Because of the pandemic, countless employees at large and small businesses have been forced to work from home. Many small-business owners in the region have relied on outside technology experts for help, and everyone learned a lot in the process. So now, six months in, what work-from-home technologies have proven the most effective?

Cloud suites have improved collaboration.

The pandemic was an opportunity for many companies to step up their use of business collaboration software suites that were previously underused. The most popular are Microsoft Office 365, Google’s G Suite and Slack. Customer relationship and project software products such as Salesforce, Zoho, Trello and Asana have also proved effective.

Brian Pickell, who owns tech firm KPInterface in Limerick, says that applications such as Office 365 and G Suite have allowed his clients to collaborate in real time on any project and on almost any device, from a company laptop to a personal Apple iPad or iPhone.

Justin Bennet, of Mohawk Computers in Maple Shade, says that these tools have been instrumental in helping his clients track internal meetings, communications, company announcements, and file storage because “it gives our clients the availability to safely social distance while still being able to communicate face to face. We find these tools so helpful that we prefer using them over traditional communications, even when we are in the same location.”

Communications are not just video meetings.

For group meetings and video calls, Zoom has become the buzzword of the pandemic, but such competitors as Microsoft Teams (part of Office 365) and Google Meet are also popular. Free versions of these applications can be used stand-alone or as part of the paid office collaboration suites mentioned above. But although the use of video calls and meetings has exploded in recent months, there is still a need for a reliable, cloud-based phone system for workers to access wherever they are located.

Jeff Grimes, CEO of Conshohocken’s Graffen, says that his company has been busy deploying voice over internet protocol (VOIP) systems to meet those needs. Many clients jumped in soon after their employees began working from home, he says. “Since VoIP and communications technology has become so strong, we’re able to quickly create a live office telephone system, ship pre-configured desk phones to employees, and migrate to the new VoIP system within days.”

Small businesses using these cloud-based systems — which also include Jive (now known as GoToConnect), Ring Central and VirtualPBX — have enabled their employees to use their mobile devices or work-station applications to make office calls from their cell phones or office computers, which eliminates the need for a regular desk phone. Anthony Mongeluzo, who owns PCS in Moorestown, says that his company has been relying heavily on Jive “because it offers integrated chat and talk from any device. It’s 100% cloud-based and handles an overwhelming amount of calls for us perfectly.”

Security has become a big issue.

As more employees moved to their home workplaces, adisturbing trend developed: a significant uptick in malware attacks. That’s because, in the rush to adapt, many small businesses did not set up their remote workers properly. That left them open to intrusions from hackers who are taking advantage of older hardware and nonexistent security protocols at people’s homes to enter corporate networks.

Greg Gurev, the “head Sherpa” at MySherpa, a Philadelphia region IT services and security company, says that if your staff is using personal computers to access corporate data, then the safest method of remote work is using a “multi-factor” gateway when accessing data from company networks. That means requiring employees to use a password and another form of authentication — such as a text message or email — before getting access. “Authenticator software is the safest way to provide a second factor to verify your identity to access corporate data, networks, and applications,” he said. Gurev recommends such applications as Duo, Microsoft Authenticator and Authy.

Gurev also says that, at a minimum, home computers must be equipped with software that protects against ransomware and provides 24/7 monitoring by a security operations center. But “patching and software updates to ensure the computer is running the most recent version of an OS are critical.”

Mongeluzo requires his clients to have two-factor authentication on everything possible. He’s also big on training. “A lot of excellent services allow you to train your employees with real-world phishing tests,” he said. “If an employee clicks a bad link, the software will show them how to avoid that in the future.” Backup is also critical, and for that Mongeluzo recommends an application called Carbon Black. “It is expensive,” he said. “But it’s the best way to protect yourself from being hacked. It is an antivirus on steroids that is monitored 24/7.”

Company-owned hardware makes the most sense.

KPInterface’s Pickell likes to set up his clients with laptops or computers that contain two monitor ports and the latest version of Windows 10 or an acceptable Apple operating system.

Jeff Sumner, who runs TechGuides, a technology firm based in Media, says that his clients are investing in good cameras, microphones and speakers. “Your camera and microphone on your laptop are fine for the occasional meeting, but now that almost everything is virtual, better equipment makes for a better meeting,” he said.

But both Pickell and Sumner, like many experts, say that that it usually makes the most sense for companies to their own corporate hardware and applications to employees.

“While a big monitor and a good webcam are helpful for work from home, for businesses I think it is essential that employees use company-owned equipment,” Sumner said. “I realize there is a not-insignificant cost involved, but with company-owned laptops, the company can control the computing environment and be sure that all necessary controls and protections are installed and active. If a company allows employees to use personal computers, the company runs a higher risk of compromising their network.”