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Home working – the new normal for UK business?

(Image credit: Image Credit: llaszlo / Shutterstock)

A small but steadily growing group of the UK’s workforce is permanently home-based – according to UK government, the figure is around 1.8 million, compared to 800,000 a decade ago, with a further 2.7 million working in different locations, but from a home base, compared with around 28 million people who work away from their homes, in offices, shops and factories.

Despite this, the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) has described flexible working as ‘the new normal’, with an estimated 94 percent of UK employers offering some form of flexible working. However, that ‘new normal’ has shifted further and more quickly than expected over the past six months.

In that time, we have seen unprecedented changes in working patterns, with the majority of office-based workers temporarily becoming home workers as a result of lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although some sectors have started to return to a more usual routine, many office workers are still working from home, and are likely to for some time to come.

Some technology companies have already said their teams can continue work from home permanently, and we’re also starting to see companies in other sectors, including financial services and consulting saying the same thing. In addition, Matt Hancock, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health, has also suggested that employers should now always offer working from home as an option.

This has caused businesses in all sectors to look again at how employees work and what they need to do their jobs effectively, including secure access company systems and information.

Talking to customers regularly, I know that many businesses have well-developed working from home policies and infrastructure; most larger companies have been building that capability for teams to work remotely over the last decade or more.

Their modelling has suggested that they look at somewhere between 50 percent and 75 percent capacity, in order to enable team members to work remotely when required, whether as part of a new working structure or for business continuity reasons.

Balancing demands and security

Most are utilizing the latest technology to enable remote working, which has developed rapidly over the last few years, helped by increased internet speeds and the availability and acceptance of cloud-based services.

No matter what size the company is, those responsible for delivering effective home and remote working, always have to balance the demands of employees working remotely with ensuring the integrity and security of company systems and data.

In addition to accessing files and company applications, most office-based workers are also used to accessing emails, chat applications, video conferencing, collaboration/project management software and documentation tools, which all have to be made available.

While such tools keep people productive and collaborating, they can also open the business up to potential risks and, while companies can limit access in the name of security, it sure makes it harder to share documents and meet targets or deadlines.

At a user-level, the critical thing is ease-of-use, so the easier the system is to access, the happier everyone will be; however, it has to be done securely (and often via a home network). That presents a challenge for IT teams but is where virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technologies come into play.

The latest VDI technologies allow users to securely access all of their applications and systems as though they’re in the office, via a virtual environment. All employees have to do is to log in via their internet browser. And, depending on the requirements of the organization, it can be rolled out as Desktop-as-a-service (DaaS), which operates in the cloud. It’s designed to get remote teams up and working quickly, which is vital when emergencies of any kind strike. It also works on all the major cloud systems, including AWS, Google and Microsoft Azure, or runs from on-premises private cloud data centers, should that be required.

VDI

A great example of an effective VDI deployment is financial services company JM Finn. In the first week of March, after the company asked its 400 employees to work from home, the head of IT and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) and his team worked quickly to connect the company’s applications and data to remote workers.

Working in a highly regulated sector, it had to ensure the company remained compliant with regulatory standards around data protection and security, as well as ensuring its ‘power users’, including traders, worked within the lag and downtime tolerances associated with their high-performance desktops displaying on up to eight screens.

Many firms are not able to allow these power users to work remotely, but the JM Finn team is now entirely set up to work from home without sacrificing on performance or security by using VDI – all based on an infrastructure that is adaptable and flexible.

Even JM Finn’s IT staff of 18 system administrators and developers were able to work remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the work from home order came, the IT team reorganized so each member could act as a service desk for end users. In seven days, they transitioned from a central office in London to a remote workforce in order to keep their people safe. Nutanix VDI allowed the IT team to troubleshoot issues quickly while remote.

The critical element for JM Finn was investing in the right technology infrastructure before it was needed, so that it was able to adapt and pivot when required. That infrastructure had to be one that is not only flexible and secure, but is also easy to use for the end user.

Developments in recent months have forced millions of people to work from home, and highlighted what’s possible for many organizations, in terms of effective and secure remote working.

The technology exists to allow access to the same systems from any location as in the office, from a range of devices, meaning that emergency home working – whether that's for an international incident, travel disruption, severe weather or looking after a sick child – can now be as simple as logging into your account.

Rob Tribe, Regional SE Director, Western Europe, Nutanix