two people sitting and working separately in an empty airport
PHOTO: Claudio Schwarz

There are countless articles that talk about the technology remote workers need to be successful. Typically, they discuss the roll of videoconferencing and collaboration tools to support mobile workers. But remote workers struggle with more fundamental tools that office and mobile workers take for granted.

When it Comes to Supporting Remote Workers, Don't Forget the Basics

As organizations begin to recognize the value remote workers bring, they should consider all the in-office workflows that may be difficult for remote workers. As a full-time remote worker, I work from home and occasionally travel to company offices both in the US and abroad. Here are some of the workflow snags that I have experienced:

1. Documents

The idea of a paperless office is still George Jetson years away. We still operate with paper documents. You want me to sign and scan a multi-page document back to you? I do have a desktop printer that can copy and scan (and fax too!). But it scans one page at a time. Your 10-page document is going to take up a lot of time. My options are to scan each page and send you 10 individual PDFs; purchase an application that will let me combine several PDFs into one document; or drive to my local FedEx/Kinkos to scan the document. Either way, I am spending time on an administrative task rather than on more productive work.

Solution: You can’t control what equipment remote workers will have. While printing is more of a rare occurrence, buying newer sophisticated printers is probably not an option. Consider electronic signing technology. It’s a greener approach anyway.

Related Article: Is Your Remote Team Working? Assessing Employees Who Aren't Down the Hall

2. Expense reimbursement

Whether working from home or traveling, completing expense forms for reimbursement seems like a clumsy process. Solutions like Concur and other similar services  make it a bit less tedious. From within Concur, I can take a picture of each receipt as it is obtained, and all the receipts are stored and ready for me to file a report. This is a huge improvement over copying receipts and mailing them in.

Solution: An improvement upon this would be to allocate the expense right when I take that picture. This would take a few taps when the information is fresh in my mind. It also makes filing the report quicker and I don’t have to spend time doing the allocations for 50 images at the end of a trip.

3. Print services

As previously mentioned, at times I do need to travel to various company offices. It’s great that print management software allows me to pull the print job down to whatever printer I am near at whichever office I am at without bothering IT to get the appropriate print drivers. It just works. However, remote workers do not always travel to company offices when they need to print. In fact, many remote workers are not employees at all and may not have access to company printers.

Solution: It would great to print at any office or place that offers print services. We have adapters to charge our mobile phones in any country, why can’t we easily print from any device — even those not associated with your company’s network?

Related Article: Identifying the Missing Link in Remote Working Strategies

4. Everything in the cloud, please 

Most companies use the cloud to store documents. Programs like Office 365, Dropbox, Box and others offer ways to easily drop files into shared folders. But many companies still store files on legacy networked folders. Accessing these networked folders can be painful for remote workers who are thousands of miles away. Especially when the document you need is buried within several layers of folders. Downloading videos can take hours.

Solution: Cloud-first policies. Use those legacy networked folders as backups. Use technology that automatically backs up cloud-based folders because you do need a backup when connectivity is lost or in the case of a cloud disaster.

5. VPN/internal system access

Another issue involves VPNs and the ability to access internal systems. This is rare, but sometimes securing access is an issue. As a remote worker I can work anywhere — most often that is from home. IT is used to seeing a lot of traffic coming from where I live. But I do travel and that means connecting from various hotels. Connecting to company networks via VPN through a hotel’s wireless sometimes doesn’t work. VPN settings are too strict to allow an unrecognized network.

Solution: I honestly don’t know the answer to this. Security is important; companies need to protect unauthorized access to internal systems. But there must be a way for a remote worker to prove their identity.

Related Article: Why the Workplace Should Be Ready for More Remote Workers in 2019 

The Importance of an IT Department That 'Thinks Remote'

Having an IT department that is aware of issues that remote workers may encounter is important. While remote workers are typically responsible for their own reliable internet connection, the connection to internal systems is owned by the company. Typically, organizations instruct employees to fill out a help desk ticket online when issues arise. The irony is this can only be done if the remote worker can access internal systems. IT must be flexible and be reachable by phone to solve these kinds of issues.

It used to the mantra for IT and developers to “think mobile.” The new mantra should be “think remote.” Build your in-house applications and work processes with the remote worker in mind. The think remote mindset includes thinking about mobile, but it goes beyond that. The future of work is all about efficiency and making the workplace a satisfying experience. That workplace is now, more often than not, a remote location — at home, at a shared workspace or the local Starbucks. Consider use cases that involve remote access and the digital tools for everyday processes.