Tips to keep your business data safe when staff are working at home
With many forced into isolation over recent weeks, we have seen an inevitable surge in ‘working from home’ (WFH). Whilst there have been many fundamental similarities we have seen many different scenarios and solutions implemented depending on the technologies in place. Each of them has some scenarios which may be a concern to business owners and senior managers – and they are things that all of us should be aware of, so we can guard against them.
Part Server / Part Cloud Businesses (Hybrid)
For many businesses, the complete transition to ‘the cloud’ has not yet been possible – primarily due to a business critical application required by the staff which is not yet available or optimised for a ‘cloud-enabled’ solution. These have tended to be a database system, or a CRM, or the business accounts software – which are still server based, and accessed by staff when they are in the office.
These businesses probably have some cloud solutions – typically their email is on Microsoft Office 365, and is available from anywhere – but their server based applications mean staff have to connect to the office to maintain access.
Typically the favoured solution for this has been a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection for the home worker (which establishes a secure ‘tunnel’ to the office network) – combined with a Remote Desktop connection to gain access to their office PC.
In the main, this is a secure solution. The VPN ensures an encrypted connection, and the fact they are working on their office PC means no data is being transferred and stored off site (on their home PC/laptop).
In order to increase security, it is often recommended for staff to use a company-owned PC or laptop when connecting to the office network via a VPN. The reason for this is because business machines are usually ‘locked-down’ and managed, making them less vulnerable to attacks from hackers and less likely to expose business data to other people, eg, other members of the family who may use the home computer!
We do realise however that it’s not always possible to use a business machine and, if this is the case, we would recommend taking the following precautions with a home PC setup :
- do not use a PC that is running Windows 7 (or before) (Windows 7 is no longer supported by Microsoft and is a target for hackers, putting your business data at risk)
- if you are saving your documents to your PC make sure you take regular backups
- make sure Windows security updates are right up-to-date (these are released on a monthly basis and help ‘plug’ any security holes that hackers look to exploit within the system)
- make sure you install antivirus software and it is kept up-to-date (By keeping your antivirus software up-to-date it will be able to detect the most recently released threats)
- if you can, uninstall any applications that you no longer use or are old (applications – particularly old ones – can be targeted by hackers)
- create a new user account that is not an administrator account so that only you use it for work purposes (this helps keep things, eg, documents and VPN connections, separate from your main user account that other family members might use)
- if you are sharing your home PC with others make sure you log out of any websites you have been using for work and do not save any passwords (certainly before anyone else uses this PC/laptop)
- review the cloud services that you use in your business, eg, Office 365, and if possible enable 2 Factor Authentication (your IT support provider may be able to help you with this)
A BIG recommendation (and one which relates to all types of scenario) – be extremely cautious of emails containing clickable links… you should only click on those which you trust 100% – the world is seeing a huge increase in Phishing emails – with hackers trying to take advantage of these turbulent times. If in doubt Do Not Click !
Other solutions to access the necessary applications from home is for staff to use some kind of Remote Control software (TeamViewer or LogMeIn are popular examples).
The main benefits of remote control software is that they are normally relatively simple to set up and don’t involve any complicated configuration work to be carried out. They also provide an experience that your staff are familiar with, ie, as if they are sitting at their PC in the office.
One of the downsides however is that they can be expensive to buy, or can only be bought as part of a subscription service, particularly some of the more well-known brands.
Full Cloud Businesses
The transition to home working for staff at businesses who have transitioned to the cloud fully over recent years has definitely been an easier one. These tend to be businesses who have cloud solutions for all of their business applications. For example, a business may have their email on Office 365 – may have all their files and folders in Sharepoint (part of Office 365) – have their accounts in a cloud based solution like Xero or Sage Online – have a cloud based CRM (such as Microsoft Dynamics / Pipedrive / Zoho etc) – and also have an internet based phone system.
For these, the transition is relatively painless – they can unplug their phones from the office, and plug in at home – and as long as they have a decent internet connection at home, they have full access to all of their applications to be able to work effectively.
Although there is no VPN or connection to the office server involved with cloud-based systems we still need to be vigilant when it comes to securing our data. All of the recommendations when working from home using a VPN above still apply, ie, use a company-owned laptop if possible and make sure everything is up-to-date.
One of the most important items on the list that you can implement for cloud services is Two Factor authentication. Due to the importance of securing your business data – which is no longer stored on your internal server but is stored on internet-based servers (the cloud) – most cloud services now offer this feature built-in to their solutions. Once implemented this will increase your business’ data security by a huge amount, whilst still being easy to use (usually a code is sent to your mobile phone to access your data).
Therefore, it is more than worthwhile to review each of your cloud services and enable this feature so your business data remains secure.
Some cloud services also offer additional ways to secure access to your data. One useful feature is called IP address locking which allows only certain IP addresses to access the service. This is a very effective way of securing access to your data and can be used in tandem with Two Factor authentication.
One of the biggest challenges when working at home has certainly been effective communication. When in the office or workplace, colleagues simply talk to each other – chatting at the kettle, at the water cooler, or across the office. It has certainly been one of the biggest challenges for us at Synium – as a close team, we are used to just being able to chat to our colleagues when we need to – to discuss issues, projects, or simply to have top-notch-bants.
For us, the solution was fairly simple – we have been using Microsoft Teams for a couple of years for in house chats (initially to free up the email inboxes and to allow for focused direct messaging to reduce disruption) – and for us it had worked exceptionally well. With the enforced isolation, Teams came to the rescue, and the interaction on the application has been indispensable for the team. We are not alone – many of our customers have also been using it – and using it also for the inbuilt video conferencing functionality (surely the big winner from this whole challenging period – everyone is embracing video conferencing these days – and long may it continue).
Working from Home effectively, undoubtedly brings new challenges – but done right, it can be an extremely liberating and efficient way to work. It is my belief people will continue to embrace working from home long after this pandemic has faded, and the world returns to whatever ‘normality’ looks like.
If there is any help we can provide with any of the above, please do not hesitate to get in touch. If you are a customer, then email the Helpdesk (firstname.lastname@example.org) …or if you are not yet a customer, just fill in the form below, and one of us will get back to you.
Andy has worked in IT for nearly 30 years. With a degree in Computer Science he progressed to IT Systems management and Network management before joining Synium as the Technical Director in 2010. He is now responsible for the server and network management for many of the Synium clients. He also manages many of the advanced projects for clients.
In his spare time, Andy loves watching his beloved Liverpool – and also enjoys the great outdoors and inspirational technology.