Remote-working post-COVID-19: From crisis to permanence – by Alex Dalglish at SoftwareONE

This article was contributed by Alex Dalglish, UK Services Director at SoftwareONE

Remote working has been a growing trend for quite some time, even outside of current events – research shows the number of remote working jobs on offer has more than doubled in the past four years. However, the current COVID-19 health crisis has transformed the workplace like nothing we’ve ever encountered before. While we’re all eager to return to some semblance of normalcy and get back to our pubs, gyms and shopping centres, it’s likely that working in an office will never be the same post-pandemic.

This isn’t to say the workforce is set to turn into the island-hopping digital ‘nomads’ that have graced our Instagram feeds in recent years, sipping cocktails from an ‘office’ on the beach. But most businesses will realise the COVID-19 crisis has forced their hand when it comes to remote working. Organisations have recognised that despite previous concerns, it is possible to have staff operate outside of static office locations. As a result, and with some relatively small adjustments, remote workers could become a permanent fixture of workplace culture – though in an enterprise setting, the nomadic Instagram sensations are likely to remain a pipe dream.

Now, businesses need to look at how they can adapt their remote working practices beyond crisis-mode, assessing tools and processes that enable this style of working as a long-term option.

Working from the couch

The rapid rise in digital collaboration – for example, in Italy, where there has been a 775% increase in Microsoft Teams users during the crisis – has shown workers and businesses alike that a remote approach to teamwork is possible. After the current health crisis is over, workers will have adjusted to the new normal and some may find they even prefer it – at least some of the time – to being in an office five days a week. But for companies to enable this mode of working post-pandemic, it will be complex, especially for larger organisations with thousands of employees across the globe.

Larger enterprises are often held back by legacy technologies they’ve made significant investments in, and often favour tried-and-tested practices, such as monolithic email and huge physical offices with allocated space for each employee. Moreover, enabling a shift to remote working beyond times of crisis can impact the governance, compliance and risk posture of an organisation – a difficult balance to strike if the organisation operates internationally, as it will have myriad different regulatory requirements to meet in each location. Finally, a more connected workforce also has serious implications for cybersecurity.

Securing the new normal

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a massive uptake around tools like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. While these technologies have proved a success story, we’re already seeing scammers and hackers taking advantage of the ways our working conditions have transformed. For example, using videoconferencing means sensitive conversations that would have happened face-to-face are now taking place online, making it easier for bad actors to listen in – just last week, the FBI warned companies about “Zoom-bombing”, with calls being hijacked by trolls.

Companies must also grapple with having employees who may be unfamiliar with working from home falling victim to threats such as phishing attacks. Unfortunately, while the world looks to contain and control COVID-19, cyber ‘bad guys’ are tenacious as ever, as they look to exploit the newly remote workforce. Businesses can have all the technology in the world, but if an unwitting employee makes one wrong move, then the flood gates are open.  Say, for example, an unsophisticated user opens an attachment from ‘their employer’ on how to use a new application; this could leave the business susceptible to attack, as workers try to set up their home office. It’s crucial that staff are adequately trained now on remote working best practice if it’s to become a permanent option – so they are aware of the security threats they may face.

It’s a continuous challenge for enterprises to secure their ever-expanding attack surface and enabling remote working permanently will inevitably create new risks. Research shows 36% of organisations have faced a security incident as a result of the actions of a remote worker; educating employees on the threats they will face and how they can protect themselves when working outside of the company walls is a business imperative. Equipped with this knowledge, employees will be like a human firewall, giving businesses peace of mind that they can operate safely in the long term, as the centralised workplace evolves.

In it for the long-haul

While the COVID-19 health crisis may end when a vaccine is produced and distributed, the workplace ramifications are set to be far more long-lasting. While we may not quite be at the stage of beachside ‘digital nomads’, there is likely to be an increase in employees choosing to work outside of the office moving forwards, for at least some of the time. By some estimates, we’re going to be social distancing in some form for at least the rest of 2020, and so organisations need to look at putting the technology and processes in place now to ensure employees can remotely do their job to the same standard, and in a secure manner in the long-term, not just in times of crisis.

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