Working from home (WFH) used to be a luxury for the relatively affluent white-collared workers before coronavirus. This is not the case anymore. The pandemic is forcing more people to work from home in an unprecedented way. A global survey conducted by Gartner, Inc. found that “88% of the business organizations all over the world mandated or encouraged all their employees to work from home as the virus started to spread at exponential rates. Furthermore, about 97% of the organizations immediately canceled all work-related travel”. Amazingly, as per Buffer, “99% of remote workers would like to continue doing so”. By now, as we are going through the biggest pandemic mankind has ever witnessed, it is evident that work from home and work from anywhere is going to continue. Although the “work from anywhere” philosophy is not new for many industries, it has gained a much wider adoption due to the pandemic-led emergency.
Although there are many challenges and roadblocks associated with mass migration to a completely remote working model, we can work from home or from anywhere by following some simple rules. Here are some best practices that need to be followed while adopting a complete remote model.
The basic work-from-anywhere best practices
We certainly do not need to know rocket science to be able to work from home or work from anywhere. Just by following some best practices, we can work from anywhere in a safe and efficient manner. Some of these best practices include avoiding unauthorized software and hardware, using office emails, securing home networks, using VPN clients to access work data, regularly updating security tools, avoiding potentially harmful websites and apps, collaborating securely, and using different networks for IoT devices, etc. Before, we move forward, we must keep in mind that although these are just the basic minimums required to be able to work from home, these are not comprehensive enterprise-level solutions. Let’s discuss these best practices in a bit more detail.
Avoiding unauthorized software and hardware – We are referring to shadow IT tools here. Shadow IT refers to hardware or software that is used by employees without the permission or authorization of the company’s IT department. Such devices, more often, do not have an enterprise-level antivirus or firewall. This increases the risk of malware attacks.
Strictly using office emails and not just personal emails – Just like shadow IT solutions for various hardware and software, unauthorized email accounts must strictly be avoided. Phishing emails carrying malicious links or attachments are the oldest, most common yet the most effective trick used by attackers to spread malware. In fact, most ransomware attacks have been spread through such phishing emails. There are no ways to back up, archive, and secure such emails by the internal IT department. Sharing information through these email accounts would lead to critical data being stored on email servers over which a company’s IT has no control. Also, unlike personal emails, policy-based work emails are relatively very less likely to be targeted with phishing emails.
Securing home networks – As every online communication takes place over the home WiFi network in a work from home environment, it is extremely important to secure it. The first and simplest way to secure the environment is to use a complex password that is extremely hard to crack. Users should also use the more secure WPA 2 encryption standard as it uses AES (advanced encryption standard) and generates a new encryption key frequently to protect against breach attempts. WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2 are two of the security measures that can be used to protect wireless networks. WPA2, while cannot be considered the perfect solution, is currently the relatively more secure choice. Today, most sophisticated routers have in-built firewalls that can protect against unauthorized access to a wireless home network.
Regularly updating security tools – Many employees use personal PCs to get from home. Many times, PCs (desktops and laptops) are provided by the office. However, smartphones are also actively used for work. It is extremely important to regularly update operating systems, anti-virus, VPN, and other apps that are being used for work. These updates often carry new security patches to address vulnerabilities in apps or OS that may have been recently reported. Most of these updates are available for free.
Avoiding potentially harmful apps and websites – Employees often get distracted while working from home. They get attracted to content that drives users to potentially harmful websites. This should be strictly avoided. Specifically, the websites that do not have basic security protocols such as HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) in place should never be accessed. Ultimately, these small security protocols protect users.
Collaborating in a secure manner – Online ways of team collaboration has become indispensable. Most companies allow the use of specific cloud-based collaboration tools where individuals can plan, strategize, manage projects, and share documents with team members. There are hundreds of collaboration and communication tools. However, using secure collaboration tools is critical. Hence, employees should use only those collaboration and communications platforms that have been authorized by the organization’s IT team. Reputed collaboration tools such as Office 365 or Cisco WebX offer enterprise-grade security and even encrypt data. There are so many more tools available in this segment. Unfortunately, just because people are used to certain tools, many users have been actively using unauthorized apps such as WhatsApp or personal emails that can’t be managed or controlled by the enterprise IT.
Creating separate networks for IoT devices – Although this one is not so common to have a completely IoT-enabled house. Still, if a house has multiple IoT (internet of Things) devices, it is safer to keep them on separate networks from the one used for office work. IoT devices are relatively new and they are mostly not regularly patched for vulnerabilities. Vendors avoid securing them stringently because they fear that securing devices may ruin the performance of the device and eventually ruin the user experience as well. However, even if a smart camera, for example, gets hacked, the entire home network and the devices connected to it can get very easily compromised.
The above-mentioned best practices are the least one can think of to just start working from anywhere. However, we must know that these are just “basic” requirements. There are many challenges corporate face – particularly with security and manageability of the network traffic – when mass migration to the remote work model takes place. Here are some examples of the challenges that are common.
Merely a few weeks after governments enforced social distancing, networks started to feel an unprecedented strain. The usage of tools such as video conferencing suddenly shot up by over three times compared to the normal rate. At the same time, campus traffic went down drastically. Today, we are in the sixth month of the pandemic. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has forced employees to work remotely and use bandwidth-intensive applications from their homes. Networks are being impacted in new and unprecedented ways – both in terms of volume and security. Suddenly, instead of having 10 percent of the workforce using remote access VPNs, 100 percent of the organizations’ users started connecting to applications remotely. Unfortunately, solutions like VPNs were never built for mass usage and they often can’t scale. Let’s discuss some more challenges that require more robust solutions for a sustainable “work from anywhere” model.
Challenges of the Work-from-anywhere model
- When employees are forced to work outside the normal perimeter, managing device sprawl, patch management, and securing millions of endpoints, becomes a challenge.
- Major government bodies, legal, insurance, banking, and healthcare are the most common examples of the industries that are still not completely prepared for such a massive influx of remote workers. These regulated industries, particularly the ones that use proprietary software, are finding it more challenging to embrace a completely remote working model. Many organizations and schools have proprietary, on-premise software. It will require special configurations in order to make them accessible remotely. Major changes would be required to make them cloud-ready even if they plan to migrate these apps to the cloud. But this is a very time-consuming exercise.
- Fortunately, many organizations have already migrated their business processes and key applications to the cloud. For them, scalability, and to great extent security, is not a challenge. but if the systems of an organization are all on an internal network the challenge is providing users a secure way to access those systems via a VPN. This can become very expensive.
- MPLS lines cannot be used because MPLS is a point to point connection and it can’t be scaled to every location where end users are.
- Security is a big concern of a work from anywhere model which cannot be addressed by simple end-point antivirus solutions and firewalls. There is an overwhelming amount of confidential data always flowing across each network. And in this new distributed environment, enterprises would need to take extra precautions to ensure data is heavily protected. This is important from a compliance point of view as well.
Enterprise-level solutions for work-from-anywhere model
The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting need to work from home is the epitome of the real-life use case for cloud-based for software-defined networks. As users move off the office network to remote locations, SD-WAN adoption is taking off fast. This is because SD-WANs provides a virtual WAN architecture. This lets organizations use any combination of transport services, such as MPLS, LTE, and broadband internet, to securely connect users to applications – whether the applications are on-premise or on the cloud. Ease of management, security and visibility are the key requirements to ensure business continuity for every enterprise, and by doubling down on good SD-WAN solutions, organizations can meet all these three requirements very effectively.
By encrypting traffic and segmenting the network, IT teams are increasingly relying on SD-WAN to help improve network security and prioritize traffic. Most SD-WAN incorporates security solutions such as firewalls, anti-spam, and web filtering. These solutions help in preventing remote employees from accidentally leaking data or causing network security disruptions. In today’s environment where MPLS is no longer feasible, and cloud usage has literally exploded, SD-WAN is a critical solution in improving a company’s overall security posture.
But it would be important to note that even the so-called secure SD-WANs offer limited security features that may not be the best solution at a time when so many employees are working from home or just from anywhere. The companies that are offering solutions based on SASE architecture would be probably the best solutions for companies to go completely remotely and allow employees to work from anywhere.