Remote working has lift off

Will the virus outbreak bring about a permanent shift in working practices towards home working - boosting tools such as MS Teams, Slack, Zoom and others? Can these tools cope with the sudden boom in demand?

As coronavirus lockdown policies effectively place much of the world's population under house arrest, cloud-based collaborative working and conferencing apps such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams are becoming indispensable tools of the global economy. 

The sudden shift to working from home in response to the pandemic has given the distributed work movement an unexpected boost. Promoters of these tools have long talked about a mass shift to home working. The next few months will be a test run for the collaboration tools. If they operate smoothly without glitches and serious cyberattacks, organisations may start to shift permanently to more devolved ways of working.

"I think this will create more confidence in people that this can be done over a sustained period," says Jimit Arora, a partner at research company Everest Group.  

"Obviously, everyone's hoping that this is this is a temporary phenomenon and we can go back to how things were. I believe that when it comes to things like virtual desktops and remote working tools, people will have more confidence coming out of this crisis and some of our concerns about needing to be a in firewalled environment and having access to secure applications - some of those emotional restrictions we are placing on ourselves will go away as people look at the data," he says.

But much will depend on how seamless the shift to home working is perceived to be.  With workers having to look after children during the lockdown, productivity of home working will be tested to the limit. Meanwhile, much could go wrong with the great work-from-home experiment.

"What would be really bad is if there are a series of security breaches that end up happening because of this. And that might just put us put us further back. I think we need to see which way it plays out," adds Arora.

This lockdown environment could shape the collaborative app market for years to come. Arora thinks Microsoft Teams is dominating the large enterprise market as it allows staff to use other Microsoft software such as Office 365 alongside it. Zoom video conferencing is having greater take up with smaller businesses, he believes, while Slack, the original collaborative work tool was originally used by IT departments and is seen as a more specialist app for digital businesses. Cisco's WebEx, the video conferencing tool for enterprises, reported that in the first 11 days of March, there was a "surge" to 5.5 billion minutes of virtual meetings being held via the app. 

Pressure on the collaborative work apps is ratcheting up as millions log into workflows from their living rooms. On the first day of mass homeworking in Europe in mid-March, Microsoft Teams suffered an outage across the continent as millions of people logged on. The problem was soon resolved. But the rapid take up of these apps was underlined by Microsoft, which reported that daily active users for Teams had more than doubled to 44 million in March from the 20 million reported in January.

For home working to succeed during the pandemic and beyond, IT departments and cybersecurity managers will need to step up and effectively manage the switch to large-scale distributed working. Lisa Pierce, vice president for enterprise networking research at Gartner, says the challenges for IT teams will include validating home internet capabilities and mobile phone privileges, providing the right devices for different jobs and configuring devices with appropriate applications such as virtual desktops. There will need to be a sufficient number of VPNs and firewall capacity at the data centre. If the client has an onsite data centre, IT will need to make sure that internet capacity is sufficient for all the employees who will be connecting to it. "It's not surprising that caring for a remote workforce often taxes a small or medium IT shop - which always has more to do than hours in the day, so it is not uncommon to outsource some of this," she says.

Meanwhile, concerns about cyber-security are mounting as the attack surface expands with hundreds of millions of workers using unsecured home broadband networks for often data-sensitive work. There has been a surge in malware, Trojans, social engineering, phishing attacks and business email compromise. "It's a question of maturity and where organizations are within their cybersecurity and IT journey," says William Dixon, Head of Future Networks and Technology at the Centre for Cybersecurity which is part of the World Economic Forum.

Dixon believes that organisations which lack experience of cybersecurity will be vulnerable over the next few months. But it will be incumbent on organisations of all sizes to put in place effective network access controls for home workers and make sure that collaborative working applications are safe and secure through constant monitoring and testing. Role-based access control - restricting access to different parts of the computer network to authorised users - will become vital and corporate policies around access control may need reviewing in light of the shift to home working.

Dixon adds that enterprises must keep abreast of threats to their rivals and across their industry sectors in order to forestall them. "What you don't want to do is just rely on the communication with your security organisation," he says and adds: "There are a lot of security controls that can be embedded in the working from home policies." These include multi-factor authentication - where staff are sent a code to their smartphone to log in to their corporate network. Using secure virtual private networks for communication can also help, though VPNs themselves can be vulnerable to attacks.

"With adequate I.T. controls, that should a mitigate a large number of threats. I think it's a question of not rushing," says Dixon. Ultimately the cybersecurity push has to be part of the firm's corporate governance and must come right from the top of the organisation.

In recent years, the biggest challenges to successful remote work programs have been in the attitudes of managers and employees. Both are being asked to make major changes to their ways of working. As Lisa Pierce at Gartner says: "The bigger impediment has been management - the company has to make sure the manager is comfortable with this arrangement and has the tools and training so that she or he can review employee performance based on agreed upon outcomes, not the length of time the employees are at their desks."

She sums up the challenge: "People tend to resist change unless there is some large, significant, widely acknowledged catalyst - which there is now." The months ahead could prove to be a turning point in the way we work.