How technology made it easier to work from home

Dee Dee Silverstein shares the story of SF Investments’ transition to a remote workforce

Read the interview highlights

Most of us are facing the situation where all of our employees have to work from home. And working from home presents all kinds of IT and computer challenges. Can I be productive when working from home, especially as it relates to my IT and computer systems? And while working from home, we want to make sure that we're taking care of our employees and our clients and our customers.

We’re talking to Dee Dee from SF Investments about how her team went from working in the office to everyone working from home. And we'll talk about some of the challenges that Dee Dee and her team faced and how they overcame it. We specifically focus on the IT and computer systems. The goal is to share real world tips that you can quickly and easily implement in your business. And we're not going to talk about theory and pie in the sky scenarios.

Of course, David, and it’s good to talk to you. I work at SF Investments. I’m the office manager and used to be sort of the IT person I guess. I know a little more IT than other people at my office, but not an IT specialist by any stretch of the imagination. I have an office of about 11 or 12 people. We are a broker dealer and an investment advisor. And the reason I find that important is because when you’re an investment advisor, you’re picking up the phone and calling a broker dealer to place your trades. We actually have to physically be able to always place our trades on the spot when the market fluctuates. I won’t get into too much other than to say that there is a slight difference between the two so my trading room is immensely important to me and that functionality. We’re not a big office, but we’re an intense office. We manage hedge funds, we’re a broker dealer and a wealth management advisor so technology is very important.

Of course, David, and it’s good to talk to you. I work at SF Investments. I’m the office manager and used to be sort of the IT person I guess. I know a little more IT than other people at my office, but not an IT specialist by any stretch of the imagination. I have an office of about 11 or 12 people. We are a broker dealer and an investment advisor. And the reason I find that important is because when you’re an investment advisor, you’re picking up the phone and calling a broker dealer to place your trades. We actually have to physically be able to always place our trades on the spot when the market fluctuates. I won’t get into too much other than to say that there is a slight difference between the two so my trading room is immensely important to me and that functionality. We’re not a big office, but we’re an intense office. We manage hedge funds, we’re a broker dealer and a wealth management advisor so technology is very important.

It was a difficult decision. Because we're a broker dealer and monitored by the SEC and FINRA, we have a very intense business continuity plan in place in the event of a power outage, or God forbid, fire in the building, or something of that nature.

It never in a million years occurred to us something like this would happen. We had business continuity plans in place, so when this first started, I’m wanting to say mid to late February, I remember saying we might need to relook at our business continuity plan. I remember everybody looking at me saying “Oh, no, we have one.” But the plan for going remotely to someone’s house to work might not be the one we need. So, they did sort of wait a little bit on messages from the federal government and the governor. And we did start to implement it. We actually started implemented probably the week before the governor made his announcement. We finally decided that those who could work from home would work from home. But it wasn’t everybody at that moment.

The biggest challenge is my trading room. It is so difficult for my traders to not physically be in the office. So, I do have two people who still come in every day and it's just those two and we protect them by not having anyone else go in. That's the rule that we have now. They are set up to work from home, it's just their job is much more challenging with regards to time stamping.

Somebody at your firm had mentioned about a year or two ago that we should start converting over to docking stations with laptops as our primary computers so that in the event of an emergency, we could just pull the laptop and leave. And it's because at my office, everybody has dual monitors because they're running trading platforms and quotation systems like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters and things like that.

We have made a decision we were going to do that. But we had a lot of desktop computers that are relatively new within the past three years. So we made a decision that instead of just re buying everything, as a computer failed, we would then replace it with a docking station and a laptop, which we started to do. So, I currently have 3 of us converted over and we had one person who had a fully setup emergency laptop they kept at home so we considered that four.

My biggest challenge became what do I do about the work computers at people’s houses? Because not everybody has a good laptop. One of my analysts and trading guys goes to India quite frequently so his personal computer has been set up on the cloud already. So, he was good to go.

I suddenly found myself needing to get other traders set up at home. I got on the phone with your team and said I need to get laptops and docking stations and data set up so certain core people were switched to that system. And that's what we did.

I got on the phone with your guys, and they gave me what I needed to order. And then the biggest challenge became getting the equipment, but we did it.

We are a small office and we really do stay connected face to face.

When this all came down, I asked your team about it and he said we could use Microsoft Teams and sent me a bunch of videos on it. I thought “oh, this is going to be a problem.” My office has the culture of meeting and talking face to face. They're not into chatting. Or, you know, using those kinds of technology.

I had a couple of users who were going to work from home with iPads. I had been downloading apps before we dispersed out into our homes. I made sure people were logging in with Teams. And it took me about four or five days to get people going.

I immediately got on Teams. I got one of my millennials on Teams. And the two of us proceeded to do video chat, chatting, and I think within two hours, we basically understood most of what it could do or a lot of what it could do.

I have an investment team that usually meets all the time and or they just get up from a desk and go say “what do you think of this stock going down.” They needed that ability. Well, I got a video call on Tuesday with one of them who thanked me for putting Teams together. More of the investment team is making it to the meetings because they don't have to physically be somewhere.

The big benefit is with my investment committee. They were able to bring in two of our New Jersey partners into Microsoft Teams on video. That is something that normally they have to be in the conference room and make a conference call to do.

Microsoft team enables you to send out a calendar invite like you would do with Outlook. Both people are familiar with that concept and Outlook, but you do it from Teams. It sends the people you want to join this meeting, whether it's by video or phone, whatever their capabilities are on their end, or what they're comfortable with, to click a link and launch a video meeting.

You can share documents easier than you can in an email because you don’t have to look for it. It’s right there in your files and you just drop it in. Whoever you’re chatting with can open it.

We learned you could collaborate on a document. They were writing an investor letter and rather than emailing back and forth, they all look at the same document and type their own notes or change words without having to tell another person to do it.

During COVID-19, you're seeing more emails from the clients and people like that? So, to be relying on email to communicate with your office is crazy to me now that I use Teams. It is so much faster for me just to send a direct message and a document than email.

And I have to have so many phone lines in place for redundancy, that we all had a lesson on how to forward our lines to our cell phones. And that’s all we did. Because our phone system is a little bit older. I’m on a PRI on fiber and I have copper path line backups. I have five emergency cell phones which no one’s really using right now. I gave them the option to use those instead of their personal phone, but no one took me up on it.

At my office I have a docking station, the laptop, a keyboard, a mouse, and two monitors. And then the software that you referred to were on the Microsoft Azure cloud. And a couple of my applications might be on the remote server. Before I picked up my laptop and took it home I had to make sure the automatic door locking mechanism, which is stored on my computer, and my accounting software which is on that remote server, I needed to make sure those were going to work when I picked up and walked away from my office.

I took my computer, I packed a shopping bag with papers, I came home. The next day I opened my computer and it was like sitting at my desk except I was missing my keyboard and my two big monitors. Everything functioned exactly the same as it does at my office. It's just I don't have the flexibility of looking at an invoice on one screen and a spreadsheet on another screen. That's the only thing.

Everything else worked fine. I haven’t had an issue working from home. It was that simple.

That’s exactly right. When we’re done working remotely, the laptop will just go back to the office, and nothing will have to sink or anything like that. It’s just all done.

One of my users does not have a laptop, could not take her equipment home, and had a Mac. She was able to go in through the Microsoft Office portal with Azure and do a little bit of what she needed. It is a little different, but she was able to access some files.

When I had secure emergency laptops, they gave me the specs and I had the laptops. They were helping me make sure I got the right equipment, even though you guys don’t procure equipment, you do give me the specs of what I need. And once I get those laptops I was literally on the phone with you getting them up and running and on each person’s ID, so that that would be their main computer.

It was remarkable how we did that. I was sitting there, and your guys were working on those laptops with me eyeballing it and doing stuff as I needed to.

I don't know how we would have pulled off all this last-minute stuff. Getting laptops in an office on a Friday and a Monday when we're trying to get everybody out of the office. I know your guys have been on the phone with each one of my guys trying to make sure everybody's comfortable working at home and they've done a fantastic job. This couldn't happen without that kind of dedication. I don't ever feel like you were put on hold because someone else was more important. I never felt like that with this whole process.

If you guys have not shown us the virtues of the Microsoft Azure Cloud, if we hadn’t made that migration years ago, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing right now. I can’t even imagine doing the old hard server VPNs for everybody. I can’t even imagine what that would have taken to get everybody home.

I would listen to the recommendation to put everybody on laptops and docking stations sooner rather than later. Then I would only be scrambling trying to get some docking stations and extra monitors for people at home. I think most people were thinking they were going to work from home for a day or two and would just pull their laptop and take it home and not worry about a second setup. It would have been so much easier if I had everybody on the laptop setup and extra docking stations and monitors. I think that would be the one thing I would have done differently.

If you have any questions about this or other technology to simplify things for your remote team, we're happy to help.

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