A New Hybrid Normal

The digital Covid landscape

On 19 July, the UK may end its COVID-19 lockdown after several months of gradually loosening restrictions. Originally planned to lift on 21 June, the existing partial lockdown has been extended by four weeks, demonstrating the unpredictability of the pandemic and its consequence on business.

The effect of these lockdowns has been massive on business. To reduce the transmissibility of the disease, office workers have been urged to work from home wherever possible -- and both business and staff have responded positively.

We live in an age of unprecedented connectivity. Companies have used this connectivity to accommodate the concept of remote working – sometimes called telecommuting or work from home (WFH). At the height of the lockdown, 60% of the UK’s workforce was working from home[i], proving that we may not need to be as strict about traditional office spaces as we assumed. According to a report by Microsoft[ii] and YouGov, almost 90% of UK businesses have at least partially embraced the practice of allowing their employees to work from home.

But with the prospect of lockdowns finally ending, is this just a temporary stopgap ‒ will things go back to exactly how they were? That is unlikely – the world may have been forced into remote working by the pandemic, but now that both workers and companies have seen new benefits and possibilities, it may not be possible to go back to the way things were. ‘Normal working’ is going to mean something new that will likely encompass both home and office: "a new hybrid normal."

A fresh perspective, new possibilities

The pandemic is one of the worst global events we have seen in decades, but it has provided the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking. A greater level of flexibility and accommodation to working arrangements is showing surprising benefits to employers and staff. Many employees have reported feeling happier and more motivated being allowed to work from home, achieving a better work-life balance [source: Microsoft survey], and in some cases productivity has increased rather than decreased because of this.

Business is seeing benefits beyond simply better motivated and more productive workers. Research has shown that employees allowed to work from home are more likely to remain loyal to the company[iii]. If a business embraces the idea of hiring new workers on a remote or hybrid basis, this gives greater access to talent from a wide geographical area, rather than being limited to an easy commute distance. In sectors with a pronounced skills gap, such as cybersecurity and IT, this could be a godsend. Even the day-to-day overheads of running the business can decrease with flexible working ‒ if the office space doesn’t outright downsize, utilities and maintenance costs will reduce due to decreased usage.

Even the global environment benefits from allowing people to work from home wherever possible. Over the last year, The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions saw the biggest reduction since records began in 1990. With half the workforce working from home, UK workers are estimated to have saved a collective £2 billion per week [source: Finder.com stats]. With more workers able to save on commuting costs, a little more disposable income can help produce a trickle-up effect and help to revitalise a struggling economy.

In today’s world, the essential IT infrastructure for hybrid working is already mostly in place. All a worker needs is a device to work with and an internet connection – something that at least 97% of UK households already have. Many business-oriented applications like Microsoft 365 have remote collaboration and file-sharing built in. However, this ease of access to remote working can be a dangerous double-edged sword.

New paradigm, new problems

When an organisation’s staff are working from home, connectivity becomes a foundational necessity for the business. A ‘disaster’ before COVID could be a fire, flood, massive security breach or ransomware. For the remote workplace, we need to add a simple internet outage or loss of service -- and the reliability of internet connectivity, broadband availability and ISP support will vary greatly between different households.

Any enterprise needs to consider how much of an investment remote-working infrastructure will be. While the technical minimum is already in place for many organisations, this will not be enough on its own to keep the business secure and productive. Compatibility and employee relationship management need to be carefully considered ‒ if one employee prefers to work on their MacBook using Pages, but another can only handle documents made in Word, this is going to create frustration and time lost as they convert formats back and forth.

Cybersecurity is even more critical to the robustness of the remote working infrastructure. Flexible working creates a much wider attack surface than a traditional office. As well as the business’ central network, each worker has his or her own array of devices connected to their home network.

Workers need to connect to their business from home, so any security breach works both ways. A compromised home network gives attackers a potential ‘in’ to attack the business directly. If the office network is breached, hackers could move on to every single employee, making this an excellent way to spread ransomware or harvest personal data.

Flexible and hybrid working can bring great benefits, but they also bring difficult questions and obstacles. Implementing an effective remote-working infrastructure is a minefield of IT, cybersecurity, and logistics. How much oversight does the business need over its employees while they work from home? How are remote meetings going to be arranged and conducted? How can everyone stay accountable to each other to make sure the enterprise runs smoothly? Businesses need to consider all these questions, and no two organisations will be exactly alike. How can companies maximise the rewards of hybrid working without compromising integrity and security?

What we need going forward

Traditional office spaces are not going away, but neither is the reality of COVID and a post-lockdown world. Organisations that try to ignore the changes of the last two years will be left behind. With all the benefits that a new normal of hybrid working can bring, there are only two obstacles to fulfilling this new potential and reaping the benefits: securing the new decentralised infrastructure and enabling employees. Sixty-two percent of UK remote workers want better technology to be provided by their employers [source: Finder.com stats].

No two enterprises are alike, therefore there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Businesses must account for their own specialisation, ethos, the skills and needs of their employees and a changing marketplace. Embracing hybrid working without careful planning could be disastrous. At the same time, making the necessary evaluations, creating a plan and implementing everything the business needs to fully enable flexible working will take a lot of time and resources. Executives need to coordinate with their various departments and teams and involve the entire organisational hierarchy to map out the business’ needs. With the prospect of lockdowns ending soon, time is a precious resource that companies cannot afford to waste.

The problem is not simple. Getting visibility into a distributed remote workforce without being too intrusive to fall foul of privacy regulations yet still knowing where sensitive data is held; controlling remote collaboration so only the right people see specific data or documents; choosing the right video conferencing solution and operating it securely; and ensuring secure communications between central servers and remote endpoints, are just the start of new concerns.

Remote staff may be using their home computers for work – but home computers are notoriously insecure. How do you ensure corporate level security on remote computers that you do not own? And the inevitable accompanying increase in cloud services brings a host of problems – the least of which could be the return of unfettered and unvetted Shadow IT.

Rather than attempt to navigate this minefield from limited in-house resources with the danger of leaving one or more weaknesses, it is better to call on the services of an experienced managed service provider – such as OGL Computer[iv].

The best path forward is to engage a specialist organisation to non-intrusively evaluate the business and create a plan of action going forward. This may be easier said than done; extensive industry expertise is needed as well as keen insight into a business’ needs ‒ and the flexibility to create a bespoke solution that will meet the needs of the enterprise post-lockdown. OGL Computer’s IT Solutions[v] are unique in being able to meet all these requirements, making sure businesses have all they need to meet the New Hybrid Normal. More than just the cyber essentials, any business adopting hybrid working needs a full IT infrastructure to provide managers and employees with ongoing IT support for the rocky transition into a post-lockdown world.

References

[i] https://www.finder.com/uk/working-from-home-statistics

[ii] https://query.prod.cms.rt.microsoft.com/cms/api/am/binary/RWxzz5

[iii] https://resources.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2019

[iv] https://www.ogl.co.uk/

[v] https://www.ogl.co.uk/it-solutions