Will working from home become the new ‘normal’?

14 May 2020

The opportunity to work from home is one we all grasp when it arises. Imagine: more enjoyable down time, a 5km run instead of a commute, drinking decent coffee and the dulcet tones of BBC Radio 4 keeping the world up to date with what really matters in life.

Alternatively, there’s the option to find a smug people-watching area of that village coffee shop or gastro pub and work there for an hour or two. Added up, it makes for better mental health. Anyway, that’s enough about me. 

However, we tend to work from home/remotely because we are afforded that luxury from time to time – very different to the enforced remote working we are currently experiencing, courtesy of Covid-19. Now, most us couldn’t go to the office, even if we wanted to.

Businesses – those lucky enough to have remained solvent during the ongoing pandemic – have had to suddenly embrace this change. That means anything from a handful to tens of thousands of people all logging in to the same network at different times of day and in different countries.

Apart from a decent broadband connection and network access, employees are now having to adopt technology they possibly may never have heard of before. One area that has seen exponential growth and uptake is video conferencing with Zoom Video Services evolving from a relatively niche app as recently as early March to one that has added billions of dollars to its market capitalisation. Zoom has seen its market value increase exponentially, reaching $42bn (£34.2bn) by the end of the month. Between the beginning of February, when the virus was only beginning to go global, and 23 March, Zoom’s share price more than doubled from $76.30 to a peak of $159.56.

One company that claims to have seen a surge in demand for its services is remote connectivity platform TeamViewer. “So much so, that the spike in demand has mirrored the geographical line of the spread of Covid-19,” says CEO, Oliver Steil. “Companies across the globe are taking a crash course on home working at the moment.”

Of course, most companies today are set up for remote working and Richard Fogg, chief executive officer at technology PR agency CCGroup, says his company was ready for the challenge.

“Our business has always been set up to enable people to work from home – and most of us do, at least one day a week,” says Fogg. “While we miss all being together under one roof, we have been able to adapt to rules around social distancing relatively quickly. Over the past few weeks, we have done what we can to maximise face time with each other – through collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. We have tried to remain as positive and as inclusive as possible to support each other through such anxious times.”

Fogg adds that many ‘normal’ working practices as possible is also important in reducing this anxiety and the company has continued with its regular ‘Lunch & Learn’ training sessions and weekly team meetings as virtual meetings”.

“Perhaps more importantly, we have also looked for fun ways to enjoy our collaboration tools, so we can continue to laugh and joke together,” he continues. “We have a range of virtual social activities like team lunches, an Easter party, games nights, quiz nights and even a virtual game of ‘Through the Keyhole.’ Like any business, we have always relied on strong connectivity to function. The global pandemic has made this connectivity even more critical as we look to offset the impact of social distancing, maintain efficiency, promote inclusion and preserve mental wellness.”

While many employees will have access to the luxury of video-calling, numerous things need addressing first, such as cybersecurity.

According to the 2020 Zero Trust Progress Report published by Cybersecurity Insiders and Pulse Secure, the software-defined secure access vendor, 72% of organizations plan to implement Zero Trust capabilities in 2020 to mitigate growing cyber risk, but nearly half (47%) of cyber security professionals lack confidence applying a Zero Trust model to their secure success architecture. 

Add to that a report from Kapersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, which found that 90% of corporate data breaches in the cloud happen due to hacker attacks that target employees. Is that because humans, by their very nature, will tend to be more relaxed and browse personal sites at home, which might not be secure? Yes, according to new research conducted by NordVPN Teams, which revealed that 62% of people are using personal computers (or other personal devices) to work from home.

“It is concerning because most private laptops are not equipped with proper security software,” says Daniel Markuson, the delivery expert at NordVPN. “Therefore, more and more companies turn to VPNs (virtual private networks). For example, recently, our business solution NordVPN Teams saw a 165% usage spike and almost a 600% increase in sales overall. It can be related to companies encouraging their employees to work from home in the safest manner possible.”

Markuson says employees forced to work remotely during the quarantine means companies are now more vulnerable than ever. “When in the office, everyone uses the same Wi-Fi connection, so it’s easier to ensure secure communication,” says Markuson. “To have a safe connection when working remotely, a VPN is needed. It encrypts users’ internet traffic and protects their online identity. A VPN effectively grants employees working from home secure access to servers, systems and databases that otherwise only could be accessed at an office. With a VPN turned on, no malicious actors can snoop on what people do online.”

The VPN field is a crowded one “but don’t take short cuts” and seek advice from security experts,” warns Jonathan Whitley, director of northern Europe at WatchGuard Technologies.

“It is too important a decision to get wrong,” he adds. “Ensure that users are not just dropped on the corporate network; using VLANS (virtual LANs) will help mitigate against a potential breach. Also don’t allow RDP (remote desktop) functionality to run natively on the internet and ensure you control access with a VPN and MFA (multi-factor authentication).”

However, there are skeptics, even detractors, when it comes to VPNs and Kurt Glazemakers, chief technology officer (CTO) software defined perimeter at secure access IT vendor AppGate says that lots of questions still need to be asked. “From a cybersecurity standpoint, there is much to consider about when implementing a work from home policy, including: can the company’s network handle a large increase of workers who must access resources remotely?” he says. “If all remote workers are trying to access the network through a single VPN ingress point, how will that impact network bandwidth and latency? Once workers connect to the network, what checks are in place to make sure only those resources needed are accessible?

In fact, Glazemakers isn’t convinced that VPNs are the answer because “the technology is rapidly showing its age and lack of agility” at the most critical period in recent memory.

“It simply isn’t fit for purpose for the ways in which workers need to access network resources today,” he continues. “This is especially true in a time of crisis when the number of users may increase significantly in a short period of time. VPN solutions are hardware-based and have limited bandwidth, making it difficult to scale based on demand.  Also, it takes a lot of time and money to implement expansion of VPN systems. We’re seeing many organisations now looking at software-defined perimeter (SDP) technology to provide agile and highly elastic capabilities enabling secure remote access while reducing their costs. SDPs are much better for network administrators too as they can quickly and easily manage user access. This helps to maintain security while enabling productivity.”

Another vendor with a focus on keeping us all safe is Storage Craft, which provides data management, protection and recovery solutions, “with the mission to protect all data and ensure its constant availability”.

Florian Malecki, the company’s international product marketing senior director, says the current situation has not only forced businesses to build remote working environments, they’ve had to do it in a very short space of time.

“Moving millions of employees, their computers (corporate or personally-owned) and their data from a secure office environment to their homes with such short notice presents enormous data security risks for businesses,” he says. “From technical glitches and accidental human error, to malicious and damaging ransomware attacks, caution must be taken when transitioning such large volumes of data.”

While security is – quite rightly – a core consideration when kitting out staff at home, how does it impact performance? 

“Along with increased security risks, performance could also be impacted due to employee devices not being able to cope with the various inhouse security applications they’re expected to run,” says Whitley. “Business must provide centrally managed lightweight client applications which deliver enterprise grade security, while also allowing employee productivity to remain high. Cloud-hosted firewalls can also help to load-balance VPN traffic destined for your HQ and scale to accommodate the connections your company requires. Deploying these solutions will provide Management teams with the confidence their corporate assets are safe and thus focus their time of proactively driving business.”

Simon Kelf, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of full-service managed IT support firm BCN Group says the amount of pressure is “entirely dependent” on how well equipped they are for staff to work remotely. “Questions business leaders need to ask themselves now is if the government did order everyone to work from home, could they facilitate it?” he adds. “It is the time to review and assess your requirements quickly and if you have gaps in your business contingency planning and infrastructure, they must be filled without delay.”

Indeed, it hasn’t been seamless for all concerned. Aryaka’s 2020 State of the WAN survey has found that the biggest challenges to voice and video performances are set up and management of underlying network infrastructure (48% of those questioned), while 43% complained of a lag in communication. Poor voice quality was reported by 39%.

Vannina Kellershohn, vice president of enriched interactions and collaboration business unit, Orange Business Services, says one sector that has seen a significant impact is customer support. “Many call centres have been closed and staff is now working remotely, which could therefore be difficult for them to access their environment to offer customer support functions,” says Kellershohn. “However, Orange Business Services has been helping customers to migrate their contact centres to the cloud, enabling them to continue business as usual.”

Kellershohn says moving forward we will see a wider acceptance of remote working across the board and increasingly flexible working policies where they are appropriate. “The current pandemic has illustrated that with the correct technology and infrastructure in place, remote working can be highly successful and in fact, has not come with the downsides that more established and traditional companies may have feared.”

Swedish video and audio specialist Konftel has been rewarded with favourable column inches during the pandemic as social media and news channels showed its kit being used in 10 Downing Street by the prime minister Boris Johnson and his colleagues, as they keep in daily contact with world leaders via video link. “We supplied the C50 800, which all the pictures are showing - and our huddle room solutions were supplied for smaller room use,” says Jeff May, regional sales director at Konftel.

“It’s ‘100% proof’ that remote working is the future. “Many organisations will adopt this more and more as the norm – this period will convince the most sceptical of employers that home working is a productive, trustworthy and reliable option,” he continues. “Expensive real estate and office space might well be (probably will be) downsized as more staff are encouraged to work from home and then realigned to have more meeting spaces, allowing for social distancing, with their remote working colleagues, customers and suppliers. Staff will want it, having experienced it and seen the work life balance it offers. Travel and meetings will be less desirable for everyone for a while yet, perhaps a long time for some.”

Hira Ali, chief executive officer of Advancing Your Potential and author of Her Way to the Top, says “there is a prevalent organisational culture that values presenteeism highly” without realising that an employee physically working within an office doesn’t improve results or productivity. “The use of Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams provides more flexibility, convenience and safety than physical spaces, since interactions can be planned on your schedule,” she says.

Where employees are based is one thing, but businesses around the world will need to make some other big decisions, too. Robert Staines, a data centre management specialist, questions what companies will do going forward with regards to renting office space now that it’s become harder to justify.

“So, at present a lot of companies have had to make the adjustment to allow most staff to work from home,” he says. “Any of those companies noticed any real difference in productivity (something I know a few old school managers always feared)? Could this be the beginning of the decline for office buildings? Imagine the potential savings and reduced overheads, the terror threats instantly reduced for commuters no longer needing to travel so much, the reliance on the transport infrastructure virtually gone, the list goes on. So, who’s really happy with all of this, apart from missing physical people? Count me in.”

NHS staff and other key workers have – quite rightly – made 8pm on Thursday nights their own, as we all stand outside our properties and applaud their life-saving work and general hard graft. However, Fogg says it’s right that we acknowledge the people who make working from home possible.

“There is little wonder therefore, that telecoms network engineers and their partners are currently regarded as keyworkers, alongside doctors and nurses, in helping us overcome Covid-19,” he says. “While their efforts are not as immediately visible as our incredibly brave and unconquerable healthcare workers, they still deserve our thanks and adulation all the same. The task that we collectively face would be all the more daunting without them – both socially and economically.”

We’re all still in the dark as to what the ‘new normal’ will be once things even begin to resemble what they were just a few months ago. However, we can all agree that the work/life balance we see in the likes of Sweden and Australia – and have long been envious of - is coming to our shores, thanks to a nasty pandemic. Bosses will be taking note.