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Posts Tagged ‘business productivity’


Intranets and Small-To-Medium Business Productivity

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

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Many small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) have taken to hosting their own intranet to increase productivity in the workplace. For those unfamiliar with the term, “intranet” is not a typo, but rather an internal network that behaves like a private Internet. At their core, intranets help businesses improve communication, boost collaboration, and organize important information in an secure, easy-to-access location.

Intranets are considered an inexpensive solution for providing streamlined access to information and services.

Ways to Use an Intranet

A versatile tool with no specific use, an intranet can be adapted to the jobs it needs to perform. Think of it less like a 10mm socket wrench, and more like a Swiss Army Knife.

An intranet often serves as a hub where businesses can: 

More advanced intranets can host complex applications like ticketing systems, customer relationship management systems, payroll management, time clock services, and benefits enrollment.

Designing Your Intranet

According to the Worcester Business Journal, businesses should determine who will be using the intranet, what purposes the intranet will serve, and what the security needs of the system are at the beginning of the design process. From there, your business should look at all necessary applications and hardware for the platform.

Security needs can vary greatly between intranet implementations: An outward-facing intranet that holds confidential information and can be accessed online will need a login system, data encryption, and user privilege controls. On the other hand, an intranet that is used exclusively for internal reference, and is only accessible in the office, won’t require much protection beyond a Wi-Fi password.

How to Test Drive an Intranet

Your business may not want to start big with an intranet and all its accoutrements. In this case, it’s possible to test drive the concept at low cost by building an internal reference website accessible only from your in-building network. Your business can re-purpose a recently replaced or unused desktop computer to act as a makeshift server for the site.

Install the free web server software Apache on the computer, and host a website. Your company can start with hosting basic HTML pages that have links to all the important documents, policies, and contacts employees need to access, and then move on to a more robust content management system like CMS Made Simple or WordPress. Employees can access the internal site through the web browser of any computer connected to the office network.

The experts at MPA Networks, in the San Francisco Bay Area, can help your business maintain and secure your intranet and network via our IT managed services. As your intranet grows, so may your server management needs. Contact us today to learn how MPA Networks can help your business increase productivity and improve IT security.

The Cost of Memory: Trends to Impact Your Upgrade Cycle

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

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Computer memory market trends could play a role in your business’s decision on when to upgrade or replace employee computers. According to PC World, the technology research experts at Gartner predict that prices for both RAM and Solid State Drives (SSDs) will start to decline in 2018—and then crash in 2019.

Unlike the typical technology price trends that drop as devices age, memory components have more volatile prices that rise and fall for the same productsIT consulting services can help your business take advantage of trends to replace or upgrade devices when the market bottoms out.

What Memory Means for Productivity

Computer RAM and storage devices like SSDs increase productivity by making computers complete tasks in as little time as possible. Having more of either than the user actually needs won’t make them more productive, but having too little can dramatically slow the work process.

  1. RAM: The computer’s main memory determines how many active applications the device can run simultaneously. When there’s enough memory, the user can quickly switch between programs with minimal load time. If the computer is low on memory, it will have to use the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or SSD to augment the main memory, which limits the number of active applications and increases the time it takes to switch between them.
  2. SSD: SSDs offer significantly faster performance than HDDs. A computer running an SSD will boot faster and load programs much more quickly than one with an HDD. The major barrier of entry for SSDs to replace HDDs is the cost-per-gigabyte of storage, with SSDs of similar capacity costing up to four times as much.

Taking Advantage of Memory Pricing: Upgrading Old and Buying New

There are two main ways your business can take advantage of the forecasted memory price drops:

  1. Plan your upgrade cycle to coincide with the 2019 price drops.
  2. Plan to upgrade existing system RAM and SSD storage in 2019 to extend device lifespan.

Hypothetically speaking, if a small business has 12 computers coming in to an upgrade cycle in 2018 that are still performing adequately, it is probably worth waiting to see how memory prices fluctuate in 2019. If the SSD and RAM prices drop as expected, your business will get much better devices at the same price point.

Alternatively, your business can take advantage of the lower price points by upgrading in-use devices in 2019. Switching to an SSD and upgrading the RAM are two of the most cost-effective ways to breathe new life into an aging system. Well-timed upgrades can extend a computer’s viable lifespan and push back the upgrade cycle by a year or more.

Other Devices and Price Points

While dropping memory costs mean less expensive computers and cheaper upgrades, other device classes used in business probably won’t see a drop. The tablet and smartphone markets cater to specific price points, as opposed to offering the same devices at decreasing prices. If those devices are going to receive a boost, it’s going to come in the form of more storage at the same cost. However, the industry is showing signs of lowering price points, with the new iPad listed at $329 instead of $500.

If your business is looking to upgrade its computers at ideal intervals to balance productivity and cost, MPA Networks’ desktop management services can help. Contact us today to find out more.

This Is the End: Microsoft Takes a Hard Stance on Phasing Out Older Windows Versions

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

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If your business hasn’t already made the switch from Windows 10’s predecessors to a new operating system, it’s time to make the initiative a priority. While your IT staff doesn’t need to upgrade every computer in your office, it’s necessary to make sure all vital software is compatible with Windows 10 because new replacement devices won’t fully support older Windows versions.

According to ZDNet,

computers running Intel’s 7th-generation Core CPUs and AMD’s Ryzen CPUs will no longer receive operating system updates for Windows 7 and 8.

Without updates, you are likely to experience IT security issues.

The Writing Is on the Wall

The change does not affect computers built and purchased before the last few months of 2016, but it matters for any new computer running new hardware. Back in January of 2016, Microsoft announced that new CPUs will only be compatible with Windows 10, so anyone looking to buy new hardware and put an older version of Windows on it is out of luck. However, Microsoft will continue to support Windows 7 and 8, with extended support for security updates through 2020 and 2023 respectively.

Plan Your Transition: Business Continuity Concerns

This change in policy means that moving over to Windows 10 will eventually be the only option. Your business should begin to develop a migration strategy with the help of IT consulting services to phase in Windows 10 devices as you replace older systems running incompatible hardware. Also, if your business plans to look into other options like Macs and Chromebooks, this is the perfect time to do it.

Make sure to consider these issues in your transition away from older versions of Windows:

  • Run a pilot Windows 10 system to ensure continuity for your existing work environment. Test your employees’ daily workflow on this system.
  • Install all the software your business uses on this system and see if it works with Windows 10. Your tests may identify legacy software that’s no longer supported but that you’re currently using for important operations. This can lead to expensive, painful transitions to replacement software.
  • Adjust your upgrade strategy to accommodate your findings. This could involve changing the schedule to allow more time for employees that run incompatible software to work out a solution. It’s most efficient to plan to upgrade to Windows 10 upon device replacement; however, if your tests don’t find any problems, you may opt to upgrade existing systems early. Note that the Windows 10 free upgrade period ended in July 2016.

Legacy Software Concerns

Your company may find that some of the software you’ve been using for the past 15 years without any problems will not work under Windows 10, which puts your business in a difficult position. Replacing software that’s vital to day-to-day operations can be a very disruptive process. Managed services providers can help your business devise a contingency plan to keep the old software running, but it’s a best practice to migrate to a contemporary solution eventually. There are a few options your company has to keep those older systems running so you can keep using the old software, including upgrading/repairing the old systems and running older versions of Windows through a virtual machine.

The experts at MPA Networks are ready to help your business find its best OS solution to balance productivity with security. Contact us today.

The Benefits of Laptop Docks and At-Desk Peripherals

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

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With a little bit of effort, your staff can reap all the benefits of a laptop, and many of the perks of a desktop, with a little bit of planning and some additional hardware. It’s a common perception that laptops lead in portability, while desktops specialize in expandability. But improvements in peripheral device connection standards including USB 3.0, eSATA, and Thunderbolt have reduced (if not eliminated) the performance differences between external and internal devices. The main caveats of using external devices to enhance laptop capabilities include the need to physically haul extra pieces of hardware around, which defeats the portability perks.

If your business is looking to boost productivity and improve business continuity, it’s worth looking at configuring employee desks to work as laptop extension environments through docking stations and peripheral hubs.

Docking Stations

Docking stations are devices that connect to laptop computers to convert them (more or less) into desktop computers.

Docks feature a wide range of ports and may include built-in augmentation components like extra storage. The user can connect all their peripheral devices to the dock in advance and utilize them simultaneously just by connecting the laptop to the dock. This supports business continuity for employees who are often in and out of the office, eliminating the need to use two different devices for the same tasks.

USB and Thunderbolt Hubs

Advances in peripheral port bandwidth have made devices like USB and Thunderbolt hubs viable alternatives to docking stations that function as a “choose-your-features” option.

Hubs are essentially a collection of ports that can be used to connect several devices to computer through a single port.

This means utilizing all the hub devices is as easy as connecting a single cable to the laptop. Hubs can also be self-powered so the laptop is no longer limited by powering external devices.

Peripheral Rundown

  • External Monitors: One or more external monitors can be added to docks or hubs to suit employee needs. The worker may prefer a singular, larger monitor, using multiple external screens or using an external display as an extended desktop. Employees may find having more viewable space than a laptop offers a productivity booster.
  • Additional Storage: Attaching external storage devices to the dock or hub serves two primary purposes: It acts as a backup solution for the “three copies” strategy, and it lets employees store extra data that would be a burden on the laptop’s built-in storage. This is a big help when it comes to disaster recovery; in the event that the laptop is damaged, destroyed, or stolen, you’ll have a recent backup on hand.
  • Keyboard and Mouse: Adding a keyboard and mouse to the dock or hub not only helps boost productivity, but also improves ergonomics by allowing employees to position devices where they are most comfortable. Employees who prefer a mouse over a touchpad and want to add a number pad to a laptop that doesn’t carry one will find this solution helpful.
  • Wired Network Connection: Hubs and docks can be configured to connect to the local network via Ethernet. This is a great option for offices already wired for connections that have inconsistent Wi-Fi.
  • Speakers, Webcams, and Microphones: Docks and hubs can also connect to external versions of the laptop’s audio/video devices for an enhanced experience.

The IT and productivity assessment experts at MPA Networks are ready to help your business find a hardware configuration that works best for you. Contact us today.

Getting a Clean Start: Managing Windows Startup Programs

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

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It’s quite common that, over time, Windows systems accumulate a laundry list of programs that load when a user signs in.

While generally benign, most of these “startup” programs are unlikely to actually benefit the user—so the computer ends up doing a whole lot of work for no reason.

Fortunately, it’s very easy for someone with a little computer experience to control which programs launch at startup. Read on to find out more about the what, why, and how.

Benefits of Trimming Startup Programs

The primary benefit of trimming the startup program list is a substantially faster login process. If your employees don’t have to wait for useless programs to launch, they can access a fully-loaded desktop several minutes faster. Moreover, the system will have more available memory to run programs that are actually being used. This means the computer will be less likely to fall back on the slower-performing hard drive to operate programs, eliminating a major cause of lag.

Cutting down on startup programs also removes bloatware and other unnecessary programs the computer manufacturer installed on the device. These often extend the boot time, waste available memory, and cause errors—so you’re much better off without them. Employees who don’t reboot as often as they should will be more easily encouraged and motivated to do so if the process doesn’t drag on and on.

Accessing and Using the Built-In Startup Manager

Starting with Windows 8, Microsoft moved the Startup Manager to the Task Manager window, which can be accessed by pressing “Ctrl+Shift+Esc” and clicking the “Startup” tab. The Manager can be found on older systems by pressing “Windows Key+R,” entering “msconfig,” clicking “OK,” and selecting the “Startup” tab.

In the Windows 8 and later Managers, simply select the programs you wish to enable or disable and click the “Enable/Disable” toggle button. Enable or disable programs by checking or unchecking the box next to the desired programs in older versions of the Startup Manager, and press “OK” to finalize the changes.

At this point it’s best practice to restart the machine and ensure the system is in working order before moving on. If something vital is missing, access the Startup Manager again and turn it back on.

What to Disable, What to Keep

Generally speaking, the only programs that need to remain in the system startup are security-related: that is, anti-virus, firewall, and remote access applications. Most of the programs featured in the Startup Manager should have familiar names—so if a program doesn’t immediately strike you as essential, it can probably be disabled. PCWorld recommends researching unknown programs before disabling them.

If you’re unsure of which programs can be disabled, free applications like “Should I Remove It” can help guide you. MakeUseOf.com has a handy list of 10 common startup programs that can be safely disabled for (sometimes significant) performance improvements.

If your business is looking to increase productivity by running more efficient technical infrastructure, the IT Managed Services experts at MPA Networks can help. Contact us today for more information.

Breathing New Life into Middle-Aged Computers

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

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Your employees’ computers may not be up to speed anymore after two or three years of use, but in many cases your staff can upgrade or tune up these devices to keep pace with work demands. Upgrades can often be purchased and installed for under $100 a system, offering an inexpensive way to extend the life of a desktop or laptop computer.

Talk with your IT staff or your IT managed services partner to learn more about your options for addressing the classic employee complaint “My computer is too slow.”

Upgrade to Solid State Drives for Faster Loading

Outside of cost-per-gigabyte storage rates, Solid State Drives (SDDs) are a comprehensive upgrade to traditional hard disk drives. If your employees are complaining about long load times when opening programs or accessing files, an SSD upgrade can make a world of a difference. According to the manufacturer Crucial, SSDs are more durable, faster, lighter, and more energy-efficient than their disk-based predecessors.

A few years back, the opportunity cost may have been prohibitive, especially when it comes to your entire staff. But now that prices have dramatically dropped, going SSD makes financial sense.

RAM Upgrade

While CPU upgrades are usually impractical, a computer’s other main performance component often represents a simple, far-reaching upgrade option: RAM. The RAM, or the system’s main memory, handles all the active applications on the system; when it runs out, the computer has to fall back on the far slower HDD/SDD storage. However, the law of diminishing returns applies to this upgrade, and adding more memory than the computer utilizes at a maximum won’t improve performance. Your business may be able to upgrade a few computers’ RAM for free by pulling compatible modules from decommissioned, broken, or unused machines.

Newer Laptops = Fewer Upgrade-Ready Parts

Desktop computers are still the kings of upgrade-ability, but their portable counterparts can’t say the same. The industry is trending toward integrating parts together instead of in a modular configuration, so the RAM and storage may not be upgradeable on some devices. For example, as of 2015, Apple started using soldered RAM and proprietary SDDs, making upgrade-ability and repairs extremely difficult (if not impossible).

Backup and Reinstall Windows/Other Software

This tip applies specifically to Windows devices that are approaching the middle of their lifespan: Back up all important data, nuke the main hard drive, reinstall Windows, and restore all useful applications. Because of the way Windows operating systems work, a part of the code called the “registry” is changed over time with newly installed/updated applications, leading to slower performance. While newer iterations of Windows aren’t affected as badly by this problem, it still exists—and the best way to fix it is to reinstall Windows.

If you’re looking for ways to ensure employee devices keep up with workload demands, the IT experts at MPA Networks are ready to help. Contact us today to get started.

Using Snap and Split-Screen Modes for Increased Productivity

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

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Multi-tasking wizards have a secret: Modern operating systems offer a handy technique for managing multiple windows while maximizing available screen space, significantly increasing productivity. Depending on the OS, this feature may be referred to as “snapping” or “split-screen mode.” The concept, however, remains the same: Users can quickly dock windows on both sides of their screen using simple shortcuts.

Are your employees wasting valuable seconds shuffling back and forth between windows or screens?

This window management trick can make day-to-day work smoother and more efficient.

Modern Display Shifts Make It Possible

Two major changes in our expectations of screen displays created an environment where window docking thrives. The first is a general push to make both application and web content display effectively in both landscape and portrait mode. The second is the widespread adoption of 16:9 monitors in the desktop and laptop world. This combination of factors means that users today can take a single-landscape monitor and comfortably display two applications in landscape mode at once (though it’s worth noting that this method works better on monitors with an aspect ratio wider than 16:9).

Using Windows Snap

Windows 7 first popularized this technique via the “Aero Snap” feature and now uses a retooled version for Windows 10 called “Snap Assist.” The Snap feature is easy to use via a mouse and keyboard shortcut. Mouse users can drag the window against the side of the screen to make the content automatically extend full-vertical and half-horizontal. Windows 10 expands this functionality by displaying a selection of windows to fill the other side of the screen.

The following keyboard shortcuts can then be used based on preference:

  • Ctrl+Up Arrow: Shrink to quarter-screen or expand to full-screen
  • Ctrl+Down Arrow: Un-dock or minimize window
  • Ctrl+Left Arrow: Dock window on the left-side
  • Ctrl+Right Arrow: Dock window on the right-side

Repeatedly pressing either “Ctrl+Right Arrow” or “Ctrl+Left Arrow” lets the user alternate which half-screen segment of their monitor the window occupies, which is extra-handy when using more than one screen.

Split-Screen in Mac OS

Mac OS added this feature in the El Capitan update. To activate this feature on supported apps, click and hold down the green app window corner button, then drag the window to the desired half of the screen. The operating system will display a selection of compatible apps in the free side of the screen; simply click on one to expand it to occupy the available side.

Snapping in Chrome OS

Chrome OS features a similar window management method. Dragging windows to the side of the screen will activate a gray outline that represents where the window will expand in half, quarter, third, or two-thirds orientation. Pressing either “Alt+[“ or “Alt+]” activates left-side and right-side docking respectively.

These tips are even more helpful for employees using dual- or multi-monitor configurations. If your business is looking to increase productivity through IT managed services and IT consulting, contact the experts at MPA Networks today.

An Expert’s Guide to Avoiding Phishing Scams

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

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Unlike most IT security threats, phishing scams attack the human element instead of the machine element. Phishing scams try to bait a person into exposing confidential information by posing as a legitimate, reputable source, typically by email or phone. Most often, the culprits seek users’ account login details, credit card numbers, social security numbers, and other personal information.

By properly educating your employees and following a handful of best practices, your business can significantly reduce the threat of phishing scams.

Here’s how:

1. Treat every request for information—whether by email, phone, or Instant Message—like a phishing scam until proven otherwise.

Meeting any request for confidential information with skepticism, regardless of how trivial it sounds, is your employees’ best defense against phishing scams. Even innocent information like a person’s first car, pet’s name, or birthday can be used to steal accounts through password recovery. Generally speaking, no professional organization or company would ever ask for personal information when contacting you—so any information request of this type is more likely to be fraudulent than real.

2. Familiarize your staff with scheduled emails for password resets.

Many companies use regularly scheduled password reset policies as a security measure; however, hackers can exploit this system to get people to hand over account login information. Your company’s best protection in this case is to familiarize employees with which services actually send out these requests. If possible, enable 2-step verification services, or avoid scheduled password changes altogether.

3. Never click a “reset password” link.

One of the easiest ways a hacker can steal information is to include a spoofed link claiming to be a password reset page that leads to a fake website. These links typically look exactly like the legitimate reset page and will take the “account name” and “old password” information the person enters. If you need to reset an account or update your information, navigate to the site manually and skip these links.

4. Never send credentials over email or phone in communication that you did not initiate.

Many sites utilize legitimate password reset emails and phone calls; however, a person has to go to the site and request it. If someone did not request a password reset, any form of contact to do so should be met with extreme skepticism. If employees believe there is a problem, they should cease the current contact thread and initiate a new one directly from the site in question.

5. Don’t give in to fear.

One common phishing scam emulates online retailers, claiming they will cancel an order because a person’s credit card information is “incorrect.” These scams rely on a sense of urgency to get a potential victim to hand over information without stopping to think. If the account really is compromised, chances are the damage is already done.

6. Report suspected phishing attempts.

Phishing attacks like this typically target more than one person in an organization, whether it be from a “mass-scale” or “spear” phishing attack. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that if one person receives a phishing email, others will, too—so contact both your company’s IT department and the organization the hackers were imitating.

If your business is looking to improve its IT security practices and avoid falling victim to phishing scams and other attacks, contact the experts at MPA Networks for help today.

Virtual Reality: What does It Mean for Your Business?

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

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Depending on your industry, modern virtual reality (VR) devices could offer impressive options to improve productivity. The video game industry, for one, has been a major player in pushing VR technology. Despite a handful of flops like Nintendo’s 1995 release “Virtual Boy,” products like the “Oculus Rift” are finally pushing viable VR technology into mainstream use two decades later.

But while video games are responsible for VR’s current popularity, the technology isn’t just limited to games. 

Businesses will be using virtual reality to do incredible things in a virtual space in the near future.

The Teleconference Is Dead, Long Live the Teleconference

VR technology offers immense immersion potential—so much that it can turn a simple activity like a regular teleconference into a “virtual meeting.” Telecommuting workers can stage a virtual meeting, financial services consultants can meet with clients in a virtual space, and so forth. Alternatively, employees who are separated by physical distance can use VR to collaborate on a project. Just about any business can benefit from this.

Interactive, Immersive Training

Imagine being able to give hands-on training to employees using expensive hardware without them physically using the device, or teaching employees to perform tasks that could be dangerous without having to expose them to real danger. VR technology has endless applications in healthcare: A surgeon could practice an operation in advance, and an X-ray technician can learn to use an expensive, delicate machine without having to touch it. Lawyers can let a client who’s never been in a courtroom sit in on a virtual trial to get a better feel for the process.

VR Tours and Demos

VR can also be used to give people tours of your facilities without them needing to physically visit. For example, a biotech firm can give VR lab tours, or a theme park can use a virtual roller coaster to attract visitors. Hospitals can also offer VR tours of their buildings to aid potential patients in deciding where to go for treatment. VR tours are especially beneficial for people with limited mobility.

VR can even be used to give product demonstrations to potential customers. Auto dealers, for instance, can give virtual tours of vehicle interiors, and biotech firms can have interactive how-to demos their most popular products.

According to TechRadar, VR is firmly in its “gold rush stage” of development. If your business is going to take advantage of all these exciting opportunities, it’s going to need the infrastructure and IT capabilities to handle VR’s demands. To better manage your IT services, both current and future, contact the experts at MPA Networks today.

Boost Productivity and Security with Google’s Cloud Applications

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

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For anyone unfamiliar with the Google Applications platform, Google Docs et al. are a Cloud-based spin on mainstay office suite programs that can help your staff work better together.

With a zero-dollar price tag (compared with Microsoft Office’s hefty annual subscription fees) and the potential to boost both productivity and IT security, Google Docs shines as a collaboration tool.

For many types of projects that require teamwork, Google Docs streamlines solutions to the most challenging continuity and security issues inherent in transferring multiple versions of the same file between staff members.

About Google Docs

Google’s DocsSheets, and Slides applications offer many of the same features as Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively. As browser-based applications, however, they are platform-agnostic, and will work across any device that runs a compatible web browser.

According to CNET, Google Docs does not compete with Microsoft Office feature-for-feature, but instead tries to emphasize the features that are most useful for the typical user. These applications can function in conjunction with existing office suite programs or, depending on your preferences, as a standalone service.

Productivity Perks

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides offer incredible continuity perks that facilitate collaboration in a huge way. Employees share access to files on Google’s applications through a Cloud-based storage platform called Google Drive, where the files update automatically every few seconds to ensure that everyone accessing them sees the latest version. This makes it easy to edit a document before sending it to a client, or use a spreadsheet as a checklist to keep track of progress on a project in real-time.

The Google application suite eliminates scenarios such as accidentally grabbing an old version of a document/spreadsheet and wasting time merging two sets of content into one file. As a bonus, Google’s web apps free up IT staff to work on other projects because they no longer need to spend time implementing Microsoft Office on employee devices.

IT Security Perks

Google’s range of tools offers several benefits from an IT security standpoint. Cloud-based systems like Google Docs reduce the need for employees to transfer files via email, minimizing the risk of spreading phishing links and viruses. And while it may not be the best option for storing confidential information or files, the platform-agnostic nature of Google Docs allows for easy access to shared files on a wide range of device types, including Windows PCs, Macs, Linux PCs, Chromebooks, iOS devices, and Android devices. This flexibility allows IT teams to take advantage of more secure platforms and limit the device pools that could spread malware. 

If you’re looking to increase workplace productivity and security, the IT consulting experts at MPA Networks are ready to help. Contact us today to get started.