Security and Remote Workers: Challenge for Small Business

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The advent of the remote worker has been a boon for small businesses. In 2013, I opened a small micro-publishing business for children’s picture books. The new world of self-publishing and online freelance staffing websites made it possible. But, as a former IT project manager, I understood that there are risks to working with strangers from around the world.

There are several security risks that are challenging for small businesses who employ remote workers. Some are technology-based. Some are related to legal protections. Finally, some security concerns can be handled with good management.

Let’s talk about the types of challenges small businesses who hire remote workers face and how they can be addressed.

Security policy

Provide remote workers with a written security policy. It can be short and sweet but should address password requirements, data protection policies, approved applications, etc.

Data security

How data is stored by the remote worker as well as how they send and receive data with your company is a high priority for most small businesses. We recommend:

  1. Using cloud-based file storage. Companies like DropBox.com offer business accounts to accommodate multiple users and larger storage requirements. Files are encrypted while stored on their servers. They also use encryption and other security technology to protect files in transit between the application and their servers.
  2. Require that sensitive documents be password-protected.
  3. If you provide the hardware to your remote workers, it’s possible to encrypt the devices. You can also setup automatic updates so that every company-issued device is running the latest operating systems and applications.
  4. Many remote workers use public WiFi. Provide them with a high-quality Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. VPNs provide an encrypted connection over unsecured networks.

Hardware security

Require strong passwords for devices. If your remote workers travel extensively, provide them with security backpacks to reduce the chance of their devices being stolen. Settings like “Find my iPhone” or “Find my MAC” should be employed.

Intellectual property

This was a major concern for my children’s book publishing business. I used a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to protect non-copyrighted stories-in-progress. All remote workers I hired had to sign a service agreement. This document clearly outlined the deliverables for the project and the agreed-upon schedule. It also made clear that all work completed (as long as I paid the employee) belonged to me. Consult a lawyer to determine if your remote workers need to sign specific legal documents for your company’s protection.

Background checks

If you will be hiring longer-term employees and/or they will be working with highly sensitive information, consider doing a background check. Only select companies who are FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) compliant. The last thing you want is a discrimination lawsuit on your hands.

Team dynamics

When I worked for a large energy company, I interfaced with teams in many locations. I found meeting a team at least once in person showed that I valued and respected them. If it’s possible to meet with your remote workers periodically, do so. If not, a Skype or FaceTime meeting is a pretty good substitute. Remote workers can get lonely and feel disconnected from the rest of your team. You want them to be invested in the success of your company. Remember them at bonus time, too. A small gift certificate can mean a lot. That you took the time to reward them, to acknowledge their existence, fosters loyalty and commitment to your company – and your mission.

Training

For short-term remote workers, providing your written security policy document is probably sufficient. However, let them know who they can contact with any questions. A quick call or video conference to ensure they have set things up properly can save a lot of time (and headache) down the road.

Longer-term remote workers likely need the same training as on-site employees. To reduce costs and enhance team cohesiveness, consider the “train the trainer” approach. Your onsite employees take the training and each is assigned one or more remote workers to train. This can build relationships with team members. It also helps your onsite employees retain what they have learned by having to walk through the steps with someone else. You or one of your managers should oversee the effort.

Opportunities

There is a tendency to not think of remote workers as “real” employees. This is understandable for off-site freelancers who occasionally do some work for you. But, for long-term remote employees, consider giving them opportunities to move up in the company or to take on more responsibility. One option is to offer optional online training in areas where you anticipate a need in the future.

Keep it simple

A small business is typically defined as having up to 50 employees.  My one-person company will have requirements very different from your 40-person business. What I learned working for a large corporation is that you can overwhelm people with too much information. Only require the level of security that is appropriate for your company’s size and needs. Then provide workers with the most relevant information. If you want to ensure that your policies won’t be followed, make them burdensome. To increase compliance, keep it simple.

They’re your employees

No matter where you hire your employees from, no matter where they work from, they are your employees. As long as a person is creating work for your company, you are responsible for their success on your behalf. Give them the tools they need to work securely, efficiently, and happily.

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