Working from home: What the new normal looks like, plus remote management tips

Larry Dignan, Steve Ranger, and Bill Detwiler sit down to discuss their best management hacks for getting the most from their teams from understanding your employee's individual needs, to learning how to set measurable deliverables for your team.

Working from home: What the new normal looks like, plus remote management tips
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ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan, ZDNet UK Editor-in-Chief Steve Ranger, and TechRepublic Editor-in-Chief Bill Detwiler sat down to discuss their best management hacks for getting the most from their teams while working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

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

Larry Dignan: Speaking for our own team, I think we're kind of hitting the stride. I do think there's some video conferencing fatigue for sure. And then I think the other stuff in the background is just the Zoom privacy and security issues, which I think raises a whole 'nother issue. Added up, it's probably good for Microsoft Teams and some of the Zoom competitors, but I think there's a broader issue here where it's just like security across the board for video conferencing, because none of these tools were set up for it. They might have been enterprise tools, but they weren't really set up for being attacked daily by the hour, by the minute. And I think that's what we're seeing. So we're seeing everybody goes remote and then the vendors are having to mature very quickly.

Karen Roby: Steve, talk a bit about the security concerns with employees using different communication platforms.

Steve Ranger: I think the situation has evolved slightly in that maybe a couple weeks ago, companies were rushing around, and I know people were dashing around trying to find 10 laptops, 100 laptops, in some cases 1,000 laptops, in some cases tens of thousands of laptops to get people online. We heard some really interesting stories about people working flat out for a week or two to just get enough hardware to get it out to vast teams that never thought they were going to have to work all from home at the same time. That was the first stage of the crisis, was just to get everyone working from home.

Then the next stage now, and kind of doing it however they could. We had stories about people taking hundreds of old laptops out of storage and chucking Linux on them and then getting them out the door to people who needed them, all that kind of stuff. Really interesting stuff, really big projects done in days. Now everyone's at home and everyone's looking around and saying, "OK, so what are we worried about next?" And I think the thing to worry about next is how well-designed those systems are. Are those laptops they got out in a hurry secure? Are the tools we're using secure in the long-term? It's great we can all communicate with each other and we can do lots of video conferencing or sharing intellectual property and sharing messages. How secure is that stuff?

I think it would be nice to think the kind of bad people out there, the criminals, the state-sponsored types, the espionage types, will be giving us a pass and saying, "OK, let everyone come to terms with all this and get home." Of course they're not going to do that, right? And they're going to pounce on any opportunity, which is the opportunity of weakness, where we might have insecure laptops or insecure communications. As Larry says, there's quite a lot of vendors out there who I actually think are actually doing a really good job of saying, "Right, OK. Suddenly our app is incredibly popular. Suddenly we're being used by tens of millions of people. Right, we need to concentrate on security like we never have before. Especially as these apps in some respects, quite inadvertently, are becoming business-critical, they have to double down on making sure those things are as secure as possible.

Karen Roby: Bill, the Zoom security issues are really in the news right now.

Bill Detwiler: Well, it's not the first time actually that Zoom has had security issues. In 2019 they had a pretty significant zero-day exploit that came out, especially for folks that used Mac software. Zoom was built to be really simple. I think they'll admit that. They've said that in the past. And it is. I've used everything from WebEx to Teams to BlueJeans to Zoom to Google Hangouts. I've used just about every single video conferencing app out there, and Zoom is very simple. You just get a link, you can create a free account. If you use a corporate account, it's really easy to share that link, to integrate it with your calendar software if you use Google Calendar. 

With that ease of use also came some security issues. As Mac made some changes, as Apple made changes in Safari, they got around that by installing a web server. That kind of created a compromise because you really shouldn't be running web servers on corporate desktops without a really good reason. And someone discovered this and said, "Hey, this is a security issue." And they came along and addressed it and people would complain that maybe they didn't act fast enough or they didn't take it seriously enough. I think like Larry and Steve were saying, a lot of companies that maybe didn't have to address security in the past are now being forced to because of the way their applications are being used. 

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

To Steve's point, too, it really depends on the type of company that you had in infrastructure, you had before the outbreak compared to now. If you had a really large telecommuting workforce, then it was a little easier for you to spin this up. We do on our teams, we have a distributed workforce, so to get people into the people mindset and the tech mindset, it was pretty easy. But there are a lot of companies, like Steve was mentioning, maybe they had large call centers. Maybe they had folks that were in large buildings that had on-prem systems and were really worried about sharing that data out or were really worried, just didn't have the infrastructure.

It took a week or two, and we're just now getting up to the point. I know people that have done this and there are ways to do it. Use RDP, you can use other technologies, VPNs, but if you didn't have that in place before, and you're trying to scramble to put that in place, it made it a lot tougher for you. And I really think the new normal going forward, a month from now, two months from now, [working from home is] going to be part of the standard operating procedure for a lot of businesses. Larry talked about this. One of our first videos early on was about the changes afterwards to corporate structure around corporate real estate. People just working from home.

I think you're going to see some folks, some companies, just say, "You know? It worked pretty good for a couple months. Why don't we just keep working from home? There's no reason for me to pay for this really expensive building. I've got to pay for desks and chairs and lights and all these facilities expenses. Hm, maybe I won't do that. It worked pretty well. Maybe we will do some of it, but we'll scale it down, we'll have folks come in every few weeks, we'll have folks ..." I think we're in for a lot of changes that will stick. Now, it may take months after this is over for us to see most of them, but I think a lot of this stuff is more permanent than people realize right now. 

Larry Dignan: I think the other thing we're going through, and the thing that'll make it more permanent, is I think right now, everybody sort of, they ran out of the gate fast and now they're kind of, OK, so they're all functioning and now I think it's about they're going to optimize from here. I would probably say three weeks from now, everybody working from home is going to be a lot more efficient. I think that balancing act between ease of use and security will be figured out over time. Zoom, like when they came out the other day with all their mea culpa and, "We're freezing features for 90 days to focus on security," and all that, that's kind of like their Microsoft moment. Remember Microsoft used to be an absolute security disaster? And then they got serious and they did their pivot and they evolved over time.

SEE: IT pro's roadmap to working remotely (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

I think that's going to happen with all these remote work kind of vendors that are enabling this, and I think when all this is said and done, I think a lot of enterprises are going to go back and say, "All right, so here's what we did." And then they'll go back and fix it and make it more rigorous and all that going forward. So I think vendors like VMware or Citrix, obviously the video conferencing players, collaboration players, all those guys, I think they're all going to benefit over time, because I do think there's going to be a point where we're going to optimize, get this drill down, and then the vendors and the enterprises are going to go back and say, "OK, let's do this right and get ready for the next pandemic," or whatever that disaster is. 
I firmly believe this remote work thing is going to be more permanent than people think.

Karen Roby: Yeah, and I think one of the interesting things, too, is managers, of course, and all of you manage teams trying to keep your finger on the pulse of your employees. You know, how they're feeling at home, how they're dealing with this. Getting things set up is one thing, but as we move through this, as you guys know, it may be difficult for some people at home as they're feeling more isolated and apart from people. How do you handle that? How do managers handle that with their teams?

Steve Ranger: I think it's constant recalibration. So some teams really love to do that video thing every day. I know teams who have a morning meeting every morning, video conference, 20 people in, they all talk. I know teams that couldn't bear to do that kind of thing, and grudgingly meet up for maybe 15 minutes every two or three days. I'm actually finding how that works for each team is really tough, right? I know Larry talked about video conference fatigue. I think yeah, absolutely. We're all trying to tweak it and understand what the right point is, and because if you're running teams, it's not something you fix in two weeks. If you took over a new team, you wouldn't know how to manage everyone within the first couple of weeks. Actually you have to think, "Well, this is a new way of running this team," because you're missing all those physical cues of does someone look happy at their desk or do they look like they're struggling a bit? You can't see any of that. You might see someone on video for 15 minutes every couple of days. 

For some teams, those really, really regular check-ins are vital. For others, it's a bit more hands-off, and actually working out which of those is right is quite hard, because people won't necessarily tell you. If you say, "Well, we're having one meeting a week. Should we extend this to four?" Not everyone's going to put their hand up and say, "Absolutely. We need more meetings." But in general, most people will not say they need more meetings in their lives. That's not a thing. But you have to accept that right now, especially with the millions, possibly billions of people working from home now, that actually the whole team dynamics has changed, and you won't get it right first time and you just have to keep on tweaking it and changing it and maybe in a few weeks, we'll get it right. But don't expect to have it right now. I certainly haven't, and that's just the way it is.

Larry Dignan: When you're all in the same office, you don't necessarily notice the individuality of them. When everybody's remote, you kind of notice it more. So you have to think through things like, "Is this person in a studio apartment without anybody at all?" That's different than like us, where a lot of us have kids running around doing homeschool or remote learning, whatever that is. Or something like that, right? So everybody has a different challenge. It's almost like you're coaching a team, like motivating players. Some people need tough love, other people need coddling, some people need positivity, some people need to be told they suck and get them mad. I don't recommend that in the workplace, but generally speaking. 

Everybody responds to something differently. You almost need to be in tune with that, and what I'm finding is even our team's very dispersed, but I've been holding these open office hours, and one of our contributors said, "This is isolating." And I was like, "What do you mean? You've worked from home for three decades now." And the difference was the coffee shop around the corner was shut down. So, while he didn't interact with us per se all day, he was able to go someplace and talk to the locals who were also working from home. Well, that outlet's gone now. That's why the video stuff, the open office hours, things like that matter a little more. It just takes time to figure out what everybody needs basically, and that almost gets a little more personal than you would in a normal workplace, because you kind of got to know their situation so you kind of know what they need, and a lot of times they're pretty forthcoming about what they need. But that's a challenge, too, because not everybody's going to tell you.

Bill Detwiler: I think the one thing I've found is to watch for burnout. You don't notice that as much maybe in the office as you do at home. People have told me, I'm asking them, "How much are you working? What's your day look like? What's your structure look like?" What I've found personally, and other people have told me this, too, is that they get up and instead of spending the time getting ready to leave to take a half hour, an hour trip into the office, whatever it is, they just come downstairs and sit at their desk or go to their living room and sit at the desk. They start working right away. They jump on whatever collaboration tool, Slack or they jump on IM or they jump on Teams or they jump on whatever they're doing, and they start working right away.

And they get into a couple meetings, they do a couple tasks, they're answering email, we're writing stories, filming this right now. And then they look at the clock and it's four hours later. And they haven't moved from their desk because there are no cues around them, there's no coworker sitting next to them saying, "Hey, what time are we going to go to lunch?" Or, "Hey, would you like to get something?" Or, "Oh, you know we have that meeting at 12 in this other room." And so you can get blinders on, and then oh, you're like, "It's 12. I should go eat something." They go do that for half an hour, then they come back down and the next time they look up, it's 8 p.m. It's 7 p.m. Just depending on, again, like Larry said, what other thing do you have? Do you have kids at home? Do you have roommates? Do you have a partner? What are those cues pulling you away from the office?

I think that's important to watch out for as well, and like Larry says, knowing your people as a manager helps you help them work through that. Also, burnout with meetings itself, like Zoom meetings, I think we're all in this and we've talked about this a little bit before, we're all in this novel period of, "Ooh, we're all on Zoom. Let's jump on Zoom. Let's have a big… ." But you can get Zoomed out, you know? There can be Zoom fatigue. 

Larry Dignan: I'm there.

Bill Detwiler: I'm just trying to come up with a new word like Zoom-bombed. But you can have too much of Zoom, so I think looking for just phone calls, figuring out what works for the individual is much more important now than maybe even figuring out what works for the group, because you're not together as a group, or even when you are, we have weekly calls, it's just different, right? It even feels more individual. I think as a manager, that's something that if you haven't done that in the past, that's the part that can be kind of tricky. If you're not used to connecting with people individually and trying to suss out those individual needs, then you should be. I think so, as a manager. But you're going to have to change how you manage your people and how hopefully they communicate with you, too, and hopefully they feel comfortable doing that.

Karen Roby: I would think it would just take some time for people to find their stride and to keep those lines of communication open. Well, Steve, I know you talked about how you kind of see things going in stages as far as how companies are moving through this. What do you see the next couple of weeks, if it's another week or two until we all get together and talk again about this, what do you see being the next stage of this? 

Steve Ranger: I'll say one thing, the best piece of advice Larry has ever given me was to walk around on conference calls, because then you're at least getting a bit of exercise. I haven't quite worked out how to do that on a Zoom call yet, but yeah, absolutely that whole thing about sitting down and ...

Larry Dignan: Working on it.

Steve Ranger: Suddenly it's 3 p.m., that is such a thing, right? You've got to get up and get around and get moving. I tell everyone, "If you're in a conference call, get up and move. Just do anything you can." How do I think the next few weeks are going to roll out? I think we're going to fine-tune this stuff. I think everyone's in place now, I think it's just a case of working out different ways of working. In some respects, I think people will be better working from home on some jobs, and it'll be harder on others. And I think working out which of these you need to give people support on when they need it, I think, is going to be the challenge. 

Karen Roby:
As we're wrapping up here, Larry, if you had somebody that was new to this as far as managing teams and thrust into this position,what would be a couple other points that you would pass on to someone that's trying to keep morale up and help people adjust to this new norm?

Larry Dignan: I think it's don't micromanage. That's always a balancing act. I think the open office hours helps, because it gives people an opportunity to know that they can drop in. And then I think the other thing is just make sure the goals and deliverables and all that are clear, and make sure they're prioritized. Because some stuff is going to get deprioritized. If you've got to go out and get, whether it's, I don't know, face masks, toilet paper, get the kids somewhere or whatever it is, just make sure you stick to the top three most important things, because the rest of it probably doesn't matter. Probably never did. So just focus on the big stuff that matters, because the other stuff is getting de-prioritized for a reason. 

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