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PDF in the work-from-home (WFH) world of COVID-19

Ailing economies around the world need every advantage in these difficult times. On the other side of today’s crisis a new WFH/SFH paradigm may influence decision makers to rethink past decisions.
About the author: Peter Wyatt is the PDF Association’s CTO and an independent technology consultant with deep file format and parsing expertise. A developer and researcher working on PDF technologies for more than … Read more

With COVID-19 now a major issue in many countries, many organizations are needing their employees to work-from-home (WFH). Some governments are also closing schools, with schools resorting to schooling from home (SFH) to enforce social distancing.

For large organizations and many IT organizations, WFH is not new. They already have skilled and knowledgeable IT staff, VPNs (virtual private networks), spare laptops, BYOD (bring your own device) infrastructure, web-facing portals for business-critical systems, cloud-based systems and storage, etc. Their staff may already be trained and familiar with these systems and remote work/access policies, while also undertaking regular cyber-security awareness training. Large organizations have the budgets and resources to make WFH work for them.

But what if you are a small/medium enterprise with limited budget and not that tech savvy? What are some of the things you might think about to assist your employees to “spontaneously” WFH if (or when!) they have to?

Internet connection

If you are lucky enough to live a central business district or modern housing area then it is likely you have reliable high-speed internet built on top of the commercial infrastructure that supports businesses – basically you are blessed with a big pipe to the internet. If you are like me, however, you may live in an older suburb with older and much less capable internet infrastructure. As someone who already WFH, I already see my internet speeds begin to dip in the afternoons as kids come home and the video games and YouTube generation get online. By dinner time things have got much worse with the entire neighborhood home and multiple HD/4K streaming services, video calls and browsing happening in every home. But what will it be like when everyone in the neighborhood is WFH/SFH 24 hours a day, with school kids live streaming their classes all day while also online chatting with their friends, and every adult sending data and doing video calls all day, every day, up and down those poor old pipes?

Home internet connection reliability, speed and support will become much more important for our WFH/SFH future. Past political decisions on national infrastructure choices may also come under a new level of scrutiny, but this won’t help in the short term. Requiring a constant online presence with data heavy apps may not be a reality for some households.

Can PDF help?

Luckily PDF documents work perfectly without an internet connection, whether that be because the neighborhood bandwidth is fully saturated, your monthly home ISP data quota is expired (or needs to be juggled between everyone in your household!), your ISP has throttled you down to a snail’s pace, your home in the hills is outside the 4G/5G range, or the data on your cell plan has been used for the month. Once you get that PDF onto your device, you can safely disconnect.

Everybody already knows that PDF is highly reliable across all platforms, whether that be a computer, a smartphone or a tablet. By using PDF, you are assured that the receivers of your information are seeing exactly what you wanted them to see. PDF is commonplace, so most employees have at least some prior experience in creating and distributing PDF documents. PDF is simple and easy; many applications natively generate PDF with “Export to PDF” or “Save As PDF” options (NOTE: these options are generally preferable to “Print to PDF” as rich metadata and functionality gets lost through print pipelines.)

Almost every device that you'd expect to use to view a document already has a PDF viewer installed, so there's no need to license and install specialized corporate software. Although organizational computing homogeneity provides benefits to IT departments, that does not imply either that employees will have compatible devices at their home, or that they'll have the desire, capacity, or know-how to install corporate software. But they can view PDF files anywhere and anytime.

On the flip side, you may end up with every WFH employee using different software (the “whatever I already have at home” situation). In this case, PDF will likely be a common format between everyone for sharing work via email.

It's good that we have PDF as the lowest common denominator in digital document communications, but the technology offers much more.

PDF features

PDF documents can be reviewed and commented on any platform, with comments sent back to the author and collated from multiple reviewers. This may not be as efficient as ducking into a breakout room at the office and huddling around a shared screen, but it is highly effective and easy to do. This arrangement works well in low-bandwidth situations because only the comments themselves (not the source document) need to get sent back to the author, minimizing usage on that slow shared internet connection.

Another concern that organizations may have about WFH is that confidential information previously contained within the corporate firewall is now buzzing around the internet. It's likely residing on many WFH PCs and devices that are undoubtedly less secure than corporate IT! PDF offers a number of features that may help address this:

  • Password protection is easily added to PDF documents. Of course, one should never include the password in the same email as has the password-protected PDF attached! Far better to text or call … this is a form of 2FA (2 Factor Authentication) anyone can exercise.
  • Proper redaction allows confidential information to be completely removed from PDFs before distribution, and without the need to temporarily change the source material. If this is something you require, please ensure you understand how redaction works in your PDF software as this feature is commonly confused with others features such as highlighting by first time users!
  • Pages within PDF documents can also be added or deleted very efficiently, if confidential information is isolated to particular pages.
  • PDF supports digital signatures, which can facilitate a transition from pen- and paper-based workflows to their virtual equivalent in a socially-distanced world. Digital signatures on PDFs can be used for approval workflows that require an audit trail, or for assuring recipients that the document is authentic. Full assurance in digital signature verification may require that you configure your PDF software with certificate stores and trust chains – speak to your PDF vendor on how to do this appropriately.

For employees who need assistive technology in order to access information, ensuring documents conform to PDF/UA can help to support them at home on their own assistive devices.

You may also need a printer or scanner for your WFH tasks to substitute for the office copier. So-called all-in-one (AIO) devices are extremely affordable and most include a “Scan to PDF” capability. For occasional use, you can also use your smart phone or tablet to photograph documents and use various free or paid-for apps to generate PDF documents with searchable and reusable text; much smaller and easier to use than photos.

Reach out to your PDF vendor as they may be able to assist with licensing or understanding some of the less-utilized features in their software that might make your WFH experience that little less stressful.

Things to be cautious about

Woman works while man plays.As someone who researches cyber-security around PDF, I may have a black hat view of the world, but I also believe it pays to be aware of potential threats.

Will bad actors be able to ride the WFH wave? Unfortunately I think it will happen (they have already jumped onto COVID-19. But WFH/SFH doesn’t have to make you a soft target.

If you don’t have a technically-minded person at home, your devices may also not have up-to-date anti-virus/anti-malware software or may not be up-to-date with operating system patches. Don’t delay, just do it – before you start WFH! This includes your PDF software.

If you or your organization has been rushed into WFH, or you are unaccustomed to WFH, then your guard may be down, and you might click on that phishing email you wouldn’t otherwise click in the office. Just because colleagues may use their personal email addresses to send work information doesn’t mean all emails are suddenly safe. With the family and all the kids also under home isolation, your home office is also not going to be as quiet or distraction-free as the office - and distractions lead to mistakes. One bad click is all it takes…

With everyone home and sharing the network, it is important that everyone do some basic cyber-security training. Your network is only as strong as the weakest link, which may be the school-aged kids. There are plenty of online resources that can help with this.

With work and school data on various home devices and everyone dependent on that overloaded shared internet connection, your home backup strategy just became that much more important; that's especially true during a large-scale health emergency.

You will also need to consider you and your families physical wellbeing in other ways. Where will you set up at home to WFH/SFH? Slumping on the couch for the occasional late-night work call is definitely not sufficiently ergonomic when done every day over a few weeks. Maybe now is the time to buy an office chair or clean off the back desk?


I won’t discuss potential costs around WFH – who pays for your internet charges, your excess data charges and calls on your cell, the new anti-virus/anti-malware or backup software you bought, a new desk chair, getting IT support at home, etc. At the end of the day, organizations and employees need to work together and be flexible for WFH/SFH to be successful and remain productive during the current crisis – and possibly further into the future.

Maybe COVID-19 is the ideal trigger or opportunity for families to update their technologies and practices, and bond over improving the cyber-resilience of the household? Maybe all organizations will think more about their business continuity and disaster recovery practices?

On the other side of the current crisis, maybe a new WFH/SFH paradigm shift will influence politicians, decision makers and ISPs to rethink past decisions and democratize the internet so everyone can have equal unfettered high-speed access? And all these little things will also contribute to ailing economies around the world that need every advantage in these difficult times.

Let’s all try and stay safe out there – in both the real and virtual worlds.

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