Workforce Connected

Workforce Connected

Businesses and their employees are fortifying their digital infrastructures so workers can do their jobs anywhere.

During the pandemic, that age-old ice-breaker—“So, where are you working?”—developed a new meaning. For most people with office jobs, the answer has been “at home.”

Now, thanks to the availability of vaccines, there’s a new question that workers and employers have to consider: “Where will you be working?”

That’s not easy to answer yet. Some companies are weighing whether to reopen their offices or keep most or all of their staff at home. In a move toward worker flexibility, there’s the hybrid model, in which workers might be based in their employer’s offices from one to four days a week. In some cases, employees will work from home most days and come into the office when there’s a big meeting, a crucial presentation, or some other reason for a team to gather in person.

The “new normal” will vary from business to business and from employee to employee. So companies will need to adapt and make sure their workers have the tools and support to do their best work—whether they are fully back in the office, remaining at a remote location, or alternating between the office and home.

What’s more, companies face the increasing challenges of cybersecurity, which have grown more complex with a workforce scattered across locations.

Is the WiFi working?

Whatever the new normal becomes, employees will need to be actively involved in making it work. For those who continue to work from home, the home network is the foundation of their success, notes Rodney George, home expert with Richfield-based Best Buy.

George has conducted many home office consultations during the pandemic, and the employee home network is the first thing he looks at. Working from home requires a robust network—it has to handle Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams meetings, as well as access the company’s virtual private network (VPN), along with all the tools associated with it. The network also has to accommodate other family members’ usage, and for some homeowners with “smart home” connectivity, television, appliances, lights, and more.

home office computer

“Don’t make it the employees’ obligation to have high-quality communication tools. The company should provide those to them.”

—Matt Kanaskie, vice president, Marco Technologies 

Some remote workers have found their connection can suddenly drop in the middle of a meeting or an online document exchange. In this case, George recommends hardwiring the router into their computer. If the router doesn’t have this capability, purchasing a switch with internet ports can allow hardwiring. George notes that many companies are requiring hardwiring to avoid the cybersecurity problems that working through a wireless connection can introduce.

If the home office isn’t located near the router, that makes it more challenging, George says, though a long cable can help make the connection.

Some remote home workers have no choice but to rely on WiFi—and, too often, to deal with connection drops. “A lot of times, we’ve seen where we’ve done troubleshooting at homes and everything seems to be fine,” George notes. “Then the homeowner calls his service provider, who comes out and discovers that the line coming from the road to the home needs to be replaced.”

The internet service provider (ISP) isn’t always the source of the problem, though. More internet speed can help frequent connectivity problems, but before you spend more, George says consider another issue: “What you need is the speed you’ve paid for to reach your entire house,” he says. Your modem-router combination may not be powerful enough to cover your house’s entire square footage.

“Sometimes the routers are a little older and they can’t handle multiple lanes of traffic,” George says. “If it’s an older dual-band router and someone else in the house is playing video games, streaming Netflix, or doing something else online that requires a lot of bandwidth, it could take away some of the bandwidth from your home office and cause you to drop.” He recommends trying a more powerful tri-band router. Another option for larger houses is a mesh system—a series of satellite nodes that allow a single network to cover the entire house.

Good connectivity also needs to extend from the home to the employer’s network. Reliable, scalable internet access “was one of the biggest challenges that some organizations faced when the pandemic first hit,” notes Kalyn Hove, vice president of Comcast Business at the St. Paul regional headquarters of Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp. With many ISPs, she says, boosting scalability by adding bandwidth often isn’t possible. That can hamper a company’s ability to manage its IT service both at the office and among work-from-home (WFH) employees.

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For businesses, beefing up their own bandwidth and access has been essential during the pandemic period. Hove notes that most large companies require redundancy—a backup system in case there’s a problem with their network. Larger organizations typically have a “second path” installed going into the central office or a data center.

Small businesses might not have the financial or technical capabilities to build that kind of backup. And given how extensively most of these businesses depend on their networks—taking credit card information for an online product or restaurant order, for instance—lacking a fail-safe system can put operations at risk. They can use providers of backup systems, however. Comcast, for example, offers Connection Pro, a 4G LTE internet backup system that businesses can seamlessly shift to should their network connection suddenly go down.

Beyond customer-facing elements of digital connectivity, there also are the internal connections to consider. Needless to say, it’s harder to exchange ideas directly with colleagues when you can’t talk face-to-face individually or in a group meeting in a conference room.

Right tools for the job That’s where collaboration tools come in. There are many options, including platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. With all the choices available, Hove says that businesses need to identify a primary collaboration tool and leverage that one effectively. The goal, she adds, “is to create a virtual office environment.” Having a single collaboration platform makes it easier to get input from colleagues and share documents with them—and thus be more productive than if they were each using different tools.

Matt Kanaskie, vice president of IT sales for St. Cloud-based business tech provider Marco Technologies, advises employers to be sure their people have high-performing laptops, which provide more flexibility for hybrid work than desktop systems do. Employers also should ensure that those laptops have HD cameras. “It’s still remarkable to me how many meetings I have had in the past month where there wasn’t video participation from our clients,” Kanaskie says. Often, the clients’ devices don’t have cameras or high-quality microphones and speakers.

“Don’t make it the employees’ obligation to have high-quality communication tools,” he adds. “The company should provide those to them.”

As use of digital tools rose during the pandemic to help businesses support and manage remote workers, the number of cybercrime incidents also multiplied. “What we’re finding in this new environment is that cybercriminals are having a lot more fun than ever,” Comcast’s Hove says. A depressingly large set of statistics backs her up. For instance, research from New York City-based cybersecurity firm Deep Instinct showed that in 2020, malware attacks increased 358 percent and ransomware incidents skyrocketed by 435 percent over 2019.

Why the huge jump? There are several reasons, but one Hove cites in particular: Employees are connecting with their companies and colleagues via multiple devices in new ways. “This has opened up some real risks to businesses,” Hove says. Her advice to companies: “Be sure that you’re closely investing in monitoring and security measures.”

Shutting out cyberthieves

In a hybrid work world, cybersecurity usually begins at home. Employees working remotely are often more casual about online security than employers would like. At home, “you’re in your safe place,” says Bill Stineman. He’s a Minneapolis-based Midwest executive for cloud and transformation at business technology consultancy Avanade, a Seattle-based joint venture of Accenture and Microsoft. “You’re going to let your guard down a little bit more,” he says.

So what can employers do to ingrain a sense of vigilance among employees? First, companies should put a strong focus on training, Stineman says. They should encourage remote workers “to make these secure practices a part of their lives,” which includes not using the same password for multiple applications and making those passwords harder for hackers to figure out.

Those practices make it “very easy for companies to reinforce those habits in the workplace,” he adds. Teaching employees how to identify phishing attacks is another example of increasing security awareness. After all, “it doesn’t matter how many locks you have on the door if the door is open,” Stineman says. “Making sure you secure the environment allows the technology to do its job.”

One way to keep the door locked is multi-factor authentication, which requires users to validate who they say they are when they try to access a network remotely. “Bad actors are doing impersonations left and right” to try to outwit corporate security systems, Kanaskie notes.

Employers can install a cloud access security broker (CASB), a tool that identifies any compromised credentials when employees—and others—try to access a company’s cloud applications. Businesses might also use IPS (intrusion protection service), IDS (intrusion defense service), or end-point detection and response (EDR) tools. They “watch for things that are trying to get through the gate,” to use Kanaskie’s metaphor. The service then alerts the business that “someone has opened the gate,” and asks the IT department or security operations center (SOC) whether that someone is “the Amazon delivery man or an intruder.”

Stineman also advises IT departments to determine “the appropriate level of friction, where you’re protecting the estate without paralyzing the ability to get work done.” One option is the “passwordless” capability on Microsoft’s Authenticator app. This function is designed to simplify employee access to the company’s network via two-factor authentication, but without requiring employees to enter a password every time they log in.

Many of these protection tools existed within the company’s confines before Covid-19. With end-users “out in the wild,” Kanaskie says, “you have to extend those monitoring and alerting systems to the end-user devices.” That means protecting employees working remotely and using their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In essence, Kanaskie says, “you’re extending your environment to a ‘building’ that hovers over them wherever they are.”

Flexibility helps retain talent

But how long will that virtual building need to remain in place? Even with vaccination levels rising and the economy continuing to open up, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future, particularly when it comes to where employees will work.

One thing for companies to consider: Just how productive are their people at home? Employees actually have been less productive during the pandemic, according to a recent paper by the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago. While they’ve been producing about the same amount of work as before, they’re spending more time doing it. “Total hours worked increased by roughly 30 percent,” the paper’s authors write. One reason for the decline in productivity: “Communication and coordination costs increased substantially,” as WFH workers spent more time setting up virtual meetings and other coordination activities.   

Still, some employees prefer working remotely, at least most of the time, and they are thriving. Avanade’s Stineman advises employers to “keep flexibility in mind.” Companies are asking themselves numerous questions about large capital investments such as office space, real estate, and IT. In many cases, businesses might need to diversify and “democratize” their approach to employee management.

“We’re going to have folks who are champing at the bit to be back in the office,” Stineman says. “For people who really enjoy being in the office every day, companies should embrace that. And for high-performers who like this new [remote or hybrid] lifestyle and want to make it permanent, how does a company embrace that? I think that’s going to be a big differentiator [for employers]—offering privacy, security, and effective platforms is going to be a big part of talent retention going forward.”