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How does remote working impact your IT infrastructure and security?

As you probably know, there’s a lot of pressure on organisations to continue with remote working policies even when the pandemic ends. Organisations as diverse as Lloyds, Twitter and Unilever have already said they’ll embrace flexible working in some form after the pandemic. Thousands of others are following suit.

“18% of respondents said they wanted to work entirely from home when the pandemic ends, and a further 57% favoured a mix of home and office working”

In most cases, new flexible models will be in the form of hybrid working, which means employees splitting their time between the office and home. Hybrid is certainly popular among employees. In one recent survey, 18% of respondents said they wanted to work entirely from home when the pandemic ends, and a further 57% favoured a mix of home and office working.

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At the same time, hybrid can work for organisations, too. Hybrid working is letting Lloyds cut 20% of its office space, and other businesses anticipate savings in the form of reduced equipment and utilities costs. Add cost cutting to easier recruitment and retention and it’s perhaps no surprise that, according to some estimates, three or four times as many people could be working at home after the pandemic than before it began.

Having said all that, introducing hybrid work isn’t something you should do lightly. It has significant benefits for many organisations, but also poses significant challenges.

Remote work during the pandemic was an emergency response to a novel threat, which in many cases forced businesses to adopt piecemeal new policies and working practices almost overnight. When hybrid work becomes a business choice, employees, customers and regulators will expect it to be implemented in a more thorough and systematic way.

What does that mean in practice? Well, it means that the consequences of adopting hybrid work need to be fully accounted for. There are IT infrastructure and security implications to consider, from the performance of your network to vulnerabilities in the digital tools you equip home workers with. If you need to invest in new technology to meet the needs of your hybrid workforce, can it be easily and cost-effectively deployed and maintained?

You also need to take into account both the effect on employee motivation and, potentially, customer service. Remote work can’t be allowed to undermine either employee productivity or customer satisfaction.

None of these challenges is insurmountable. In fact, most can be overcome with a combination of the right policies and the most appropriate technology. In the rest of this paper, we’ll explore each challenge in turn and suggest some easy-to-implement solutions.

Ensuring IT security and compliance

“One of the greatest worries for IT leaders around remote work is security and compliance”

One of the greatest worries for IT leaders around remote work is security and compliance. Hybrid workers regularly connect to your network from beyond the office firewall. Sensitive customer data is passed between colleagues using consumer-grade internet connections. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies can help organisations equip remote workforces in a cost-effective way, but create security concerns of their own.

How do IT teams maintain security with an increasingly dispersed and nomadic workforce? It’s a fundamental question, because security threats are rocketing. The 2020 Verizon Business Data Breach Investigations Report found a significant increase in all kinds of cyberthreats, from phishing to web application breaches.

Interestingly, the report found that 22% of all breaches were caused by human error and ignorance. Employee education will clearly be as crucial a part of securing your networks and applications as the tools and services you adopt, and we’ll talk more about that later.

Organisations need to think about all the vulnerabilities that remote work creates. Some are obvious – others much less so. For example, remote workers, without the IT department looking over their shoulders, might decide to save work in consumer-grade cloud storage accounts. They might decide to email sensitive documents to a home account so they can be printed out on a home printer. The personal devices employees use for work may not be regularly patched and updated.

These are all considerations businesses must take into account as they forge ahead with hybrid working. Creating safe remote work needs education and support for staff, a responsive help desk, and a culture where employees feel free to ask even the simplest questions about basic security.

Adopting the right tools is important, too. Remote work is work, and requires enterprise-grade services and applications with sophisticated security built in. A unified communications platform like MiCloud Flex is a case in point. The platform offers a dedicated environment hosted in secure data centers with advanced multi-layered security measures, including full encryption.

And with solutions like MiCloud Flex, employees get everything they need to communicate and collaborate effectively in one integrated package, so they won’t be tempted to bolt on unsanctioned third-party tools and apps that may open vulnerable backdoors to your data.

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Top tips for hybrid and remote working

IT infrastructure has to be at the centre of any organisation’s successful transition to hybrid working. Technology has a key role to play in making home working as effective as working in the office.

With that in mind, here are some key considerations for making the switch to hybrid work as smooth as it can possibly be.

1. Cloud is key

Very generally, the more you can utilise the cloud, the better it is for your hybrid strategy. OK, you may want to keep your most sensitive data safe where you can see it. But in terms of equipping remote staff, cloud really is key.

And that’s especially true when staff are splitting their time between the office and home, and need consistent access to the same suite of tools wherever they are. Ideally, they need to be able to access their data and documents from any device, and make and take professional business calls in any location.

“Your staff need to be able to access their data and documents from any device, and make and take professional business calls in any location”

Cloud-based communication and productivity tools let them, and do much more besides. One of the issues of remote work is isolation, and individuals feeling unable to draw on the collective wisdom of their colleagues. That’s less of an issue when they can collaborate in the way they want, through video, email, voice and chat, and share screens and documents.

2. Keeping control

Managers need to know what their teams are doing and that everyone is pushing in the same direction. They need to be able to identify molehills before they turn into mountains. Naturally, many team leaders worry that a permanent switch to remote work will take away a crucial element of control.

Hybrid helps here, because employees are in the office at least some of the time. But even part-time remote work can lead to a dilution of company culture and a dip in productivity. For a start, team leaders need real-time data to make sure teams are working as well out of the office as in it. Happily, many good cloud-based communications and productivity solutions have measuring tools and reporting features built in.

“Team leaders need real-time data to make sure teams are working as well out of the office as in it”

Managers should also be readily available to their remote teams, just as they would be if everyone was in the office. Check in regularly with staff to ask about progress, help iron out problems and sometimes just to say hello. It’s not rocket science, but it never hurts to remind staff of the support that’s available if they need it.

3. Home isn’t always work-friendly

Not all staff can work from home easily. They might not have a home office or a quiet space for video calls with clients. It’s worth remembering that some staff with cramped homes or only basic internet connectivity might still require full-time access to the office.

And even those who are well set up for remote work may need to be reminded that working from home shouldn’t become living at work. Research has found that home workers during Covid put in more hours than ever, but that’s not a sustainable situation. If you don’t want burnout and churn in your teams, make sure remote staff keep to office hours and remind them to turn off email and Teams when the working day is over.

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Making IT deployments seamless. Three real world examples

Hybrid becomes a step too far if you have to spend too much time and money deploying the technology to make it happen, or staff are unprepared for the change. But that needn’t be the case, as these examples demonstrate.

1. Overnight switch

“IT staff can implement and test the new technology in a closed environment, while users are separately trained to use it”

To make the switch to new technology as seamless as possible, do it one fell swoop. This method takes detailed preparation. IT staff should implement and test the new technology in a closed environment, while users are separately trained to use it. To cut costs, much of this training can be done online, though a practical ‘hands-on’ element should be included too. When the technology goes live, everybody needs to know how to use it. When everyone is up to speed, switch from the old solution to the new overnight, so any gremlins can be ironed out without disruption to everyday operations.

Pros: Everybody is using the same system straight away, reducing confusion. You can time the switchover to coincide with the end of one contract and the beginning of another, reducing costs.

Cons: Everybody is using the same system straight away. If there’s an issue, it affects everyone.

2. Mix and match

“Combine the old and new solutions for a limited period, letting staff acclimatise to the new solution while having the safety net of the old if anything goes wrong”

Combine the old and new solutions for a limited period, letting staff acclimatise to the new solution while having the safety net of the old if anything goes wrong. How might this work? With a cloud-based unified communications platform like MiCloud Flex, users could download the softphone app to use on personal smartphones, while continuing to use a PBX-based telephony solution in the office. MiCloud Flex offers a consistent experience across platforms, so by familiarising themselves with the softphone app, employees are effectively getting to know the complete solution. When users are fully conversant with the app, the old PBX can be turned off.

Pros: Users can get used to the new system by using it to communicate with colleagues, while relying on the system they’re familiar with to make important customer calls. If there are teething problems with the new platform, the old one can take over temporarily.

Cons: You’re running two solutions at the same time, so it’s not the most cost effective strategy.

3. Phased deployment

“Gradually get used to the new technology without inconveniencing customers. By the time the roll out reaches frontline staff, any niggles will have been ironed out”

Set one team or department up with the new technology, and let them be the pathfinders for your organisation. After a set amount of time using the new platform, the team can report back on any issues they had with adopting the technology, and that feedback can then inform the training of the next group in line. And so on, until the organisation has completely switched to the new platform, and the old solution can be switched off. Start with teams that aren’t customer facing and gradually move towards frontline staff.

Pros: The business gradually gets used to the new technology without inconveniencing customers. By the time the roll out reaches frontline staff, any niggles will have been ironed out.

Cons: The longest and therefore least cost-effective switch over.

The method you choose will depend on the size of your organisation, the technology being deployed and the technical know-how of your employees. Whichever it is, the key to all successful IT deployments is careful planning. Cloud-based solutions are particularly easy to deploy, because they avoid much of the need for in-house equipment.

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Developing world class customer service remotely

“Increasing customer retention by just 5% can equate to an increase in profit of 25%”

Keeping customers happy is crucial to your business. You may know, for example, that increasing customer retention by just 5% can equate to an increase in profit of 25%. Or that 73% of customers say they stay loyal to brands because of friendly customer service agents. Happy customers also act as ambassadors for your business.

So you may worry that switching to a hybrid working model will undermine your reputation for great customer service. After all, it’s well known that happier employees work harder for customers, but how do you judge your remote team’s state of mind? For that matter, how do you know they’re as productive in their back bedrooms as they are in the office?

Modern, cloud-based communications can help. For a start, they let team leaders check in with staff regularly, via the channel of their choosing. They also let managers measure the productivity of teams, in terms of calls answered, time customers spend on hold, and so on.

But more than that, good cloud-based unified communications let customers interact with your business in the way they want, creating excellent customer experiences. As long as your customers can easily contact your agents, they really won’t care where those agents are based.

Cloud-based unified communications let your customer service staff make and take professional calls from anywhere, and a solution like MiCloud Flex also lets you integrate your contact center with CRM or other business applications. That lets you deliver real-time customer intelligence to agents across voice, video, chat, email and more. Intelligent routing means customers get to the right agents or resources every time.

In other words, with the right tools and processes in place, there’s no reason that hybrid working models should have an adverse effect on your first class customer service. In fact, if staff prefer hybrid work, customer satisfaction may actually increase. 

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Preventing human error with effective IT support

With employees working away from the office, how do you know they’re sticking to security protocols, or only using approved applications? How do you know they’re updating software as soon as patches become available?

There’s certainly a perception that, when staff work remotely, IT loses an element of control and human error becomes more likely. And if human error leads to a leak of sensitive data – as it often does –  it could be very damaging indeed.

How do you prevent that in your hybrid workforce? The key is IT support and IT training. Make sure that members of the IT team are always available, and give every employee contact details for a manned support desk. If employees can get their issues solved easily, they’ll be less likely to go it alone.

“Educate employees about the potential risks of remote work, and produce written guidelines on the devices and apps that are sanctioned for use”

After that, cyber security training is the top priority. Teach employees about the particular risks of remote work, with regular refresher sessions and alerts to cover information on the latest phishing attacks and email scams. Make sure every employee knows and employs two factor authentication (where available) and password best practice. Produce written guidelines on the devices and apps that are sanctioned for use, and any that definitely aren’t.

And hybrid working – with employees regularly moving between their homes and the office – increases the risk of lost or stolen laptops. Make sure you have policies in place to cover just such an eventuality. Think about implementing remote data wiping for all company devices that leave the office.  

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The most important network performance factors to consider

The Covid pandemic hugely increased the pace of digitisation for many organisations. While automation, cloud computing and unified communications were all gaining traction before the pandemic, the need to quickly and thoroughly equip remote workforces massively accelerated those trends.

“According to analysts McKinsey, “businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks”

According to analysts McKinsey, “businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks.”

Meanwhile, a study by Xerox found that, globally, businesses are prioritising investments in cloud-based software (65%), remote IT support (63%) and collaboration software (52%).

The question is, what does all this mean for network performance? Many corporate networks were pretty stretched before Covid, and are now being forced to handle an army of remote and hybrid workers connecting to a new breed of cloud-based tools and apps. Video conferencing tool Zoom saw an increase in daily active users of 2,900% in the first months of the pandemic, with much of that tsunami of data passing through corporate networks.

How do you measure the health of your network, and what network performance factors should you keep an eye on? The obvious ones are latency, packet loss and disconnections. As far as your IT team is concerned, problems with the network may be signalled by an increase in users complaining about slow downloads, lost documents and stop/start video conferencing.

A move to hybrid working could be the perfect storm for underpowered networks. More devices are using the network to access more applications. The switch to cloud computing means an increase in the amount of data travelling back and forth between distant servers.

You can optimise your network to better deal with this deluge in a number of ways. Investing in extra bandwidth, full fibre connectivity and a private line are obvious solutions. After that, network monitoring tools can help you identify bandwidth hogs and do something about them. Malware is not only a security risk but also a threat to network performance, so tight security is a win win. You may also need to check and replace old or broken network devices.

Finally, Quality of Service (QoS) can make sure bandwidth is reserved for critical applications and services. For example, if keeping remote colleagues connected through video is important, QoS can prioritise that data.

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Conclusion

We hope this article has gone some way to answering your questions on how remote and hybrid work might impact IT infrastructure and security. The short answer is that it impacts it in almost every possible way.

A permanent switch to hybrid work requires a new focus on security and employee education. It means putting tools and processes in place that allow staff to work effectively wherever they happen to be. Implementing the new technology smoothly and cost-effectively is important, and so is having the network performance to support it.

“A cost-effective solution that is easy to implement and simple to scale”

There’s a lot to think about. But while IT leaders need to put a well considered hybrid strategy in place, many of the obstacles to implementing new working patterns are easily surmountable with good planning and the right tools. For example, a full-featured unified communications solution like MiCloud Flex can help equip a hybrid workforce while enhancing security, improving customer experiences and giving managers the tools they need to monitor remote teams. Compared to on-premise alternatives, it’s a cost-effective solution that is easy to implement and simple to scale.

For more information on MiCloud Flex from Unicomm, please get in touch.

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