The future of remote working

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced thousands of businesses to let their staff work remotely, but many of these firms might not be as technologically prepared for the situation as they thought

The outbreak of COVID-19 saw governments around the world ordering employers to let their staff work from home wherever it was possible to do so, but the swiftness of the imperative caught some companies unawares

The progress of digital technology has made working from home possible for many job roles for a number of years now. Virtual private networks (VPNs), cloud computing and video conferencing tools ensure that employees can work effectively even when away from the office. Nevertheless, many firms have been reluctant to allow their employees to work remotely. Perhaps there are trust issues at play or maybe technical challenges are proving insurmountable; maybe it remains too much of a cultural shift for some employers to accept.

But in March, the debate over whether to allow members of staff to work remotely reached a definitive conclusion. The outbreak of COVID-19 saw governments around the world ordering employers to let their staff work from home wherever it was possible to do so. In the face of a global pandemic and the thousands of deaths it will cause, businesses were not given a choice – if staff can work remotely, they must be allowed to do so.

The imperative, and the swiftness of its implementation, caught some companies unawares. Although many of the digital technologies required to facilitate home working have been around for a while, implementing them at scale is not always straightforward. Security issues may get in the way, and that’s before the social and emotional costs are considered. Letting one individual work from home may be straightforward, but suddenly forcing entire industries to do so can cause problems.

Technical issues can be hugely disruptive to a workforce even when it has an in-house IT team ready to come to its aid at any moment

Put to the test
Once governments realised the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, businesses were asked, and then told, to allow staff to work remotely where possible. This, of course, meant a significant number of service jobs being pushed out of the office and away from the digital solutions that corporations had built up and finely tuned over the years. And while it’s true that many free-to-use consumer applications are capable of stepping up to the plate, they are now being placed under unexpected pressure.

According to a survey conducted by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, just under 29 percent of Americans were able to work from home in 2018. Further data from the study indicates that the coronavirus crisis has provided the final push that many firms needed to authorise remote working: VPNs, which allow individuals to access corporate resources via a secure network, have seen a marked increase in use.

Panama-based VPN provider NordVPN told The New Economy that between March 11 and March 23, there was a 65.93 percent increase in the use of business VPNs across the US. Globally, VPN usage surged 165 percent over the same period. But this increase in traffic creates challenges, which has led to organisations including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration running remote networking stress tests to check if they have the capacity to allow the majority of staff members to work from home.

“Remote workers are reliant on home internet connections and VPNs, which may not be as reliable [as their offices’], so they could see a degradation in performance,” James Tilbury, founder of IT consultancy and support firm ILUX, told The New Economy. “Inadequate VPN provision, or problems with access, may mean employees either have to alternate their VPN usage or alter their working hours to fully access vital files and systems. Additionally, when things aren’t working as expected, remote employees risk being left without support, and this can quickly reduce the efficiency of a workforce.”

Technical issues can be hugely disruptive to a workforce even when it has an in-house IT team ready to come to its aid at any moment. When staff have to resort to calling troubleshooting hotlines or fixing problems themselves, productivity can take a huge hit.

Home security
Even if employees manage to make a smooth transition to remote working, businesses might have other causes for concern. Given the sudden nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organisations have not had time to implement new security protocols for home workers.

“Companies may find several issues compromise the security of their organisation; workers using their home computers may lack the protection systems that their work computers would have, such as anti-virus and anti-malware software, or web-filtering software and appliances to prevent staff accessing phishing and unsafe websites,” Tilbury said. “Similarly, it is more difficult to enforce any security policies the company may have in place, which may prevent the usage of USB drives and/or the unwitting installation of spyware.”

Fraudsters are already using the coronavirus crisis to spread misinformation in order to trick consumers into handing over money

Already, reports indicate that cybercriminals have spotted an opportunity. Just as with other major news events, fraudsters are using the coronavirus crisis to spread misinformation in order to trick consumers into handing over money. The Federal Trade Commission recorded 7,800 coronavirus-related complaints between the start of the year and March 31, with many related to texting scams, supposed refunds and other attempts to impersonate legitimate businesses. Any rise in social anxiety, such as that seen during the spread of coronavirus, provides a fruitful environment for cybercriminals to launch ransomware campaigns, phishing attacks and other fraud attempts.

Vigilance is always key to preventing cyberattacks, but businesses should provide additional security support to individuals now that corporate data is also at risk. Sharing the company security policy with all home workers is one way to put cyberdefence at the forefront of employees’ minds. Organisations with dedicated IT security teams should also be running threat-hunting exercises regularly to keep track of any intruders. A reminder of good security practices also wouldn’t go amiss. Informing staff of the risks of opening attachments from unsolicited emails, connecting to public Wi-Fi networks and using easy-to-guess passwords is always a good idea.

Stay in touch
During this mass remote working experiment, businesses should remember that the technology being employed doesn’t only help staff to get their work done; it can also improve their wellbeing. A 2015 study by Stanford University found that employees at a Chinese call centre displayed higher levels of productivity when working from home, but that many also complained of loneliness. When working remotely, technology needs to address social issues where it can.

“Team communication is critical when you are all working remotely,” explained Kevin Green, former CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation and HR Director of Royal Mail. “Recognise you should spend more time talking, listening and engaging with your people – it’s important they feel connected. Firstly, if possible, use video rather than conference calls, but even they are preferable to the dreaded email with all its potential for misunderstanding. The opportunity to use video is a godsend in these circumstances and is so much easier today with the tools available, such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts.”

Although many workers hate their commute and might resent the stifling environment of the modern office, they may also enjoy the structure of a nine-to-five job and being able to engage in the odd bit of chit-chat with their colleagues. Given the choice, plenty of employees would still choose to work from the office – some of the time, at least.

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented and unexpected situation, but one that may very well lead to permanent change. Businesses should use this time to analyse the benefits and drawbacks of mass home working and make sure they have the right tools in place to facilitate what could be a very different world of work in the future.