The new world of remote working
New Hampshire tech experts see rewards and risks
Yet another wave of New Hampshire businesses scrambled to set employees up to work remotely, after the governor issued a stay-at-home order and the closure of in-person activities for nonessential businesses beginning Friday evening, March 27.
Systems Engineering had already experienced doubled ticket volume among its clients in the two weeks before the governor’s announcement, as businesses preemptively moved employees to work remotely full time in the wake of the spread of Covid-19.
“A higher percentage of those demands were helping end users connect in ways they were prepared to do but hadn’t done frequently,” said Todd Molloy, director of sales and marketing at the Portland, Maine-based managed IT, security and cloud services firm that has an office in Manchester.
To accommodate the extraordinary demand, Systems Engineering reallocated staff that usually handle more technical challenges to assist with simple setups.
“User training was a real issue for some folks, because not everybody uses these technologies everyday to do their job,” said Molloy, whose staff trained clients on remote meetings and delivering content remotely.
While they certainly were not expecting a global pandemic, this is the type of situation managed IT firms have long been preparing New Hampshire businesses for.
“When we looked at Day One of starting to get calls from clients, panic-stricken as to what to do, the ones that already thought about business continuity plans and were already in that frame of mind are the ones that really ramped up and got functionality the quickest, if not immediately,” said Devi Momot, CEO of Twinstate Technologies, a New York-based managed IT firm that has an office in Concord.
Unprepared businesses and organizations quickly sought to set up individuals to access their virtual private network (VPN), purchased additional product licenses and, in some cases, companies bought laptops at the last minute.
“Every role needs to be evaluated to understand the impact of working remotely — how will it impact clients, how do we make sure we have communication internally,” said Ryan Barton, CEO of Mainstay Technologies, based in Belmont and Manchester. “There are three aspects: the first is technical, what tools and methods you need; the second would be security and making sure you’re not taking on enormous risk in this transition; and the third would be culture and how do you support people and have team bonding when people are in this situation with working from home where they may not be practicing good work-from-home routines.”
During this abrupt shift online — for those whose job functions lend themselves to work remotely — this is also a time of increased risk from hackers and phishing scams.
“We had conversations last night with a rather large insurance underwriter and an individual I work with at the FBI — they both are anticipating a big wave of cybertheft and breaches as a result of everybody just jumping on board and using a bunch of new tools to do important business,” said Momot with Twinstate.
Even if legitimate, employees need to be cautious when using “free” applications, she said.
“If you look at the privacy statements, it will make your stomach churn — what they’re claiming rights to, what you’re communicating, who you’re communicating with — all sorts of personal stuff. When you look at the requirements of the different states from a privacy compliant perspective, it’s not compliant with that.”
Businesses without security measures in place are also particularly susceptible at a time when people are anxious and adapting hastily to new work procedures, as they may be less on their guard when it comes to phishing scams.
The World Health Organization has already warned of phishing emails with links to fake landing pages.
“They’re actually taking legitimate links,” and redirecting to fake landing pages, said Alissa Momot, marketing coordinator at Twinstate. Especially before logging into a website, she recommends using “your mouse and hover over the link to make sure it’s pointing to where it says it’s bringing you.”
With more than 50% of legitimate websites expected to be plagued with malware, having a security system in place adds extra layers of protection. Twinstate’s Devi Momot said executives should consider that by implementing good security they avoid giving employees the option to make a bad decision.
“Right now, on a VPN to my business, if I choose to click on a link that’s suspicious, we have a system in place that sandboxes that in the cloud, executes the function and sends me an error message or it may be locked altogether if it’s a known bad IP,” said Devi Momot.
Security considerations extend beyond unfortunate malware incidents to concern the nature of business data when in a remote state.
“As people migrate to remote work, it’s important to recognize the risk profile is increasing for the organization because you’re having all of these digital assets leave the organization and behaviors are changing, and at the same time we’re seeing an increase in hackers and remote work,” said Barton of Mainstay. “Not all remote access tolls are secure, we want to look for multi-factor authentication,” often a text message with a code sent to a mobile device to confirm the user as he or she logs in.
But employees should not be using their personal devices to connect to the server.
”There’s a real risk to letting people use home computers for the remote access. You don’t know how infected those are,” said Barton.
On the other hand, a company device has layers of security in place as well as patches to close weak spots in the network.
“At Systems Engineering, we have a policy — there is zero customer data or personal data on your device. It lives on our corporate network or secure cloud delivery models,” said Molloy. “Your employees are downloading stuff and using unauthorized apps to do their jobs. Without a policy about having authorized technologies used, you have risk there.”
Despite the additional risk, “this is a great opportunity for some client businesses to reinvent how they do business,” said Devi Momot. “It’s a push to look outside the box and use new innovative concepts and tools, but go into it with our eyes wide open.”
Many vendors, including Microsoft, are offering free trials, providing businesses with a chance to test out their cloud services.
Momot reminded employers to set up protocol for where to archive information collected via any tool. “In many of the free tools, it’s tied to the individual with the free element … when companies are thinking about the organization of the tools, it’s not about the immediate impact of getting the job done, it’s about the bigger picture,” she said. “It’s especially critical for companies and organizations that have regulations about what they store, where they store it, when do they delete it and what proof do they have that they deleted it.”
And cloud-based services have better enabled employees to work from afar.
“By nature of their service delivery model, cloud-based SaaS [software as a service] tend to be more enabling for remote workforces,” said Molloy. It’s less about where the server lives. We’re really more enabled to define work as something you do, not a place you go to. Those cloud-based applications and connectivity and security lets you work where you need to work, not necessarily in a building somewhere that used to be the icon for work.”
“I think what we’re seeing now is customers that were more resistant to looking at cloud solutions are starting to see the benefit of them,” said Joe Tibbetts, general manager of GSC IT Solutions in Manchester. “Especially where you need to quickly pivot to a remote workforce environment and make sure things are accessible.”
He noted employees’ internet service can impact the usability experience, but largely found cloud-based applications to be a stronger security option as well.
“When things are premise-based, the only way you’re getting to data is connecting back to that site, a point-to-point or VPN, whereas if you’re already using a cloud-based service, they already put the right security, those things are already baked into those services,” said Tibbetts.
Working remotely for a lengthy amount of time will definitely have an impact on work culture. After all, once the applications have been set up, people will be more likely to utilize them.
“We certainly are seeing a tremendous embrace of remote work, including organizations that were historically resistant to it, and it’s probably here to stay — the flexibility people are going to have after this,” said Barton with Mainstay.
“I think business leaders will put less premium on in-person meetings,” forecasted Barton, who noted he’d recently had productive meetings with his employees via Microsoft Teams as well as introductions to new clients via video chat. “Normally it involves a lot of travel and food and a lot of time. Obviously, we value getting together for the relationships, but the needle will move toward remote more often.”
“I think its inherent this has forced companies to think differently, to adopt different policies and see how they work,” said Tibbetts of GSC IT. “While a high percentage of businesses will go back to what they’re doing, it’s going to open their eyes to a more flexible work option because — forget about the day-to-day benefit — adopting those things allows you to quickly pivot when you need to. If you already adopted a work-from-home policy, this wasn’t a big change to your day-to-day operations. This is so foreign to a lot of companies that were unwilling or didn’t want to entertain people working from home. Some of it is pure culture, if you will.”
Employers and managers may wonder if employees are working as productively at home as in the office.
There’s a balance every employee needs to find when working from home. Momot notes employees should not skip lunch, tied to their desk to prove they are accessible during work hours, nor should they go one and a half hours without a response.
Naturally, there are social and psychological challenges to working remotely every day.
Barton notes employees should remember to stick to their normal routine of showering and getting dressed out of PJs. “Turn on your web camera for meetings as much as possible, because it’s nice to see a face, otherwise we’re not seeing faces all day,” he says. “Watch the mental health. When you’re walking around the office, you can tell when someone’s having a bad day.”
Molloy, however, was hesitant toward embracing a fully remote culture. “I like to manage by walking around, and I think what we’re also going to realize: culturally, work is part of community that sustains a lot of things in your life and, from a professional perspective, there is great value of what we call in the office, collision of conscience — having conversations in a meeting and somebody lingers and you have a dynamic engagement that might not happen if you’re all remote and alone. This will highlight both elements of productive culture.”
By continuing to allow employees to work from home a few days a week, employers may be able to optimize employee productivity. A 2017 study by Stanford University of 16,000 workers at a Chinese travel agency found a few days working remotely boosted productivity as employees took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and took less time off.