Secure Remote Working From Home During the COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak

By now, you’ve probably heard of a little something called the COVID-19 coronavirus. The virus – which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China – has spread to most of the rest of the world, causing an increasingly large number of companies to direct their employees to begin working from home.

While working remotely from home sounds attractive (and it is great – I’ve been doing it for years), there are numerous security and privacy adjustments you’ll want to make to keep both your own and your company’s personal and business-related information safe from prying eyes.

In this article, I’ll share what you’ll need in order to work securely and efficiently from home during the coronavirus crisis. I’ll take a look at the apps and services you’ll need to be able to keep in touch with your fellow workers, stay productive, and protect your data while working from home. 

Who knows? If we do this right, your company might continue to let you work from home, even after the outbreak is under control!

Tools for Remote Working

Working remotely requires a collection of software tools to facilitate and protect your business-related online activities. You’ll find that you’ll need a way to connect to your servers back at work or at least a way to connect to your company’s cloud storage. 

You’ll also want to have a handy way to communicate with the team you work with. And, depending on your setup at the office, you’ll want a remote desktop tool to access your computer sitting on your desk at the office.

In addition to software tools to facilitate your remote working, you’ll also want to put some protective measures in place. 

These include antivirus and anti-malware utilities (especially if you’re using your home computer to connect – more about that later), and a Virtual Private Network service to protect your online activities from observation. (But you already use both of these, right? Right?) 

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

While some companies’ IT departments may already have an in-house Virtual Private Network (VPN) set up for their employees to use (check with your company to find out), I strongly suggest you invest in a VPN service to encrypt your connection.

By using a VPN, you’ll encase your internet connection in a tunnel of encryption, which prevents anyone (hackers in particular) from monitoring your online activities, be they personal or business-related.

In addition to encrypted connection protection, a VPN is also an excellent tool for accessing content that might normally be unavailable in your area. This means that if you’re unfortunate enough to be quarantined in another country, you can still access company servers back in your home country via a secure, geo-unblocking connection.

There are a number of reliable VPN providers to choose from these days, and I encourage you to read the many reviews I offer on this website. But to save you a little time, I’d recommend using ExpressVPN. 

ExpressVPN offers optimal protection and performance, is available for most popular devices, and does an excellent job of protecting and enhancing all of your online activities. For more information, read my full ExpressVPN review.

Antivirus and Anti-Malware Protection

If you’re using a work-supplied computer, antivirus and anti-malware software is most likely already installed. (Again, check with your company IT department to find out.) 

However, having antivirus and anti-malware protection installed on your personal computer is even more important. 

If you don’t use protection while you’re connected to the internet (and whether you realize it or not, you’re likely always connected to the internet), you run a BIG risk of infecting your computer AND your company’s network with a virus or malware.

The 2019 statistics on home vs. work malware infections are quite interesting. Check them out:

  • Overall Malware Detections: 50,510,960
  • Business Malware Detections: 9,599,305
  • Consumer Malware Detections: 40,911,655

That’s quite a difference, eh? Why were there so many more home infections versus business infections? 

It’s mostly because home users are more apt to download “iffy” files, such as music, videos, games, and apps via file-sharing or downloads from questionable websites. Plus, businesses have more efficient spam filters for email, reducing the number of phishing emails compared to your home email.

If you’re not already running antivirus or malware protection, I strongly suggest you install reliable antivirus software immediately and scan your machine before connecting to your corporate network. Good choices include Bitdefender, Malwarebytes or Kaspersky. 

For more information about antivirus packages, read my article on the top antivirus software available for both Windows and Macs. I also have an informative article covering how to detect and remove malware from your PC. Both are recommended reading.

Remote Desktop Tools

If you’re using your home computer or a company laptop to work remotely, you may need to use a remote desktop app to access the computer sitting on your desk back at the office. 

This is another case where your company IT department might already have a solution in place, so check with them before taking any action in this category.

If you do need to install a remote desktop solution on your PC or Mac, you’ll be glad to know there are numerous reliable solutions available on both platforms. In fact, the solutions I’ll be sharing with you will work on both platforms.

Microsoft Remote Desktop

This is a free-to-use option direct from Microsoft and is possibly the solution that your IT department uses. 

Microsoft Remote Desktop allows you to use your Windows PC or Mac to remotely control a Windows desktop from afar, allowing you to access all of that machine’s resources from home. (Or a coffee shop, if you’re a brave soul.)

While the application is built into Windows 10, you will need to download the app for your Mac, which is available in the Mac App Store

Unfortunately, if you need to access a Mac, you are SOL and will need to investigate another solution (like Chrome Desktop, see below), as the remote host functionality is restricted to the Windows version. 

Chrome Remote Desktop

Chrome Remote Desktop works inside the Google browser and is available for just about any platform the Google browser is available for, including both Windows and Mac. There are even apps available for the Android and iOS platforms. 

HTTPS protects all communications. It’s the same encrypted security used by your bank, Amazon, credit card companies and pretty much any other website that wants to protect information.

You do need a Google account to use the app, but if you have a Gmail account, you’ve got that covered. 

You will need to install an agent program on the computer that’s being accessed, and you can then set up a PIN to give to users you want to allow access to. The viewer is browser-based, and you remotely control the other computer right from your browser.

Conferencing and Messaging

When you’re working remotely, you need to stay in touch with your team, who are all also scattered to and fro. 

While you can use email or instant messaging to keep in touch, using a team-based conferencing or messaging app makes it easier to communicate among groups of users, big or small.

Slack

Slack is a cloud-based instant messaging/collaboration platform that allows both persistent group chat rooms, where all users can participate in the discussions, as well as private direct messaging for conversations between two users or a small group of users. 

(You can also talk to yourself if that’s how you roll. I use that feature to make short notes to myself. Really, they’re notes. It’s not like I talk to myself. Out loud.)

Users can share files, links, and other digital materials. Plus, the service integrates with other third-party services, including Google Drive, Trello, Dropbox, Box, Zendesk and numerous others. 

Slack offers both free and paid plans, and the free plan allows only the 10,000 most recent messages to be viewed, while the paid plans offer an unlimited message history.

Skype

Skype is an audio and video chat service that allows users to communicate using their computer, tablet, smartphone, Xbox One console or smartwatch. Instant messaging is also available. 

Users can transmit images, video, audio, and text. The service can handle video conference calls between up to 25 users at once on the free plan. Users can also make voice calls internationally for a per-minute fee.

Time Tracking

While your boss may be able to see you at your desk or workstation when you’re in the office, she can’t see what you’re up to when you’re working at home. Enter time tracking apps.

Hubstaff

Hubstaff is my time tracker of choice.

The app allows tracking for various clients and jobs, providing a centralized spot to track your time. The app offers screenshots of workers’ desktop activity, an online timesheet, app usage statistics and more. 

Collaboration

In addition to needing to communicate with your coworkers while you’re all at home, you’ll also need to share documents and files. That’s where a collaboration suite of apps will come in handy.

This is another category where your employer may have tools already available, so be sure to ask. However, for smaller firms and freelancers, this may be something no one has considered.

Google Office Suite

The Google Office Suite is a free-to-use office suite from search giant Google that allows users to create and edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations via browser-based editors.

All documents are stored in the cloud and are accessible on most popular devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. 

The app suite is compatible with Microsoft Office file formats. Groups of users can collaborate on documents in real-time. Edits are tracked by user and a revision history feature offers a look at all of the edits by users.

While the suite began as a rudimentary group of apps, Google has steadily worked to improve them, and currently, the apps are quite robust. All documents can be accessed through the Google Drive website. The first 15GB of storage is free.

Backup Software

While your employer may have a backup plan to protect all of the computers on its network, it may not back up your computer while you’re working from home. It’s important to make sure you have a backup solution for your device.

Time Machine

Mac users already have a reliable form of backup available on their machines. Time Machine is Apple’s built-in Mac backup solution.

The app automatically performs a backup on a regular basis, ensuring all of your important files are backed up and are available to restore your machine in case of hard disk and other system failures. It also makes for a convenient way to move all of your documents and apps over to a new Mac.

iDrive

iDrive is a cloud-based backup solution that works with the Windows, macOS, iOS and Android platforms, and performs scheduled backups to the cloud.

Up to 5GB of data can be backed up for free, and up to 2TB of storage is available for $6.95 per month. (However, there are deals that greatly reduce the price of the service for the first year, so keep an eye out for those.)

Backblaze

Backblaze offers reasonably-priced cloud-based backup for Mac and Windows computers. The provider offers unlimited backup storage, and its apps sit quietly in the background, automatically backing up new data at various times during the day.

In addition to your main hard drive, the service will also back up any USB storage device, including hard drives, that you have connected to your computer.

Carbonite

If you’ve ever listened to a tech podcast, you’ve likely heard of Carbonite. 

Carbonite offers a cloud backup solution for both the Windows and Mac computing platforms. The company features both home and office backup solutions.

Carbonite can automatically back up photos, documents, music, emails, settings and much more. The “Plus” level of service allows you to back up data stored on external drives you may have attached to your computer’s USB port.

Cloud Storage

When collaborating remotely, cloud storage is your friend. Luckily, there are multiple free cloud storage services that allow you to share files with other users.

Google Drive

Arguably the best-known cloud storage service, Google Drive offers 15GB of free data storage to users.

You do need to have a Google account, but if you have a Gmail account, you’re covered. Even those without a Gmail account can sign up. Users can share files with other users, even those who do not have a Google account. 

Dropbox

Dropbox offers 2GB of cloud storage for free, and 2TB of storage for a nominal monthly fee. 

The provider allows you to specify folders on your device’s hard drive, which will be automatically synced with the provider’s cloud storage. However, to share files, you’ll need to spring for the slightly more expensive Dropbox Professional tier of service.

iCloud

Mac and Windows users with Apple IDs can securely store files on Apple’s iCloud servers. 

The company offers 5GB of storage for free, and various other levels of increased storage amounts can be purchased for a nominal fee.

That extra storage can come in handy, as your iCloud account is where Apple stores your iPhone and iPad backups, which can quickly eat up 5GB or more.

Microsoft OneDrive

Microsoft OneDrive is a file storage and synchronization service offered by Microsoft as a part of its Office suite of apps. OneDrive offers 5GB of free online storage, with larger storage options available for an added fee.

Users can save and synchronize files between Mac, Windows, iOS and Android devices, as well as their Xbox 360 and Xbox One gaming consoles.

Password Managers

Once you begin working from home, you’ll find that you’ll need to remember a staggering number of passwords to access accounts, both online and locally. 

Now you could simply set your password for every account to “Password123” (I’m kidding, don’t do that. Really, don’t), or you can grab one of these password managers and let it do the grunt work of remembering your passwords.

1Password

AgileBits’ 1Password is one of the better-known password managers around, and it offers the ability to securely store your passwords, credit card information, receipts, and encrypted notes.

1Password is available for macOS, Windows, iOS and Android devices. All encrypted information is synced between your devices via the cloud. The app offers the ability to unlock passwords with your fingerprint or your face on compatible computers and mobile devices.

The app can generate and store strong passwords on the fly.

Dashlane

Dashlane is also a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, offering password management, secure password generation, and a digital wallet to store credit card and other information. All stored information is encrypted.

The Dashlane app is available for Android, iOS, Windows and Mac devices.

In Closing

As of this writing, the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to make inroads around the globe, and there’s no telling how long the crisis will last. So, settle into your home office, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, and work as efficiently and safely as you can.

By taking advantage of the apps and services listed above, you’ll be sure to stay safe (both online and in real life) and will stay in touch with the other members of your team. Good luck out there!

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