How to set up a basic home workstation for remote employees

As COVID-19 threatens to shut down businesses and schools, setting up employees at home doesn't require as much tech as you might think.

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With the increasing likelihood of employees working from home due to the coronavirus, understanding what technology they will need to be productive during their time away from the office will be critical to keeping operations going until life returns to normal.

The good news is a lot of the tech that employers already provide for day-to-day operations and collaboration is cloud-based. This means it can be accessed from anywhere at anytime. For proprietary applications sitting behind the corporate firewall, however, accommodations like setting up virtual private networks (VPNs) to provide secure access to the corporate network will need to be made.

Also, a plus for many employers is the move to laptops over workstations. Already portable, some companies encourage their employees to take them home at night instead of leaving them in the office, said Brie Weiler Reynolds, career development manager and coach at FlexJobs, a job site that focuses on remote workers.

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"It's going to be an interesting test for some companies," she said. "There are some companies … where they encourage you to bring your laptop home with you every night. They're very remote-work friendly, and they understand that things come up, and they want to make it easier for people to say, 'Hey, you know what, I'm going to work from home today.' So, some companies are already set up nicely. They know their employees have laptops; they're high quality, that they're able to function really easily. They've got the VPN already to go. But then there are other companies where that's not the case." 

While a laptop without an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse may not be ideal for all-day working, at least people are accessing their applications and data and are using a familiar desktop and operating system.

What employees can do in a pandemic

For organizations with tested, up-to-date disaster recovery and business continuity (DR/BC) plans in place, dusting these off now should provide a roadmap to provisioning a remote workforce, said Matt Prezbindowski, vice president infrastructure and operations and security, at State Auto Insurance Companies.

"Let's think about a pandemic," said Prezbindowski. "I can have a very similar situation where, 'Hey, the office in Nashville last night was hit by a tornado. The office no longer exists. You guys also have to work from home.' So a lot of the plans share a lot of similar features and functionality … Just because it's pandemic, the end result is the same."

For smaller businesses or those without a DR/BC plan in place, the task can be overwhelming--but it is one that needs to be addressed. Because it may be school closings that force employees to stay home to take care of their children, or because coronavirus cases can pop up in new locations without warning, these organizations will need to think quickly about the essential tools and technology their employees will need to keep operations moving.

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Essential tech for the home office

Every job is different, so there will be job-specific technologies and applications that may not be easily accessed and used off-site, but for the most part, most employees will require a similar baseline kit to do their jobs.

First, they will need a corporate-approved workstation. If employees use a tower-type workstation instead of a laptop, these can be unplugged and set up in the employee's home. Or, if your organization's bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy allows it, you can let employees use their own devices.

If employees are going to rely on a laptop, make sure they have access to an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard, if they want it. Laptops are convenient, but they can be hard to work on all day. Also, don't forget about cords and cables to connect everything. Even the best intentions can be short-circuited by a missing power cord.

For any of these scenarios, you will want to provide secure access to the applications and data that remote employees will need to do their jobs. If most of these are behind the corporate firewall, using a VPN is a good way to provide secure access.

If moving a workstation or application off-site is not an option, it can be made accessible using a remote desktop protocol (RDP) application. This functionality comes resident on Microsoft machines, but there are open source and commercial versions as well.

For some jobs, an on-site printer may be necessary, and an absolute must-have is a fast broadband internet connection. Clicking and waiting for an application to respond because the internet is slow is more than just annoying; it is disruptive to workflow and the ability to stay focused on the task at hand. For security purposes, and because older home-Wi-Fi routers can be noisy and quickly overwhelmed (especially if the kids are home from school), it's probably best to use a CAT-5 cable to connect home-based workstations to the internet. If CAT-5 isn't an option, a newer 802.11ac router with hundreds of megabits of throughput should be up to the task.

A good USB headset will also be necessary since home-based employees will be attending virtual meetings. If these are in short supply, a smartphone with earbuds will do the trick, but over-the-head headsets are more comfortable for all-day use.

To protect hardware from power fluctuations, have employees plug everything into a power supply that has surge protection and battery backup. That way, if the power goes down, employees will have time to shut down and save their work in an orderly fashion.

Really, that's about it. The biggest challenge isn't setting up the hardware but making sure people have access to the applications and data they need and that they can communicate easily with colleagues. This is where the bevvy of cloud-based collaboration, project management, communications, and productivity tools can make life easier for everyone.

There are a lot of important do's and don'ts about how to set up a home office that go beyond the scope of this article: Good lighting, a view of the outside world, a comfortable ergonomic chair, a "Do Not Disturb" sign, and a lock for the fridge will all make the home-office feel more like an office than a home. These things will help employees get and keep the right mindset because the most important word in the expression "home office" isn't home, it's office.

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Home workstation

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