When crises like the current COVID-19 strike, it forces all of us business owners to re-evaluate--well, everything. Near the top of the list should be: your office's technology, the cornerstone of your productivity in general, but especially crucial during this pandemic in particular. 

It may seem counterintuitive to be thinking about technology in tough times. But the odds are, your tech hasn't been revamped in years. Back in the day, you or a decision-maker you designated talked to the internet, phone, and cable companies (maybe it was all the same company). You bought equipment, set up service, then handed it all over to accounts payable. Each month, AP does its job, pays the recurring bills. Next thing you know, years have gone by, that introductory special ran out, and now you're paying far more than you should. 

At the risk of sounding like one of those cheesy used car salesmen, offices can save literally thousands per month by reviewing their utility bills. With that in mind, here's a guide to souping-up your systems: What should stay, what should go, and what should be upgraded. 

INTERNET/WI-FI

Your internet service is broken down into two numbers: upload speed and download speed. Much like a speedometer in your car, the higher the number, the faster the speed. If your bill says that your internet service is 75/10, you have a download speed of 75Mbps and an upload speed of 10Mbps. Ideally, the numbers would match, but many providers give you much more download speed than upload. For most offices, that's OK, but not ideal. 

Despite what these providers tell you, you don't need "blazing fast" speeds. You aren't likely to notice much difference with higher speeds unless you have specific needs--for example, you're producing video, graphics, or other items with large file sizes. 

Try to have at least 100 Mbps as your download speed. The upload speed should be at least 15Mbps; but as we said, it would be nice to have the same upload and download speed, especially if you're doing a lot of video conferencing (which you probably are these days). 

You shouldn't pay more than $100 per month for your internet service, assuming it's a relatively small office--up to 30 people, generally speaking. 

There are always specials on Internet plans. To help companies cope with COVID-19 crisis, and the greater demand it's putting on your internet, some providers are offering free upgrades, or providing very high speeds at low prices. Call a provider back a few times and talk to different people: You'll find that the specials change depending on who you talk to. 

If you're an existing customer, ask to speak to their retention department. If they still don't offer better rates, switch to another company. Contrary to what you read, you're not likely to find differences in quality of service in the major internet service providers. And if possible, don't sign contracts past one year. Pricing changes so fast, you don't want to be locked in.

PHONES 

Sometimes I'm asked if "landlines" are a thing of the past. The answer is no. You need office phones. If your customers have your personal cell number, say goodbye to any semblance of work/life balance. There are ways to mask your cell number, but most offices still find a lot of value in business lines--and phones plugged into the wall. 

Several rules apply to getting a good phone deal.

  • First rule: Don't get your phone service through your Internet service provider. It's convenient but far more expensive.
  • Second rule: Phones can be like automobiles. You go to the lot to buy a car, they show you models with all these cool features, you pay for them--and then never use them. Office phones are the same way. Be honest--you make calls, receive calls, transfer calls, check your voicemail, and maybe turn on after-hours messages. You probably don't need any other features than those.
  • Third rule: Inventory the phones. Do people actually use the desk phones you give them? Is there one in the warehouse that hasn't been used since Bruno Mars was still cool? Don't pay for instruments you don't use. On average you should pay somewhere around $20 per physical phone per month for your phone service. If your price is higher, time to shop around.

By the way, you can buy your own phones for about $50 on Amazon. You don't want to lease your phones, and you don't need to pay $200 for the phone company's model. Of course, you must first check that your phone provider allows you to purchase your own phones. If they don't, find another provider. 

CABLE TV

Consider if you really need it. If you do, get the cheapest service. Often there's an unadvertised package that has local channels and a few other essentials. Or consider one of the streaming services. Internet streaming providers have crept up in price lately, but "cutting the cord" still often remains cheaper than traditional cable. 

COPIERS/PRINTERS

Warning: You aren't going to be well-liked by your employees but...GET RID OF ALL OF THOSE CHEAP INK JET PRINTERS ON EVERYBODY'S DESKS. The ink is expensive, they often break, and if you have an IT company, you're likely paying them to support all the connectivity issues...and paying more than you should because of the time it takes to service those printers. 

Instead, call a few copier companies in your area and get bids on a leased copier/printer/scanner that comes with a maintenance contract and auto replenishment of toner. I know, this sounds expensive but it's not. A single unit could be around $100 or less per month depending on what you need. 

Yes, employees will have to walk a little further to get what they need but they'll get used to it. It's so much less technology management. Well worth the cost. Although it will be harder to see, you will save money going with the leased option when you calculate your per-copy cost.

FAX

Most contemporary offices have gone completely to scanning and e-mailing documents (or secure links to documents). But if your field still requires faxing, there are online faxing solutions that allow you to operate without a physical machine. AKA internet fax or e-fax, online faxing is simply your fax machine in the cloud. When somebody sends something to your fax number, it goes into an account with whichever provider you choose. You can then download, save, print, or do anything else you would like to do with the document. You don't have to service the fax machine, it's easier for employees, and faxes don't sit in public view--a violation of some privacy standards. The company efax is the leading provider, but there are many others. Pricing starts at $17 per month.

SECURITY

While not exactly a new issue, cybersecurity takes extra importance in these troubled times. Not only is there greater use of/reliance on the computer, but cyber-thieves capitalize on fear. No doubt your email inbox is already being flooded with coronavirus-related offers, solutions, suggestions; some of these messages contain malware, ransomware, and other sources of digital mayhem. 

Odds are, the router that came with your Internet service isn't made for advanced security. You need a Unified Threat Management device (UTM) . Popular manufacturers are Fortigate, Sonicwall, and if you have a big budget, Palo Alto Networks. These devices, when properly set up, give you a much higher level of protection. They also control the security of users who work remotely. Plan to spend around $1,000 for a UTM if you're a small to medium sized office but also keep in mind that you need an IT company to set this up and maintain it for you. This cost is pennies compared to the cost you would incur if you suffer a breach.

WORKING REMOTELY

If you have remote workers--and virtually every office does right now--they should only be accessing your company assets through a virtual private network (VPN). A virtual private network allows a computer in one location to create a secure connection to another computer, server or network over the internet; it then can operate as if it were that computer, using its connection and with access to its files. Think of it as a secret underground tunnel that others can't get to. You will still have to unlock the door on the other side, but it's your tunnel. 

A VPN can be set up through your UTM, but you will need an IT professional to do it. There are other, cheaper remote control solutions like Teamviewer or LogMeIn that also allow you to control another computer remotely. While they might work for one-time use, they should not be used if you for working with sensitive data as they only offer the single layer of protection of a username and password. VPNs add an extra layer of security, because you have to log into them, and then log into the remote system.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Some of these suggestions may seem like onerous investments. But you can probably pay for some of these additions with the money you save by going through your utility bills, reviewing prices and services, and seeing if you're paying for equipment--cable boxes, extra leased phones--that you're not using. You almost always are. 

In short, there's a lot of money to be saved and efficiency to be gained that should free you up to improve other essential services during a downturn. However, to do all of this correctly, you probably need some professional help. Full disclosure: I am the owner of an IT services company, advising clients on their technology. But that gives me the unique perspective of both sides. Like any other small business owner, I have to weigh cost and risk, balancing the need to invest for the future versus the need for cash flow now. 

With all that in mind, I've made these recommendations. Even if business has slowed down, this is the perfect time to audit your tech. Because once the orders start rolling back in, it will, once again, be on the back burner. 

Tim Parker is co-founder and President of The Web Group, an IT consulting firm based in Florida.