Friday, April 3, 2020

Remote working could put an end to the office as we know it

The ongoing pandemic has brought about the world’s largest remote working experiment, with tens of millions forced to participate worldwide – and its outcome will likely have repercussions that will reverberate long after the last quarantine restrictions are lifted.

Companies of all sizes – and with varying degrees of preparedness – have ordered employees to work from home in a bid to delay the spread of Covid-19, classified a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The duration of this mandated period of remote working varies business by business, but the rate at which the virus is spreading – especially in Europe and the US – and the severity of lockdown measures suggest current isolation periods could be extended for much longer than originally thought.

The remote working experience will be entirely new for some, while others will be well versed in the art of working from home on occasion. However, the extended period of social isolation many of us have embarked upon is bound to place significant strain on established ways of working - and some employees might be unwilling to go back to the status quo ante.

Are we equipped to go virtual?

The foremost concern for many businesses – especially smaller companies without extensive resources – is whether employees are properly equipped to go virtual-only. The lack of either hardware or software may be a significant stumbling block for workers asked suddenly to abandon their office workstations.

Recognizing this issue (or opportunity), many software and SaaS vendors have granted businesses limited-time access to premium offerings free of charge, hoping that a fraction of those clients will morph into long-term – and, most importantly, paying – customers.

LogMeIn was the first to offer free ‘Emergency Remote Work Kits’ to government, education, healthcare and non-profit organizations, followed swiftly by Cisco and Microsoft, who have opened up their collaboration products to all businesses.

VPN and cybersecurity vendors have followed suit with time-limited arrangements of their own, designed to safeguard businesses whose security perimeters have grown by magnitudes overnight.

“Regrettably, the spread of Covid-19 has made organizations reevaluate remote working policies and the technology in place to support them,” Mark Strassman, SVP & GM of Unified Communications & Collaboration at LogMeIn, told TechRadar Pro.

“This is accelerating the pace at which many organizations are being pushed to embrace remote work, despite the fact many of these organizations are not yet equipped to get the most productivity out of their remote workforce.”

Maintaining productivity, however, is perhaps too lofty an ambition in the circumstances, when even basic functioning is by no means guaranteed. Businesses are more precariously positioned than ever, wholly reliant on the performance of cloud-based tools and services.

Is infrastructure up to the task?

While there will be no shortage of tools to facilitate communication between remote workers, it remains to be seen whether infrastructure can cope with sustained periods of high traffic in the long term.

It is feared networks could falter under an extended surge in content streaming, online gaming and video conferencing. With many schools closed and millions working remotely under quarantine, peak periods now account for the majority of the waking day, leaving less time than usual for network upkeep and maintenance.

According to Scott Petty, CTO at UK telecoms firm Vodafone, peak traffic is no longer confined to the evenings, but now extends from midday to 9pm. The implications of this sudden change could be significant, with service providers forced to shoulder a far greater burden than is normal.

Microsoft Teams was the first video conferencing solution to take a nosedive, with major outages reported across the US and Europe on consecutive Mondays (March 23 and 30), just as millions of workers logged on. While the cause of the outages is unconfirmed, the timing appears more than coincidental.

Meanwhile, Netflix and YouTube have agreed to cap their services for 30 days to ease the burden on broadband networks. Netflix will cap its bitrate, which it says will reduce data consumption by 25%, and YouTube will only be available in standard definition - as opposed to high definition or 4K. Disney, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Instagram have also pledged to cut video streaming quality.

According to Verizon, online gaming also increased by 75% between March 9 and 16, during which period both Xbox Live and Nintendo’s online services were taken down by traffic surges. 

Although rumours that online gaming represents the most severe threat to internet services are overblown (online games use a third of the data consumed by streaming Netflix in standard definition), increased activity will certainly contribute to choking networks.

For now, providers are insisting networks can cope, but early incidences of downtime suggest not all communications infrastructure boasts the resilience necessary to support a world population reliant on connection for work, communication, entertainment, and socialization.

Are we jeopardising security?

While the generosity of technology vendors might go a long way to equipping small businesses to work from home, the immediacy with which social distancing policies were introduced gave many firms little time to consider another crucial factor: security.

According to a number of cybersecurity experts, the sudden surge in remote working will open up all manner of attack vectors for opportunist cybercriminals. 

“We’re seeing unprecedented numbers of people connecting remotely to corporate networks, putting additional pressure on already strained IT and security infrastructure,” says David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky.

“Many organizations are also not geared up for people to work from home and are thus trying to understand the challenges in real time, under exceptional circumstances...Once a device is taken outside of an organization’s network infrastructure and is connected to new networks, the risks broaden and increase.”

Cybercriminals are also capitalising on panic surrounding the novel disease to sow all manner of malware. Recent weeks have seen ransomware and DDoS attacks on healthcare institutions, already under strain as a result of the virus - and even an attack on the WHO itself

Numerous coronavirus-related phishing scams have also entered circulation, using false claims about the disease to lure unwitting victims and infect their machines. One scam even claimed it could prevent users falling physically ill with the virus.

“It is crucial that organizations implement a multi-layered approach to security in order to safeguard against phishing attacks, such as implementing multi-factor authentication methods,” Will LaSala, Senior Director of Global Solutions at security firm OneSpan, told TechRadar Pro.

“Attackers regularly take advantage of spikes in communication or activity to launch attacks. While it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to trigger businesses into action, it’s more important than ever to make sure the right security infrastructure is in place across all channels to keep your business and customers safe,” he added.

The advice from security experts is to exercise particular caution under quarantine, ensuring devices are protected with effective security software and multi-factor authentication, and VPN services are used to preserve online privacy.

Users of free video conferencing solutions should also remain alert, because privacy and security pledges are not always upheld. For example, it was discovered Zoom calls are not end-to-end encrypted, despite claims from the firm, whose app has been downloaded more than 50 million times on Google Play Store alone.

Could the pandemic spell the end for the mega-conference?

The events sector is another that will likely emerge from the coronavirus crisis utterly transformed, with the outbreak causing the cancellation or deferral of many eminent technology conferences.

Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile technology show, became the first domino to fall. The organiser (the GSMA) was forced to cancel the event, set to take place in Barcelona at the end of February, after a series of high-profile attendees (such as Nokia, Sony, BT and Ericsson) pulled out over coronavirus concerns.

Since then, a raft of technology events have been postponed or cancelled over fears crowded environments create the perfect conditions for the rapid transmission of coronavirus.

Others - including Apple’s WWDC and Microsoft MVP - have gone ‘digital-only’ instead, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest the success or failure of these virtual events could define the event industry’s future.

Andrew Johnson, an executive at online meeting provider PowWowNow, says the coronavirus pandemic could herald the demise of traditional, in-person conferences.

“This could absolutely be the start of a trend that sees the world’s largest conferences take a different shape going forward. We are now lucky enough to have workplace apps and online services that allow people to connect regardless of location, so large scale conferences are more feasible than ever before,” he said over email.

The impact of large-scale events on the environment has also been called into question in recent years. For example, accusations of hypocrisy were leveled at attendees of this year’s World Economic Forum summit in Davos, many of whom travelled to the climate-centric conference via private jet.

Immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR) have waited patiently in the wings for an opportunity to seize the enterprise stage. Attending conferences via VR headsets could solve a host of challenges associated with public health, but also with travel costs, the environment and engagement.

However, while technically and logistically feasible, virtual events at scale are yet to have passed the litmus test only practice can administer. Questions over the ability to effectively engage an online audience en masse, to ensure key messages aren’t lost over poor connection and to replicate the networking opportunity afforded by physical events remain.

The benefits of virtual only events must also be balanced with the collateral damage inflicted on orbiting businesses, which include marketing and PR, hospitality, transport and more - a group that doubtless comprises millions worldwide.

Were we already headed in that direction?

The coronavirus outbreak has forced far greater numbers into remote working than otherwise would have been the case. However, it's possible the pandemic has only served to accelerate a transition that was already underway on a global scale.

The rise of flexible and remote working in recent years has been meteoric, with businesses turning to these policies in a bid to attract and retain talent, and cut down on real estate square footage.

According to figures from Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics, the number of US employees working remotely is up 44% in the past five years, and up 91% in the past ten. Globally, meanwhile, 52% of staff work from home at least once per week.

Julien Codorniou, VP at enterprise connectivity platform Workplace by Facebook, sees the ability to sustain a remote workforce as crucial to the longevity of any business, irrespective of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Outside of Covid-19, dispersed workforces are becoming more of a reality for businesses around the world, whether they want to offer more flexibility to workers or hire the next generation of talent regardless of location,” he said in an email to TechRadar Pro.

“Tools that can extend remote working capabilities beyond your workforce, to all the partners and customers you work with, will be critical to maintaining communication in the long term.”

The current circumstances, millennial sensibilities and drastic improvements to cloud-based services combine to create the perfect storm. Companies must take measures to insulate themselves from the potential rise of the office-less business, which will see employees work together each day without ever meeting in the flesh. 

The multitude of variables at play - from the technological capability of the businesses themselves, to the savviness of individual users, the capacity of infrastructure and the progress of the disease - means no one can predict how this unfortunate remote working experiment will pan out.

It is certain, however, that businesses will emerge from the brighter end of this global crisis far better able to support employees that would prefer to work from home, which figures indicate could be the majority. And, preference aside, others might find themselves unwilling to go back.

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