Few businesses prepare to upend operations in the event of a real emergency. If a disaster were to strike today — a tornado, flood, fire, or national health scare like COVID 19 — how many of your clients could successfully transition their office staff to a remote work environment? While some jobs require in-person or hands-on work, others, including sales, marketing, and other professionals who rely mostly on computer and phone connections, could perform those activities safely from home or alternate locations.
Unfortunately, some businesses are ill-equipped and inexperienced with those transitions, especially those that have never tested the accessibility and usability of their systems outside the main facility. What may sound like a simple move to a novice may require technical savvy and a firm grasp of remote work environments. The real concern when emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak arise is with companies that fail to consult with experienced IT professionals before allowing staff members to work from home or other locations.
Venturing into those types of uncharted waters can have severe repercussions for SMBs and the people who will inevitably have to bail them out when things go awry. Proactive discussions and careful preparation help ease those concerns, which is why MSPs must improve their around remote workforce needs and best practices before, during, and after these events. Many of the decision-makers need constant reminders of the importance and investment requirements of proper emergency preparation.
Set Individual Priorities
No two businesses are alike. Your clients may cater to different markets, employ people with distinct skills, leverage unique technologies in their operations, and have very individualized management styles. Each varying factor can complicate transitions to remote work. When developing an emergency plan, those differences must be taken into consideration, as should any limitations with potential alternate offsite locations.
Most companies regularly invest in infrastructure upgrades, secure cloud solutions, and data protection. Before providing offsite access to those systems, common sense would suggest taking a similar approach, starting with a comprehensive assessment of prospective alternative, ‘workspaces.’
For example, employees might have limited or no internet or mobile connectivity in their homes. Those workers may need an alternate location (i.e., temporary or shared offices) or technology upgrades to log on to vital business applications following a disaster or other emergency.
Upgrades are usually needed in other areas, too. Most MSPs already provide ‘remote office’ services of some form for their business clients and have enough time to test each system before doing a full-scale rollout. During emergencies, those standard implementation protocols may disappear.
Remote work tools should allow employees to perform the same activities offsite as they can in the office. Mobile device support is an essential piece of the equation, but you need to address the individual technology and services requirements for each specific client, including communications, security, and compliance.
Create a Seamless Phone Experience
Unlike large enterprises, relatively few SMBs do wholesale telecommunication implementations and testing for their workforces. The current COVID-19 concerns illustrate why every business should have these backup plans. MSPs can deploy hosted VoIP and UCaaS during short-term emergencies such as bad weather and illnesses, or in disaster situations like fires, tornadoes, flooding that affect their clients’ facilities.
“Voice over IP cloud-based telephone systems are ideal for handling telecommunications demands during disasters of all kinds for SMBs and their MSP partners,” says Scott Seltzer, CEO of ConnectMeVoice, a channel VoIP supplier. “The coronavirus outbreak of just further emphasizes the need for business to be ready to deal with disasters of any size, whether natural or man-made.”
Seltzer suggests MSPs work closely with their SMB clients when developing telecommunications plans for their remote workforce, including:
- Consider how customers would route inbound calls if everyone had to work from home. If those forwarding options are not in place, offer to set them up.
- Propose implementing softphones on each employee’s home computer with their existing internet connections. That process will allow workers to make and receive calls without any routing changes to their office telephone system, quickly transfer callers to other extensions, and participate in conference meetings.
- For customers with multiple locations, MSPs can set up emergency call routing to offices or personnel not impacted by an ongoing emergency. That process leverages the standard call forwarding or emergency routing capabilities of most hosted VoIP systems.
- Enable employees with a mobile VoIP app that allows them to take inbound and outbound calls just as they would with regular business lines (using the same extension). Once configured, workers can use the feature anytime they are out of the office.
- MSPs can set up one or more mobile phones as a ring group and configure emergency routing so end users won’t miss inbound calls or have those calls go to voice mail.
Control Data and System Access
Remote work relies heavily on information. Unfortunately, cybercriminals are always looking for an easy way to access your clients’ data, and a poorly secured connection outside their perimeter presents the perfect opportunity.
“During these temporary work from home situations, it’s vital not to let the precautions intended to protect the physical health of a company’s staff turns into a threat to its cybersecurity posture,” says Scott Barlow, Vice President, Global MSP at Sophos. “First and foremost, MSPs need to educate customers on using personal and work devices responsibly. For example, using the same computer that the kids use to go online can invite malware and spyware tools onto your computer. With that, MSPs should make sure they have a way to see and check what users are doing on their devices to ensure patches and updates are made and help troubleshoot and analyze any issues that arise.”
Barlow also suggests MSPs provide self-service portals that eliminate the need for users to hand their devices over to the IT department. Do workers have access to all the necessary data and applications needed to carry out their jobs? Finally, users need intuitive and straightforward ways to report any security issues that arise.
On the technical side, MSPs should offer web filtering and cloud storage, securing and encrypting devices wherever possible, as well as implementing external device protection (hard drives and USBs).
“The number one concern for MSPs today is protecting themselves and their customers from targeted ransomware attacks and breaches,” adds Barlow. “We’re currently seeing a large uptick in phishing attempts preying on fears related to the coronavirus outbreak. MSPs will need to be diligent in educating customers to specific threats related to developing world events and take steps to secure their environments since they are becoming rich targets for cybercriminals to use as a gateway to other networks. We recommend leveraging two-factor authentication and ensuring they’re locking down their own network with layered, synchronized security.”
Barlow also suggests employing a 24/7 SOC team or Managed Detection and Response (MDR) service from experts who can identify and neutralize sophisticated threats using a combination of machine learning and human analysis. Other recommendations include subjecting your MSP to security audits, using Role-Based Administration (RBA), protecting RDP from the world, and preparing an Incident Response (IR) plan. “Look beyond cost and focus on future-proofing security defenses,” emphasizes Barlow.
DR Doesn’t End with Emergencies
One of the hardest parts of a business continuity plan is ensuring the collection and protection of all the disparate data streams. Remote workforces complicate that matter with information being created and stored in various devices and systems outside the corporate firewall.
“The danger of having a distributed workforce is your data suddenly becomes just as distributed, and unprotected,” says Chris Jones, Chief Executive Officer, and Co-Founder, Adept MC. “You need to provide policy guidance to your clients, so they are aware that any data stored locally or on a home system will not be recoverable should something happen to that device. All company-owned data should exist on company-provided devices that are protected with a solid backup and recovery test plan.”
Jones recommends MSPs also provide vital policy guidance to their clients. “Be sure users are aware that any data stored locally or on a home system will not be recoverable should something happen to that device. All company-owned data should exist on company supplied systems that you protect with a solid backup and recovery test plan.” Ideally, all processing should take place on a virtual desktop in the datacenter. “That way, the laptop or mobile device is simply a remote endpoint, and the data still exists within the data center and backup job profiles. When there are no virtual desktops, instruct employees to fight the urge to copy data to local machines without protection and remind every remote worker that they are ultimately responsible for their companies’ equipment AND data.”
Education Beats Pitches
Situations like the COVID-19 pandemic are thankfully quite rare, but disasters such as the recent tornadoes in Tennessee and floods in the South happen quite regularly. Discussing remote options with your clients to ensure their employees have a safe working environment is a necessary public service. When done correctly, those conversations won’t appear in poor taste or opportunistic.
“MSPs shouldn’t need to pitch anything,” says Barlow. “Simply asking whether users are set up to work remotely should lead to a discussion about the challenges a customer may face with that process.”
Remote work shouldn’t be considered a short-term answer. Whether your clients need a quick solution to deal with COVID-19 or fire at their primary office or simply want more flexible workspace choices, every organization, no matter how big or small, should have those options available.
Does your MSP firm offer those services? If not, let the current situation be the impetus for building out a more robust remote work portfolio.