes disconnection from others and what they are doing, so make sure work is not duplicated or slipping through the cracks. Track assignments and expect communication on results.
Manage to Results
In remote work, less than being together, you cannot manage by feel; just walking through an area and seeing machines humming will not be possible. You must establish a scoreboard. What gets measured gets done. Determine the key drivers of success in your business, the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and leading and lagging indicators. Measure them and publish the measures. At Keystone, we have systems to do this, and when in the office, we can glance at multiple monitors prominently displayed, but the beauty of our systems is that I can pull them up on my web browser and see where we are.
Once you have a reporting system in place, discuss individual performance issues individually. Consider the following in these discussions.
- Understand bad days happen. but low performance is not the new normal
- Manage with empathy
- People are adjusting, and their family is reorienting, etc.
- Each person is an individual, with individual needs and challenges
By establishing this approach, and managing to results, it should help you avoid being a helicopter manager – hovering over the team, which is impossible anyway.
As all great leaders expect great results.
Expect Better Results
One of the biggest questions about managing remote workers is, “can I expect the same results?” There is a perception that people will waste time. And here is the secret: if you have done everything described to this point, you can expect better results! Here is the fact: 77% of Remote Workers report better results.
The usual distractions are gone, and if you have the right team aligned to the right goals, and managed well, they will perform better. We have seen this at Keystone, where our team is more effective and more efficient.
Survey the Team
With new changes comes an opportunity to discover what is going well. There are often in normal management flows where a chance to change comes along but following the status quo will squander it. But a situation like Covid-19 forces changes and is a great time to see what works better. You must get a gauge on how the team is generally doing. We suggest two ways to do this:
- Track engagement – We use OfficeVibe and have for over a year, it has shown us how things have shifted as we moved to remote work. We have seen our engagement and personal satisfaction score rise in this remote work period.
- Survey how people are doing through the change. Discover what they think works better and cross-check that against KPIs. Should long term changes be made to maximize efficiency, effectiveness, and employee engagement?
We hope you found this helpful in managing a remote workforce. Do not miss the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of your team and enhance their satisfaction through this. We have shared tips to assess your organization and group, set expectations, establishing good communications, and managing performance.
Do you want to better support and manage your remote workforce? Contact us at Info@KeystoneCorp.com to see how we can help you with this.
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We’re getting closer to “The Keystone Perfect Excuse to Leave Work Early On a Friday Client Appreciation Party!“ It’s our way of saying “Thank You” to all of our clients with fun and games at Foundry Social / High Voltage Karting on Friday, March 20th.
It kicks off at noon with a “Snack and Learn” with an introduction to Security Plus and Security Premium by Keystone, our new advanced security options. These new options provide security to keep your organization’s sensitive information safe, above and beyond what your organization is currently using, and we’re excited to introduce them!
In exchange for your hopefully undivided attention, we’ll provide drinks, appetizers, games, racing and the perfect excuse for you to get out of the office on a Friday afternoon!
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In this help guide, we want to share ways your workers can work from home. While this is in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many are finding it productive and helpful to work remotely. There are two areas we will focus on, some useful tips to connect to your corporate network, and using Microsoft Teams to stay productive and connected.
Remote Access for Working from Home
For most clients, Keystone provides a Virtual Private Network (VPN), so you can connect to the corporate network and operate as if you were in the office. Your organizational leaders must approve remote access. While connected to this VPN, you will have:
- Access to any servers, printers, other PCs, etc. as if you were in the office. There are limitations, see below.
- Data sent between your remote PC and the corporate network will be encrypted and secure during transmission for better security.
- Some protections your corporate network provides will be available to you, such as the services on the firewall that block malicious threats. Still, generally, you will be less secure than when in the network on a corporate PC.
- Your traffic will be observed and managed as if you were in the office. For example, in many cases, if the corporate network prohibits Facebook access, you cannot visit Facebook while on the VPN.
Limitations and a Word About Home PCs
If you are using a home PC (non-corporate) to access the network, there are limitations you may experience when compared to working on your PC in the office. One of these is mapped shared drives; if your office PC has an assigned “S” drive for shared files, that will not be setup on your home PC. There are other ways to create this map or access the data, but it will not be the same immediately after connecting. An additional, and probably obvious limitation is that applications installed on your office PC will not be installed on your home PC, so the ERP or CAD application you use in the office is not available.
Ideally, you would have a laptop and take that home and connect to the VPN; you would have a reasonably similar experience as in the office. If you will be working remotely for an extended period, and have a desktop PC at the office, it may be advisable to bring this home and use it.
There are other limitations you may experience, primarily in performance. The document linked below describes this.
Ready to get connected?
To get your home PC connected, and the leadership of your organization has approved it, download the instructions for remote access. Keystone cannot provide support for home networks, PCs, or personal internet service providers.
A lot of organizations are finding Microsoft Teams a great help in this time of social distancing and working remotely. Keystone has been using Teams for about two years and has found it to be even more critical with the Covid-10 challenges. We wanted to share a quick overview of what Teams can offer for functionality, and some helpful tips we found in using it, and finally links to helpful training videos and resources.
What Microsoft Teams Offers
Microsoft Teams offers a platform for communicating in real-time or as needed right out of the box. It can tie your employees together, and even outsiders like customers or vendors to share information in a variety of ways. Here, we summarize the most important functions.
|Chat||One on One or group chats like quick text messages, but allows adding attachments, sharing images, and moving smoothly to a voice or video chat, or sharing your screen.|
|Voice Calls*||Allows one on one or conference calls, from the native client, or a dedicated desk phone.|
|Conference Calls*||Similar to most conferencing services, Teams allows many people to call in using the Teams client or a toll-free number.|
|Video Calls*||Video calls with webcams for one on one or multiple participants. See below for a tip on this.|
|File Sharing||Microsoft built Teams on Microsoft SharePoint, so every team comes with a document library for sharing files for that team, along with a OneNote notebook, and other functions.|
|Screen Sharing||Share your screen, or a specific application window with others to collaborate on a document.|
|Multiple platforms||While Teams can be used in your web browser, there are native clients for Windows, MacOS, IOS, and Android.|
* Some features require an additional license or equipment.
Helpful Tips for Implementing or Using Teams
In our use, we found the following was helpful.
- Use Zoom, or something similar, for larger video conferences. Zoom does not offer most of what Teams does, but in video conferencing with more than 8-10 participants, it provides much better results. Teams is now limited to four active webcams being displayed and promise to expand to nine soon, but Zoom’s performance in larger meetings is superior. Note that the free version of Zoom is limited to meetings of forty minutes. If you do use, Zoom, set a meeting password!
- Organize your teams around the natural teams in your organization, so have a team for sales, accounting, operations, etc. You may also consider cross-functional teams – like a “Strategic Planning” team, or a “Project XYZ” team, with members from multiple departments.
- Limit who can create Teams. While it is so convenient to quickly create a new team, it is better to thoughtfully plan teams so the information is in places people can reliably find.
- Set a team, or at least a channel in a team, as a “water cooler” and encourage fun, personal posts here. It will attract a lot of attention, especially when employees are forced to stay home, and therefore speed the adoption and effectiveness of Teams. Include everybody here; it is a free for all!
- Spend little money on expensive webcams – Expensive, high-resolution webcams use more bandwidth, which detracts from other capabilities, including voice transmissions. The quality of the sound is more important, so a good microphone is a better investment, but generally, whatever you have will work fine.
- Use Polly for surveys – third-party developers have created add-in Apps for teams that extend the functionality. There are a lot of these available from the “Apps” option, but the one we found very helpful is “Polly.” Polly allows you to quickly create surveys and collect info from team members, like “where should we order lunch from?” or “What should we charge for delivery fees?”.
Links to Training Resources
The first place to look for help is right inside of Teams itself! Microsoft has built a lot of quick videos, short reads, and longer documents, all available from the Help menu, check it out!
Beyond that, we found these resources helpful:
- Learn Microsoft Teams in 7 minutes (Video: 7 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ojm-SkL_zE
- How to use Microsoft Teams, a demo tutorial (2019) – from the Microsoft Team product manager (Video: 15 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH2seLS5Wb0
- Microsoft Teams Full Basic Tutorial And Best Practices Training 2020 (Video: 46 minutes) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mpX_dfYCUE
- Microsoft Teams End User Training Site – a comprehensive set of videos and documents giving overviews and details on various aspects of Microsoft https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/enduser-training
How to Effectively Work from Home
Keystone has published a helpful article, Ten Tips to Work Remotely, on working from home and remaining productive and satisfied, which you and your users may appreciate.
Contact Keystone’s support help desk if you need help getting Microsoft Teams set up in your organization!
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The general response to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is social distancing, which in the extreme for business and non-profits is employees will work from home. We are likely facing a credit and business development crunch. The Information Technology support function has to maintain the level of operational capability to provide the ability for critical business processes to work where people are disconnected from each other, but not disconnected from the systems and data necessary to sustain the organization.
Here is a helpful guideline for this, considering security, changes for users and managers, and system changes.
Security Remains #1
Security is always important, but when there are many changes and anxiety, IT and business personnel may make quick decisions that create new security holes. Many of the changes are very small by themselves but have a significant impact on the technology environment. For example, the simple request to “add a user to a group that can login remotely” may have various ramifications, including that the group also has access to financials, or the use may now connect from insecure devices, or the wrong accounts are added.
Because of this, three things must be done, and another is suggested.
- Review security settings – have your IT team review active accounts, security groups, VPN settings, and other systems that will be accessed for the latest patches and best practices.
- Review the IT Disaster Recovery Plan (IT-DRP). This is especially true if you make significant changes like adding a Remote Desktop server capability. Additionally, review it for the recoverability from virus-based events.
- Educate Users – There are two things to be mindful of:
- Social engineering hacks – with new access comes new vulnerabilities. A user suddenly gets a call “from the IT department and needs your account and password to further configure your access”. And the user, who is understandably confused and just needs to get to work, gives it over.
- Phishing attempts and malware – particularly those offering new information on Covid-19. See these articles from Vox, and Wired.
- Suggested: Test security by doing a penetration and vulnerability test, which will look for openings into the environment from outside and inside.
How Information Technology Can Respond Well to Covid-19
The items above are a minimum, but to respond well, these should also be in your playbook. Some are expansions, and “how-to” do the things above, others are additional vital practices.
Plan for secure access and emphasize this with IT personnel. In other words, set the priority for IT and give them a clear direction that you must have security over speed, but need both. Some key points to include:
- Have a process, like how you may add a new employee, in which management signs off on access rights provided. This may be a simple form or a spreadsheet of employees with columns for changes to be made.
- Only allow authorized devices protected by corporate security tools to access the network. Require computers joined to the corporate Domain, not home PCs. Home PCs are a significant problem for security, performance, and IT support. Only company assets, properly configured, should be used. Some companies are leasing laptops on short term agreements of six months.
- Review technology policies and any documents employees must sign for IT access and use
- Review and, as needed, expand the use of virus blocking and email protection tools. Because no single tool can adequately block all threats, Keystone uses a layered approach to increase protection. Also, check your logging internally and on email systems like Office 365 to collect data in case you have a security incident.
- Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) – especially on email, cloud systems, and critical internal applications. If some users have it, review and expand it through the organization.
Educate Users and Managers
Since the most significant change will be at the user level, you should consider how you can prepare and support them. It may be helpful to create a “Remote Work Survival Guide” or FAQ that employees can refer to. This should include:
- Good security Practices:
- Current prevalent threats (social engineering and phishing). Consider online, automated training to educate users, like KnowBe4.
- What devices are allowed and why – so they understand what they can and cannot do
- What the experience may be like, and what performance issues they may encounter. Set the expectation that the home internet experience may be slower than when they are in the office.
- Printing – this is one of the biggest issues, especially for smaller businesses that do not have expensive software to make it easier. Consider using less paper, and focus on electronic sharing, or systems like SharePoint and Docusign for online document sharing and signing.
- Train users in the broader aspect of working remotely and how to do it well. Review the article on Keystone’s website: ”10 Tips to Work Remotely”. They need to prepare to be productive and stay connected with people.
Managers should also be trained in different techniques and tools to stay connected and manage the process and employees remotely.
- Use tools to stay in touch:
- Reach out via calls to employees and clients – ask them how they and their family are doing, how the remote tools and work are for them, and if they have any concerns about teammates or key clients. The information and connectedness will be very beneficial.
- Daily or semiweekly huddles calls for teams – Schedule regular, short, stand-up type calls with your team using tools like Microsoft Teams. Everybody can connect and view a user’s desktop or whiteboard setup and connect visually using webcams.
- Managing the process – what are the capabilities of systems to report or show via dashboard the efficiency and flow of the process. Are orders getting stuck? Are internal sales responding? Review reports and consider new ones that can easily be created to support management.
- Review the means to measure employee performance – Managers will have to focus on measurement by results instead of by walking around. How can they review the actual work level and product of their team?
- Lastly, LinkedIn has two videos on remotely managing a staff that may be helpful:
Build the Environment
These are the changes or expansion of the existing technology that makes up your IT platform.
- Get the devices needed
- Get laptops – these may be leased if needed for a short time.
- Get webcams if needed – while most laptops have webcams, they may not be as effective for placement or quality as an external camera.
- Get cell phones if needed – some employees may now need these.
- Review and Establish Policies and Update Tools
- IT Departments use something called “Group Policies” to provide capabilities or limitations. A common group policy is “do not allow unencrypted USB drives to attach to this PC”. With new requirements to work remotely, the group policies should be reviewed for security and capability implications.
- Update tools are in place in most corporate IT workflows, these ensure that systems are patched, anti-virus is kept up to date, etc. With systems going remote, will these tools still work to keep them safe wherever they are located or however they are connecting?
- Setup good remote access and team communication tools
- Microsoft teams, with video capabilities – This is part of the Office 365 subscriptions so many organizations have already. It provides text chat, voice and video calls, screen sharing and white boarding, and more. It is a great way to stay connected with internal and external people. Microsoft offers a free version which is quite capable (https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Differences-between-Microsoft-Teams-and-Microsoft-Teams-free-0b69cf39-eb52-49af-b255-60d46fdf8a9c). And for the next six months as a response to Covid-19, Microsoft is expanding the availability for free.
- Phones – If your phone system supports it, make sure all devices have soft phones (software that connects to the phone system and emulates a desk phone). Alternatively, employees may be able to take their desk phone home and connect it for access. Note that is requires a very reliable home network and internet connection. The use of a soft phone may also require a headset with a good microphone.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) – This is the most common secure way to access the organization’s network. It requires some internal system, often the firewall, and a client installed on the device like a PC. The user initiates the connection and validates and can then work just like they are in the office.
- Direct Access – something Microsoft Windows has offered for a while, but few organizations implement is Direct Access – this effectively makes a PC appear as if it is directly connected to the corporate network, without first connecting to a VPN. It is an “always-on” technology, where it will always connect as soon as the user gets an internet connection. It will not support all access needed but may make it easier for some.
- SharePoint and/or OneDrive For Business – Another technology that has been around for many years, but some companies are still not using as much as they could. SharePoint is many things, but the most prevalent use is its document libraries, where you store any document (Word, Excel, PDFs, images, etc.) and can access them from anywhere. It has great sharing capabilities (multiple people can edit a document at once), version control, extensive security, and fast search. It should be used by most organizations.
- Remote Desktop Servers – If you have this, you will appreciate it in the coming weeks. The IT team installs applications and user accounts on this server, and users can connect from just about any device like a PC, Mac, iPad, etc. and work like they were in the environment. If you do not already have it, it will take some time to setup.
- Remote Access to Desktops – this is less secure, but still an option, to allow users to connect to their in-place desktop PC at the office from a remote device.
Look to the Future
Take advantage of the situation to plan – what long-term changes can be made which will benefit the organization? Some things you may watch for:
- Move files to cloud systems like SharePoint
- Move to a cloud Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone system.
- Use laptops, not desktops. Even if the employee usually sits at their desk and works, the laptop helps a lot in this situation, as well as for business travel.
- Should some on-premise applications go to cloud versions? Could your ERP system work as well or better from a cloud platform?
- Does employee productivity go up? If so, consider a long-term change of working remote one day per week.
- What new management practices were uncovered?
- What employees really excelled, and which did not? Can that be used to revise how people work?
- How can you improve efficiencies, for example how can you reduce paper?
Summary and Key Takeaways
Set a plan and pace that will keep the organization secure and transition the user and teams to a successful experience. Do not make hasty decisions, but diligently move forward. Keep the focus on security; it is too easy to quickly open a door that should have been locked. Educate the users and managers. And set up the systems and add new capabilities that will enhance the ability of everybody to stay connected in their newly disconnected world.
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In this time of concern about health and contact with others as a response to the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, many are facing working at home for an extended period. We enjoy high connectivity and tend to work when not in the office, but it is often limited to checking our email on the phone, or perhaps an occasional day at home. But it is different between “getting” to work at home for a day and being forced to indefinitely. To prepare for remote work for the next few weeks, consider the following tips. With good habits, you will likely find you are more productive, but potentially less satisfied; these should help.
I have worked at home a lot and can share my perspective. At one point, I worked at home every day for about three years in 1996-1998 before the internet. I have consistently worked at home since then. It can be great and can be a problem, so let me share a few personal tips.
- Establish boundaries of time and space; don’t let personal and work pool into one another. Co-workers make jokes about “working” from home, with a wink, but the threat for those who enjoy what they do is that it will begin to take over the entire day. When I worked at home in the 90s, I quickly found that if nothing was going on in the evening with family, I migrated back to the home office and picked up where I left off, which often resulted in my return to the rest of the house now dark and with everybody sleeping; this is not healthy for family life. I encourage you to do two things.
- Have a specific area that is for work and keep it that way. Set up on the dining room table or spare bedroom and work When you complete the day, shut things down and walk away. When you need to work, be there.
- Establish rigid work hours – Get up and get ready and start on time; not 1 minute late. Prepare and dress like you are going to the office as much as possible. Finish on time and ring a bell or knock on the wall; the workday is complete!
- If you have a family at home, particularly small children, you may not be able to work the standard 8:00 am – 5:00 pm hours but should still create a schedule you can hold as much as possible. You may have to start earlier, then stop for a bit to make breakfast for the little angels, and get them on a plan for the day, and then go back to work for a bit, etc. You will find that breakfast time to be precious, so don’t gloss over the great talks you can have but do have a way to get back to work when needed. You may have more interruptions later, so review your space and schedule to take advantage of the times when you can do deep work uninterrupted (infant nap times, etc.). Make it work for you and communicate your schedule to others (Additional tips for work at home parents).
- Have a plan for the day. Create a list of tasks, scheduled calls, and online meetings. The best time to do it is the night before; it is a gift to your future self, so you do not become overwhelmed as soon as you start. Nothing can be more challenging than an open day with what feels like a lot to do, so plan. Use applications like Microsoft Outlook for tasks, or check out Todoist or TickTick. Schedule the day first with the necessary calls or online meetings, and fill the rest with functions that are on your calendar. Tasks take time, schedule them.
- More than just a plan to do some things, create a schedule using a time box or blocking technique and combine it with the Pomodoro technique for sprints throughout the day with planned breaks. One of the articles linked below expands on this, and this technique is excellent to keep you focused and give you breaks.
- Keep track of your work and progress against tasks, productivity measures, etc. Make it a game with a score. Todoist does this very well, with karma points that mean nothing, but like Facebook “likes,” they feel good and provide psychological momentum to complete tasks.
- Take lunch! Unwind, take a quick walk around the block, and get back to work on time. In normal circumstances, I suggest going out for lunch, but in this pandemic requiring “social distancing,” that is not advisable. Do have a good meal in a place other than where you work.
- Make sure your technology will support you. Some of this will require your organization to provide remote access to files, email, and applications. There should also be something that allows quick communication with your team, which could be text messaging, but a much better solution is Microsoft Teams. Some additional technology tips:
- Use the work device issued to you, like a laptop. It is highly unlikely that home PCs are configured or secured for remote It is not advisable to use anything but a company-issued device.
- Cell phone tip: Use earpieces or speakerphone capabilities for hands-free operation, and keep your devices charged.
- Have a stable internet connection; this includes speed (e.g., 100 Mbps), latency (how long do connections take to get started), and reliability (uptime). You may consider calling your provider and seeing what upgrades they offer, and often a call will get you a free update because the new standard is higher than you currently have.
- Have a robust infrastructure in your home, which includes devices like cable modems and routers/wi-fi access points. If your equipment is over three years old, there is probably an upgrade from the provider or local Best Buy that will improve capabilities. In full disclosure, Keystone does not support home networks or devices; there are too many variables to do this. Therefore, make sure you or a local geek squad can help you make sure your home network is secure and performing well. Or ask your teenage child.
- Watch the usage of your connection. Because schools are also closing and kids may be home, their use of the internet connection for games and videos will affect your access speeds. Encourage them to do something “real” that does not involve using the internet. The congestion will also occur because some internet connection types are affected by others in your neighborhood, so when many people are forced to work at home, anything to reduce traffic helps you and others.
- Communicate just like you were in the office – the tools you have should not leave you alone. Communicate status, problems, victories, and need for help. Then communicate some more.
- Avoid isolation. Some of you, particularly singles, need to stay connected. When I first came to Keystone, we had a staff of many singles and played Halo or other Xbox games on Tuesday evenings. Start a tournament with each other, play online games, watch a movie together while you are chatting in Microsoft Teams, etc. Stay connected!
- Review your week and plan the next one – For years, I have taken about 30-60 minutes each week on Saturday morning to review my week and plan the next one. I color code my calendar so I can quickly know how I spent my time (“strategy,” “admin,” “personal,” etc.) and how I plan the next week. A weekly review is a high point to consider the structure of my workday to make changes and get the most out of it for everybody that relies on me—this the time to review your workspace, schedule, and tools.
And here are some helpful additional articles and pointers on the subject to be more productive.
5 Work-from-Home Productivity Methods You Should Try
How to Work From Home Without Losing Your Mind
Are You Struggling Working From Home?
Microsoft’s use of Teams for its own employees
We hope these tips are helpful. We at Keystone want you to stay safe and productive in these perilous times!
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What is the number one threat to your information technology systems? No, it is not a malevolent spy deep in Russian territory trying to steal your bank account. Nope, also not your competition’s seedy employee looking for a new product design. And no, it is not a teenager getting ready, so he can brag to his friends. These are threats, and their varied motivations are the most common reasons for hackers to attempt entry into your data systems. But the top threat is the one already inside your business – the employee who does not lock the door sufficiently or hears a knock on the door and opens it.
Employees are not usually malicious as a part of the breach that occurs; they often don’t even realize they are doing it. They are busy, focused on the important tasks of the day, and they pop-up window just said an issue had been detected with their PC, and just “Click Here to Fix it”, but clicking is like opening the door to the warehouse, and one of those threats listed above walks in and has free access. Or the same busy employee likes to get logged in quickly, and does not want to remember a long password, when a short one lets them get in faster, so they key in the tricky, “who would guess this?” password of “123456” (the most common password of 2017) and log in.
A recent study found that negligent employees are the number one cause of cybersecurity breaches. The lack of employee awareness about good IT security is an even bigger impact with the rise in mobile device computing, so a lost cell phone or tablet allows access to corporate systems. No amount of technology like firewalls, security patching, anti-virus, group policies, etc. will stop an attack when the user with access opens the front door.
The Remedy: Train Users in IT Security
They need not be experts, but they should understand the importance of IT Security, what some common best practices are, and what an attack looks like.
Keystone offers this training for our clients in a fun, friendly lunch and learn. This is important because it makes them aware and allows them to interact with our cybersecurity experts about things they see in real life. We cover two main areas:
- Types of attacks and best practices to stop them.
- What to do if you think your device has been compromised.
We want users to know what a valid request is, and what to do if they have a sinking feeling they just clicked the wrong button. Users should know we are not looking to place blame, but we are trying to secure the environment quickly.
In our training, we cover:
- Social Engineering, or as a famous hacker once said: “…much easier to trick someone into giving a password for a system than to spend the effort to crack into the system.”
- Safe web browsing habits
- Email Compromises
- Phishing and Ransomware examples
- Good Password Policies
Good Password Policies to Help the Number One Threat to IT Security
We can’t cover everything we do in training, but one area we can share here is good password policies. A poor password is SO EASY TO HACK, so follow this to improve your protection.
- Don’t use a weak password. Oddly enough, many people use a password of … ”password”
- Don’t use anything from the common password list.
- Don’t write your password down and store it somewhere (I recently heard about a president of a company who, upon receiving this training, sheepishly pulled a slip of paper from his wallet with all of his secure passwords).
- Don’t reuse passwords across sites, have a unique one for each site. Your bank site may never be hacked, but the community bulletin board with the same password will be.
We then wrap up with some suggestions for good patterns, and tools to make it easier.
Are We Really a Target?
You may assume that you are too small for anybody to bother with, but don’t make that mistake. The Keeper Security and the Ponemon Institute reported in 2017 that “More than 50% of SMBs experienced a ransomware attack in the past year.” With the ease at which hackers can attack many systems at once, the cost of an attack is not high compared to the results they can gain by finding a user who opens the door.
What Can We Do?
Great question. First, commit to the idea and get started. Even once a year training and a quick refresher quarterly are helpful. Tools can be helpful too this but engaging an IT Services company in providing this is a great start, as they see the latest issues and attack methods. Keystone maintains relationships with our clients and users and sees the attacks (many which the user is never even aware of), and knows the systems and proclivity of the users to click the wrong thing. This allows real, personalized training and that helps reduce risks significantly.
Call us today to see how we can train your users in IT Security!
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“The good news is, you’re always connected to the office. The bad news is, you’re always connected to the office. “ Wall Street Journal, full-page ad, 1996
The average person is now connected 24 hours a day, with constant interruptions, alerts, pop-ups, and distractions. We can be in a very important discussion with our children about their future, or our boss about a possible business problem, and BAM! here comes an alert we can “Get 10% off our order today!”. It derails our thoughts and breaks the flow of our interaction with the real world. In our previous article on this subject, we wrote about “Disconnecting from Technology,” and gave ideas like having a proactive, technology-free morning routine, managing popups on devices, and only installing the apps we need. We now must consider disconnecting from email.
In the workplace, the one item that dominates our time is email. In one respect email is good: it allows us to have interactions with multiple people inside and across organizational lines and record those conversations for posterity. It also allows us to choose when and how to respond to the sender, so we can respond later and carefully choose our words when needed.
But most people have email open all the time and leave the default settings on which want to pop-up and let us know when an email arrives. How often have we been viewing someone’s presentation and see the little pop up in the lower right corner demanding immediate attention to read a forwarded joke? And as humans, we immediately stop what we were doing in that budget spreadsheet and click the alert to be magically taken to a slightly humorous joke. That leads to further useless exchanges, and 15 minutes later we return to the spreadsheet and take another 10 minutes to remember where we left off. A valuable tool just became a real time waster.
How can we Maximize Our Productivity, by Disconnecting from Email?
We can tweak our setup and use of email to maximize our productivity, while not letting it derail our day and focus on real work, the work that makes a difference. Here are tips for that.
Change our view of email from it’s a constant stream to “it’s a tool at my disposal” – this is a psychological shift where we no longer think we must immediately read and respond to all emails. If we have that view, we can be interrupted. Instead, we must view it as our tool, and we will use it when we are ready. A carpenter maximizes his use of tools; his hammer does not pop up and demand attention when cutting wood, and if it did and he grabbed it, the job is now unproductive. View email as your tool, not other’s ways of having your time and focus on demands. Conversely, when we email, we must stop thinking it demands an immediate reply. Use a different means like a call to deal with urgent and important issues, not email.
One fallacy of email is that it is a task to be completed. We get a good feeling when we have less unread emails like we deserve a cookie. But is that productive? Is in-box zero really nirvana? Consider that it is not. It is our tool to get real work, productive work, completed.
Have Scheduled Email Read and Respond times – This is a key issue in disconnecting from email because this is where you do that. There are three ways to do that.
- Close it until ready to work in email – Instead of leaving Outlook, or Apple Mail, etc. open all day, close it. Put something on your calendar to check email 3 times per day, such as 8:00am, 11:30am, and 3:30pm. Schedule a 30-minute block for each time and when the time comes, open your email and work through it. Close it again. Since the email client is closed, your calendar may also be closed, so your phone is a handy way to work through your schedule and keep these events.
- Set email only to be sent and received at intervals that make sense for you. By default, email is always connected if you can reach the server (g., you are connected to the internet). But you can set up groups in the Send/Receive options under Outlook’s Advanced settings to restrict this. Anytime you absolutely must send or receive e-mail you can override it by pressing the F9 key or using the toolbar options.
- Use a third Party tool – Some email clients have built-in ways to pause your inbox, restricting delivery of new emails for a set time period. Microsoft Outlook does not have this, but there are add-ins that will pause your inbox for a period. One of these is Boomerang (https://www.boomerangapp.com). It lets you specify a period to hold emails, at the end of which it will release any emails paused.
Do not respond to every email – Understand that email is self-propagating. I have noticed that if I spend the morning writing a lot of emails, I get a lot more back throughout the day. Some people really need to answer everything, even with a valueless statement. On an email with multiple recipients, your reply can generate four more in your inbox of clutter. Add value, and not noise.
Unsubscribe from useless emails and mark them as junk – One way to reduce email clutter and distraction is not to get it. If you do not need to see emails from the sender, go ahead and unsubscribe using the link or method they provide. They might not honor this, so also mark it as junk, so it is routed to a folder you can clean up quickly (recommended to clean up weekly, perhaps Friday as weekly closeout process).
Configure your email tool to reduce distractions.
Go into the settings or ask your IT help desk to show you how to configure the following.
- Turn off Alerts – Turn off any email alerts that pop-up, make a noise, add an icon to a taskbar, etc. You are going to proactively check email when it makes sense in your schedule.
- Setup rules – Establish rules to move emails automatically. Many people use email as a database, so they must receive the email but do not have to have to respond or even read them closely (such as service alerts, etc.). You can set these up to route to a subfolder and then just ignore or delete them later when it makes sense. Rules can be based on the sender, something in the subject line, or numerous other criteria.
Email can be a great tool – but use it as a tool to your advantage. One size will not fit everyone, but some degree of disconnecting from email will likely result in a much better result in your life!