The coronavirus pandemic is impacting small- and medium-sized businesses in profound ways, regardless of sector, with many having to close shop. “Even those that are staying open are not getting enough business because customers can’t or don’t want to go out,” said Laurie McCabe, co-founder and partner at SMB Group. SMBs that are staying open and providing essential services such as healthcare, groceries and cleaning services, face another challenge—retaining workers and possibly expanding their workforce and keeping them healthy, she said.

“I think that most SMBs—like the government—are now feeling that the economy will worsen before it gets better,” McCabe said. With business already at a standstill for most, many are being forced to lay off employees and slash spending.

“In a nutshell,” she said, “it’s devastating.”

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Technologies to keep workers connected

Most companies have already canceled events, meetings, and nonessential travel and are directing employees who can work from home to do so because of the coronavirus, McCabe said. Web and video conferencing, cloud-based file sharing and networking solutions have become the lifeblood to keeping remote workers productive.

“Many companies—including Microsoft, Free Conference Call, Google, Slack, Zoho, Zoom, Cisco and LogMeIn—are offering their video conferencing solutions and other tools to assist remote workers for free during the crisis,” she said. “And vendors such as Cisco and McAfee are offering some of their security products at no charge as well.”

For some employees, the transition will be easy. “For others, especially those who rely on legacy systems and dated processes, the shift to companywide telework will come with a few bumps,” said Amruth Laxman, CEO and founding partner of VoIP provider 4Voice.

“Compounding this challenge is the fact that the majority of SMBs don’t have the need or means to retain full-time IT staff,” he said. “To ensure business continuity, SMBs will need to work with partners that can help them navigate this complex process.”

For example, working with a full-service VoIP partner that offers white glove service means business owners and line of business leaders can focus more on improving efficiency and productivity rather than troubleshooting VoIP implementations or experiencing downtime, Laxman said.

Even if SMBs have IT staff, they may be solely data driven as opposed to having voice technical expertise, he said. “From the security perspective, unsecured Wi-Fi networks, unsecured home computers and phishing all put corporate data at risk of being hacked or breached when workers are remote,” Laxman said.

To mitigate risks, employers should create written guidelines for new software and data protection best practices, he advised. For instance, employees can ensure their Wi-Fi connection is secure, but some older installations might not be so it’s critical to make sure anti-virus software is in place and have encryption tools installed.

SEE: The 10 rules found in every good remote work policy (TechRepublic)

Also, especially right now when fear is already heightened and people are distracted, businesses need to remind employees to be wary of suspicious emails from unknown accounts asking them to renew login credentials or open files.

How to keep remote workers functioning efficiently

Never has there been a more urgent need to accommodate remote workers to keep businesses functioning efficiently.

“To manage a remote workforce efficiently, businesses can utilize VoIP technology to ease the difficulties of integrating employees in multiple time zones and route calls to various locations, or even to a separate answering service seamlessly so that the switch is unnoticeable to the customer,” Laxman said. “VoIP solutions can also collect and readily report on relevant metrics to ensure that business operations are properly staffed and that employees are meeting goals with call and performance analytics.”

A great metric to start watching is the ratio of call volume to answer rate, he said.

Some VoIP providers like 4Voice also offer a phone app that enables the ability to chat, call and video interface with their employees and customers straight from their computer. “This ensures rapid communication, even in challenging times,” he said.

Full-service VoIP technology is specifically designed to accommodate massive remote access; therefore, the network impact has been minimal, Laxman added.

McCabe advises people working remotely to get used to “the dreaded video conference.” Increasingly, people are going to expect you to share your camera, she said. “So prepare for the fact that you cannot wear your pajamas all day, and make sure you feel good about showing your face.”

She suggests checking out how you’ll look on screen beforehand and position your PC so that you’re not looking down into the camera. “Sit in a nice sunny or well-lit spot with the light on your face, not casting a shadow over it.”

McCabe also recommends searching online “how to run a great virtual meeting” and you’ll find more than enough posts on the process. Remember that this isn’t just an adjustment for you—but your coworkers, bosses, and other people you live with, she added.

Working through these processes today will help better prepare organizations and employees for productive remote work as the trend only continues to grow in the years ahead, Laxman said.

McCabe agreed, saying: “Who knows? This giant, unplanned telecommuting experiment may pave the way for this to become the new normal long after the coronavirus crisis ends.”