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How the lockdown changed enterprise mobility

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Bloomicon)

It isn't every day that over a third of the world's population is told to stay at home. The Covid-19 pandemic changed society overnight as people sheltered from the virus. It also changed the face of work, accelerating an already growing remote working trend as businesses were quickly forced to enable their employees to work securely and productively from home.

In the UK for instance, data from YouGov has revealed that almost half (46 percent) of UK workers are now working from home. This is compared to just 27 percent of workers who worked from home pre-lockdown. So just how were businesses able to quickly mobilize their workforce?

Device issues

For many, the first problem was getting hold of the mobile equipment for employees who had never worked from home before. Companies had three options: buy new equipment for employees, ask them to take home computers from work, or get them to use their own in a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) arrangement.

Each of these had its challenges. The first option created logistical issues, because mobile equipment wasn't always easy to come by. Demand was high. Analyst company CONTEXT reported a 29 percent bump in notebook sales from the beginning of the lockdown through to the end of April as people rushed to work from home. Supply was also limited. The fall-off in Asian manufacturing combined with reduced air freight slots created a supply chain perfect storm.

The second approach bought problems too, as not everyone has laptops at work and desktops aren't easily transportable. Plus, you have to work out what data is already on those machines and keep track of which ones are leaving the office.

At MobileIron, we saw around one in three of our customers adopting the third approach; asking people to access company resources from their home machines. That creates potential security problems. Enterprise and personal data can easily mix in these environments and companies have no control over a personal device.

Enrolling these devices in a Unified Endpoint Management (UEM) system helped businesses to overcome this issue by cordoning off secure, enterprise-controlled work-only areas on their mobile devices, while preserving their personal privacy and their employer's security.

More threats

When they did get online, employees on lockdown faced a rat's nest of threats as cyber criminals took advantage of the confusion. Attackers have always targeted employees by email to try and get them to click malicious links or open malicious files, and they'll use any current event they can to try and increase their success rate.

They were just as opportunistic in a Covid-19 world. Research has revealed that phishing attacks related to Covid-19 rose by 600 percent in the first quarter of 2020, with 45 percent of all attacks looking to scam internet users into giving away their passwords on malicious domains that mimicked well known sites.

That was a particular problem for mobile users, because they consume business email on those devices, which have relatively small screens. Mobile devices are easier to use than laptops and desktop systems. It's easy to get distracted and click on a link without running through all the sanity checks you'd normally use on a larger screen with a proper keyboard. The same problem applies to social media phishing.

This increase in threats exacerbated the growing need for Mobile Threat Defense solutions, that are able to detect and remediate phishing attacks across all mobile threat vectors, including text and SMS messages, instant messages, social media and other modes of communication, beyond just corporate email.

Network issues

Aside from getting and securing devices to access mobile data, companies faced another problem that many hadn't anticipated: network bottlenecks.

Many companies forced to support remote workers were using applications in their own data centers. That put a strain on a key part of any on-premises remote access system: the VPN concentrators that handle secure incoming links from remote mobile devices. These are usually configured to handle an average number of connections, but demands on those systems skyrocketed during the pandemic, creating a bottleneck.

Businesses that had already moved their applications and data to the cloud were in a better position to cope with the increased network demand. They used cloud providers' large, flexible infrastructure to scale up their computing resources, coping easily with a large influx of new workers.

By using software to securely connect their mobile devices directly to the cloud from their remote locations without routing the traffic through their own enterprise networks, businesses were able to reduce the strain on their corporate systems.

What companies learned

We saw companies learning several key things from this crisis. The first is that the nature of work is transforming. After rushing to work from home, they won't be quick to resume the status quo.

For some, the very nature of business will change. Retailers will have to innovate as they adapt to social distancing. We predict a rise in contact-free payments, which will make mobile devices even more important to transactions.

More companies will begin exploring UEM as they move from ad hoc remote working environments to more permanent, systematic working models where employees working at home for longer periods will need better support. They’ll begin thinking about how to manage mobile devices and the applications on them.

The lockdown experience has driven home the importance of cloud computing. Companies that were not already using the cloud during the pandemic were unwilling to try this model during a crisis where they were already dealing with massive upheavals. As the panic subsides, we expect them to examine that opportunity more closely during the medium term. Expect an uptick in adoption.

We also believe that access has to change. Passwords were already looking tired. In a world living with a new coronavirus, mobile users working remotely more often won't stand for thumbing passwords on a soft keyboard. Neither should they.

We'll need stronger, more convenient access mechanisms based on things like phone-based biometrics, multi-factor authentication, and context-aware logins to make remote mobile working more seamless. Only around 10 percent of companies are doing that now. We think the other 90 percent will explore that aggressively.

Companies have been living with remote working and mobile computing for a long time, but we just saw a step change in their understanding of it. It takes a global event to make something like that happen, and it guarantees one thing: the workplace will never be the same again.

David Critchley, UK & Ireland Regional Director, MobileIron