Tiffany Bowtell: What’s your cyber risk plan?

Working from home and outsourcing office tasks to overseas-based virtual assistants is here to stay in the real estate industry. But the practice is not without its risks, including challenges around people management and cyber security. Tech training and outsourcing expert Tiffany Bowtell outlines where problems may arise and how to guard against them.

The trend toward mobile offices and flexible working arrangements was strong pre-Covid, but with everything we’ve been through since, it’s safe to say it’s now the norm rather than the exception.

Most real estate employers will have staff ask about working from home or working flexible hours, and many are already outsourcing admin work to virtual assistants overseas.

There are great benefits in streamlining an office so that staff on the ground can devote their time to property management and buying and selling property without being bogged down in backroom admin detail.

But there are also risks, and when I speak with real estate businesses, I’m always a bit shocked that agencies often have no idea about the challenges that may arise with working from home or outsourcing.

Working from home is now global, and initially, offices weren’t set up for a world where the kind of oversight that was possible with in-office staff no longer applies.

Everything was under the manager’s supervision in the traditional real estate office. 

Now everything is online, and no one is managing, supervising, or even checking what staff are doing online or sending in emails.

I ran a real estate tech training consultancy before I set up my business, Property Management Virtual Assistant, because I could see people needed low-cost solutions to streamline their office processes.

Using properly trained and supervised virtual assistants working overseas helps bridge the gap that is still there between what the technology can do for you and all the office support that is needed so property professionals can focus on their primary goals.

After six years with PMVA consulting closely with agencies, the first thing I would say to employers with staff working from home is that they need to stop seeing an agency as a local store on the main street and start thinking of it as a global online business.

Anyone with a global online company has to run it with a structure around their security.

The most common problem is staff leaving and taking property information without permission. There could be private information there, and that has compliance implications. I hear about that almost every day.

Another common problem is ransomware hackers, where staff open phishing emails to find restrictions on documents.

It is essential to have a plan in place so that staff understand exactly what is required of them.

The plan should set out the business’s goals to create consistent delivery of service, the technology supporting those goals and the processes around using that technology.

Employment contracts need to be reviewed for people working from home, and those contracts should cover privacy and intellectual property.

There has to be a contractual obligation between employee and employer about using data, sharing information, email etiquette and how they should behave.

For any agency with staff working from home or in the cloud, I recommend:

  • Do your research, take expert advice and make that plan.
  • Review workplace agreements to cover flexible work hours and mobile work. You must have the contractual obligations for employees written down, including non-compete clauses and rules for the use of data after leaving employment.
  • Training, so employees understand their contractual obligations.
  • Put technology and systems in place to monitor the online activities of employees.

The risks are heightened when using overseas employees, which is why PMVA operates its own office in the Philippines with virtual assistants doing office support for property professionals in Australia.

One of the worst trends is Australian employers using recruitment websites to deal directly with employees working for as little as $5 an hour, with no supplier in between.

It is a trainwreck waiting to happen, and employers must be aware of cyber security and compliance implications.

I own the company in the Philippines, whereas many of our competitors outsource the outsourcing to third-party companies. I am the sole provider of the service in Australia and the Philippines, allowing us more control over who we hire and how we operate.

We give our clients in Australia a dedicated operating system to communicate with our virtual assistants.

The virtual assistant works on a set PC, and if they move around the floor, that account moves with them.

We change passwords frequently and there is a team of five for quality assurance, monitoring online use so virtual assistants don’t jump on social media or go to a website where they might download junk to infect computers.

That is the level of protection Australian employers should demand when sharing information with outsourced virtual assistants.

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Tiffany Bowtell

Tiffany Bowtell is the Founder and CEO of Property Management Virtual Assistant.

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