Remote working and distributed teams have never been as prevalent as they are today. While we’ve discussed the many benefits and even challenges of hiring a remote team previously, today we’re taking a closer look at Intellectual Property (IP) assets.
Even though you might think that your company has no trade secrets to hide, your company accounts, passwords, data, documents, and all your information are a critical part of your company’s success and day to day operations. In terms of data security, while you can have more control over full-time employees who go to a physical office and use office computers, it’s a different story when it comes to managing those who are working remotely.
Luckily, there are a few ways you can easily help secure your company and protect your IP assets when working with a remote and international team.
1. Vet your employees before hiring them
One of the best ways to enforce IP protection is to take preventive action. You can do this at the beginning of the hiring process and follow stricter guidelines when choosing your remote and international talent. Before you finalize the offer with your employee, make sure to vet them, contacting their references and doing a background check. Even simple preventive measures like these can go a long way in helping you protect your IP assets.
2. Opt for, but do not rely on, NDAs
Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) or Confidentiality Agreements are simply pieces of paper that companies use to tell employees to keep their trade secrets a secret. And while most lawyers will claim that it is good to have as a backup, in reality, NDAs don’t have much power, especially for remote teams.
Why aren’t NDAs very effective? To borrow an analogy from Intellectual Property Litigation Firm Neugeboren O’Dowd, think of your trade secrets as toothpaste. Once someone let’s the toothpaste out of the tube, it is almost impossible to put it back in. NDAs, in essence, cannot prevent your employees from spilling trade secrets. What NDAs basically offer you is the chance to sue the ‘teller’ of the secret for misappropriation.
This might work for employees employed in the same country as yourself and those who abide by the same justice system. But if your employees work from all over the world, this is almost practically impossible. Trying to sue someone internationally is a whole other headache and a costly one at that.
At this point, you might be asking, “Is an NDA even relevant for remote teams?”. The plain answer is yes, but not critical ones. One benefit of having an NDA for your remote team is to instill a sense of security and importance. NDAs are legal documents and by having your employee sign it, you are showing how important information and security are to your company. The other benefit is that, in the off chance that you do decide to pursue legal action, you can use the NDA as grounds for your actions.
All in all, NDAs should be treated as a ‘just in case’ measure. They should not be treated as a solution. Just because you have an NDA in place, doesn’t mean that you should be spilling your company secrets left and right. Rather than relying on a piece of paper to secure your company, implement security protocols (see below) that have more tangible results.
3. Enforce a ‘Need to Know’ policy
When you’re working in a distributed team with employees from all over the world, it’s best to enforce a ‘Need to Know’ policy to limit the people who have access to information. Instead of giving all your employees access to your company’s files and data, restrict access to the most necessary people. You can also set clear authorization parameters at the start to prevent confusion as well. This is especially important if you’re entrusting confidential details to your employees. In this case, the less people who know, the better.
4. Implement security protocols
Regardless of what industry or sector you work in, there are a number of universal security protocols that can help protect your IP assets:
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN): Encrypt your data and make sure your information is secure with a VPN. If you do avail of a VPN service, make sure you do so from a reputable company that doesn’t track your activity.
- Enable two-factor authentication: What’s better than one layer of security? Two, of course! Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security by asking for a code that is usually sent to a cellphone after the password is inputted.
- Set up firewalls: With the numerous horror stories of phishing scams and company hacking on the internet, a firewall is one way to help keep your company data safe. Implement barriers between your company and untrusted sites and networks as an extra layer of protection and security.
- Have work accounts for your employees: One of the key things to remember when it comes to security and working with remote teams is to keep work and personal life separate. Because remote teams usually use their own devices and work from home, the line between work and personal life can get a bit blurry. Make sure to set up work accounts for your employees to prevent confusion as well as bolster your security. The last thing you want is to have your employees accidentally saving company documents on their personal drives, with no one else having visibility or access to them.
- Disable automatic login: Even though automatic login is helpful in that it saves time, it can also pose a threat to security. Make it a practice to have your employees disable automatic login to prevent other people from getting a hold of your private company information.
- Get a password manager: Sharing passwords is always a tricky business. Even if you use a VPN and have your data encrypted, the fact that you’re sending confidential passwords across messaging apps or email is highly dangerous. The benefit of using a password manager is that password sharing is limited to one place and is doubly encrypted.
- Utilize cloud-based storage: With the popularity of Google Drive and other cloud-based storage systems, it has become a lot easier to centralize your information and data. Implement standardized routines where data is created and shared via cloud and nowhere else. This helps keep your information in one place and will hopefully prevent it from going anywhere else. (Don’t forget to restrict access as well!)
- Opt for tracking or monitoring software: It’s common for remote teams to make use of tracking and/or monitoring software to keep updated on their team’s movements. Besides keeping track of the time spent on certain sites, some softwares even take screenshots of your employees’ screens. This is also a good security measure as it helps you keep an eye on and monitor their online activity.
5. Have a security awareness and training program for your employees
If you care about security, then you’ll want your employees to care or at the very least understand that security is extremely important to you and your company. You can implement a security awareness and training program when you onboard a new hire. Make sure to showcase your security protocols and drive your point of the importance of security. Even shorter, regular training sessions every six months will serve as a continuous reminder for your employees to stay vigilant.
6. Update your security tools and processes regularly
Even if you have numerous apps and security tools in place, it will all be for naught if they aren’t regularly updated. Make it a habit to do a routine check of your apps, tools, and even processes every once in a while to make sure everything is still working in tip top form and is up to date. If you find newer and better tools to help make your processes more secure or more efficient, you can also update your security routines for the better.
7. Keep your employees happy and engaged
Employers usually run into IP protection issues when employees have malicious intent in mind. Whether it’s to save information for them to use for themselves in the future or perhaps to give to a competitor, the intent behind the act doesn’t stem from a good place. One way to help prevent this is to simply keep your employees happy and engaged. If you have highly satisfied employees, they won’t think twice about committing IP theft that will negatively affect not only the company, but also themselves.