Tips for Working from Home in the Age of COVID-19
Veteran remote worker Paul Schnackenburg shares: some tips to manage this for yourself (and if you're an IT pro, help your end users to do the same; some resources provided by Microsoft and others that may be useful; and some tips on how to migrate entire workforces to working from home (WFH, because of course we need an acronym for this) in a secure way.
Normally my column focuses on a new feature or service in Azure, Office 365 or Hyper-V but this month we take a break from the regular scheduled programming, given the situation many of us find ourselves in.
I have been working from home for quite a few years now and in this article I'll give you: some tips on how to manage this for yourself (and if you're an IT pro, help your end users to do the same); some resources provided by Microsoft and others that may be useful; and some tips on how to migrate entire workforces to working from home (WFH, because of course we need an acronym for this) in a secure way.
Going to the 'Office'
If you find yourself suddenly having to work from home, there are a few ground rules I would suggest.
Ergonomics first -- don't sit on the couch or in bed with your laptop propped up on your knees -- that'll work for a very short time and bring long term damage to your body and productivity. A good desk and the best chair your home contains is essential. Even better if you can afford it (and have it delivered) is a stand-up desk. (As a Swede I recommend Ikea's range). The evidence of the long-term health impacts of sitting for hours on end is clear and as a bonus my stand-up desk makes me more productive. There's something about standing up and working that makes it less distracting.
Avoid putting your monitor(s) in front of a window as the light from the outside behind the screen can cause vision issues.
Scheduling second -- you'll need to have a family meeting if you're living with other people, including children. Yes, mum and dad are going to be working from home for the next little while but that doesn't mean we're on holiday. You need some way to indicate that you're "at work" (both psychologically for yourself and for others) -- having a shower, getting dressed as if you were going to the office works for many people and then you "go to the office" in your house (even if it's at the kitchen table). Everyone needs to agree on the ground rules as to what is an acceptable time frame to be "at work" and not to be disturbed. If there's several people working from home and there are children and pets that need attention work out a schedule so that you can overlap work and home duties. Try (and this I find really hard) to be at work, when you're at work -- you wouldn't pop into the laundry between meetings in the office to put a load on so don't do it at home.
The temptation to connect on social media and particularly watching the news at a time like this is a huge time waster. Turn off all indications of incoming emails and messages that you can and only check email at set times (I do morning, after lunch and late afternoon) to avoid having your flow interrupted.
Tech to Help Work from Home Setups
Along with the ergonomic tips, as much as possible try to have the right tech set up (I realize this might be difficult or impossible due to the current situation). A good set of noise cancelling headphones can help you stay in the zone even if there's activity around you and a good microphone and video camera will help with virtual meetings.
On the software and services side many tech companies have stepped up to the plate -- Google Hangout Meets offer larger meetings (250 people), live streaming to up to 100,000 people and recording meetings at no extra cost. Microsoft Teams has added more features to the freemium trial that'll last you six months and they added another 12 million users in a very short time, whilst Azure is ramping up to take the extra load. Cisco Webex and Zoom Meetings are also expanding their free offerings, Adobe is also providing free PDF services, Adobe Connect for free for 90 days and Creative Cloud for students who are now learning from home.
Security as an Afterthought
There is one group of people on this planet who see nothing but opportunity in this crisis and that's cybercriminals. There will be many hastily cobbled together network and remote access solutions that provide ample opportunities to get in, along with changed processes and procedures making phishing emails much more likely to work. Make sure you brief all staff to be on the lookout for suspicious emails and if in doubt -- don't click the link for "free COVID-19 testing."
There are many solutions for different situations but briefly I'll mention Netwrix Auditor for catching suspicious behavior and Azure Sentinel as a quick way (and mostly free if you're starting with Azure Active Directory and M365 logs) to set up a SIEM for spotting odd behavior.
A quick note on User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) solutions. They rely on a known baseline of user behavior across devices so expect a LOT of false positives as what's normal will be changing rapidly.
If you need to provide secure access to on-premises applications Akamai is offering a 60-day trial of their solution, whilst Cloudflare has a very interesting solution that's free until Sept. 1. To monitor the end user experience, you can use ThousandEyes for free for 90 days.
For an insightful video on WFH and security by several IT Security experts I trust see this recorded live stream.
Another way to use this enforced downtime is to learn new IT skills. Microsoft is closing in-person testing centers but increasing capacity for proctored (at home) testing and there are many free resources for learning new skills like Microsoft 365 and Azure. Microsoft Learn provides excellent free training, Azure has free webinars as does M365. Oh, and the imminent demise of the MCSA and MCSE certifications has been moved to the Jan. 31, 2021, (instead of June 30, 2020), giving you more time to pick up the latest in on-premises skills as well.
I find podcasts are a tremendous resource for keeping up with tech developments (and lately for good virus information). Here are some that I recommend for a tech audience:
For cybersecurity listen to Risky Biz, and Troy Hunt's weekly update. To help me with facts around COVID-19 I recommend the Australian Coronacast, and the Making Sense podcast. The latter is behind a paywall but episode 190 and 191 are free.
The Psychology of a Pandemic
I'm not a medical expert (although I have listened to more of them over the last month than ever before in my life) but these are unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in. Even if we introverted IT people (I know I'm generalizing) often like to pretend that we don't have emotions, let's all be aware that at a time like this people will have a lot of anxiety. Fear brings out the best and the worst in people and I'm heartened by the many stories of unexpected kindness and solidarity that I see. Especially if you're managing a (now virtual) team, take extra care to check in with your people and see where they're at. If your team used to have a drink at the local after work on Thursdays -- do the same virtually.
Don't check the news more than once or twice a day. For me personally it's absolutely imperative for my mental health that I only check reliable, factual sources for the information I need -- mainstream media always hype and emotionalize troublesome times and that's the last thing I need when I need to stay steady. Use the current situation to help where you can (virtually) but simply watching negative news without being able to do anything about it helps no-one, least of all you. And frankly don't listen to much that our leaders say about the current situation, the politicians here in Australia are close to useless for actual information about what's going on or what rules to follow for social distancing and as for the U.S. leaders -- lets just say I leave it to you to decide if they are a good source of accurate information.
The business world will totally depend on us IT pros for the next few months to keep our users productive and being able to continue working. Apart from health workers and scientists who are working to deal with the pandemic we have perhaps the most important job of all and to all my fellow administrators I want to say; hang in there, do your best, stay safe and healthy and above all -- we'll get through this together.
Paul Schnackenburg has been working in IT for nearly 30 years and has been teaching for over 20 years. He runs Expert IT Solutions, an IT consultancy in Australia. Paul focuses on cloud technologies such as Azure and Microsoft 365 and how to secure IT, whether in the cloud or on-premises. He's a frequent speaker at conferences and writes for several sites, including virtualizationreview.com. Find him at @paulschnack on Twitter or on his blog at TellITasITis.com.au.