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Working from home: One small step away from working from anywhere

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/bikeriderlondon)

The first step on the journey to working from anywhere has been taken: During the first half of 2020, organizations across the world have rapidly ramped up their remote working infrastructure to enable entire teams of employees to relocate their desks from the office to their own homes. As social distancing measures begin to be relaxed in some European countries, parts of the workforce are already returning to their fixed places of work. For IT departments, now is the perfect time to review how the technology deployed during the past few months could be used to maintain smooth business operations and boost employee satisfaction with remote working solutions. As part of this review process, companies should also be taking a closer look at the potential future working models that the crisis pushed us to adopt.

Depending on their strategy for responding to the crisis, the conclusions drawn will vary wildly between organizations. Companies that were already making advances in their digitalization journey and using cloud-based processes to scale mobile working with complete flexibility will have been able to respond quickly, sending their employees home to keep them safe while still ensuring that they had high-performance, secure access to data and applications on the company network or in the cloud. The need to relocate vast swathes of the workforce has meant that the crisis has been somewhat of a baptism by fire for the solutions that were already in place. In the very best-case scenarios, the infrastructure will have proven itself capable of flexibly adjusting to the upsurge in demand without major friction. In these companies, the IT department can be certain that management and employees alike will be grateful for their hard work—and all that is left to do now is fine-tune the infrastructure to eradicate any minor issues that the crisis brought to light.

Crisis forces companies to take the leap to digitalization

Other companies will have used the crisis and the urgency with which changes had to be made to get their digitalization initiatives rolled out faster than they had originally planned. Projects that may have been stuck in planning and preparation for months were suddenly pushed right up to the top of the agenda, opening up access to budgets that had previously been unavailable. In these companies, the time pressure involved in rolling out the new concepts to keep the business going was the IT team’s greatest enemy. Organizations that opted for cloud-based solutions for remote access—sparing themselves the lengthy wait for the shipment and deployment of new hardware infrastructure—put themselves on the right track for success. These companies were able to quickly transfer a previous cloud-based remote access proof of concept to real-time operation, enabling them to benefit from the elasticity of the cloud.

Other companies will have opted to upgrade existing hardware-based infrastructures. In these organizations, large budgets will have been signed off in record time to allow the company to invest in expanding its tried-and-tested remote access technology. However, given that the existing network and connectivity setup will—in all likelihood—have proven inadequate to cope with the sudden increase in demand for bandwidth and VPN capacity, these companies will have needed to deploy emergency solutions while awaiting delivery of new hardware. They may have had staff working from home and in the office in shifts, or introduce different time windows for using the remote access infrastructure from home to avoid bandwidth bottlenecks. In these cases, the employees are the ones who have suffered; they will have had to work on poorly performing systems to access the work environments they needed to do their jobs.

Lessons learnt from the crisis

The crisis forced organizations to rapidly devise solutions to get their employees online and able to work from home. These hastily implemented concepts must now be re-evaluated in terms of their practicality and their cost—as well as security and future-readiness. In most cases, it is likely to become clear that employees were able to be productive when working from home and that business operations can be maintained remotely if employees have high-performance access to all the applications they need, without any restrictions. Suddenly, this realization has placed all the old prejudices about working from home on shaky ground while also encouraging businesses to think about things very differently.

If employees can work productively from home, organizations will be able to rethink their strategy for office resources. While some members of the workforce can’t wait to return to their desks, many others will have come to appreciate the flexibility of working from home and will be keen to hold on to the benefits of remote working—if not permanently, then at least from time to time. If the company no longer needs to keep a fixed desk space free for these employees, it can save money on office space and all the associated costs. Shared office models suddenly become a more attractive prospect if they are only being used for occasional team meetings or customer visits.

Acceptance determined by ease of use

If flexible workplace models such as this are to work, it is essential that users get smooth and secure access to the work environments they need. These environments should look the same from any device or location, regardless of where the user is when they access applications or data. The easier it is for users to operate the IT environment, the higher the levels of acceptance will be. If it is just as quick and easy to access data from home or on the road as it is from the office—without any additional complicated menus to click through or network connection processes to follow—employees will not feel tied to their desks on the company’s premises.

To create a user experience that is consistent from any location, organizations must develop simple and secure processes designed to limit the number of “hurdles” that users must overcome to an absolute minimum. To make this a reality, various departments must pull together toward a common goal: IT is responsible for the technology that provides safe access to applications, ensures data protection compliance, and offers collaboration tools that allow teams to work together, while the HR department sets out the frameworks for working hours, as well as health and safety. Throughout all of these processes, the No. 1 priority is to minimize friction between the different workspaces. This connected vision is something that we can achieve today. We already have technology that enables employees to access applications and data from any location and from any mobile device, regardless of where these applications and data are stored.

SASE guarantees security in new work environments

As the relevance of a central, physical office environment declines in the modern working world and the role of flexible remote working grows to fill the void, two interconnected security concepts that guarantee the security of data streams are emerging as the new standard: secure access service edge (SASE) and zero trust. As applications move into the cloud and users are increasingly able to connect from any location, traditional network security systems no longer afford adequate protection. SASE, a framework developed by Gartner, responds specifically to the modern-day challenges presented by the realities of cloud-based working, shifting the security function away from the network and toward the data stream between the user and the application. In the SASE model, companies can rest assured that their data is secure each time users access applications and data regardless of where they are located.

Zero trust-based access to resources is also a critical element of the framework. Zero trust network access (ZTNA) connects users and applications securely without involving the traditional company network at all. A zero trust-based model works on the basis of the user identity, allowing user access rights to specific applications to be segmented on a granular level. This approach brings an end to shared network resources, as each access at application level is validated before approval. A software-defined perimeter provides the framework for communication between the authorized user and the required application.

A world without offices

Companies that use SASE and zero trust as the basis for their connectivity and security architecture are able to build consistent work environments for their employees. These environments always look the same, regardless of whether the employee logs on in the office, at home, or while away on a business trip. They allow companies to respond to growth or external events with greater agility and lay the foundations for smooth, ongoing operations in the event of a crisis, removing the need for managers to hastily modify organizational processes in line with a business continuity plan. Users benefit from continuous and secure access to data and services regardless of physical location, which brings greater flexibility to their everyday working lives and enables companies to achieve the levels of agility promised by cloud technology.

Nathan Howe, Head of Transformation Directors EMEA, Zscaler (opens in new tab)

Nathan Howe, Director of Transformation Strategy at Zscaler, has 20+ years in security experience across a multitude of organisations including governments, enterprises and telco service providers.