How to collaborate successfully without physical proximity

Technology, Culture Shifts Will Ease Transition to Next Phase of Remote Work

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Working from home and remote working as a concept and a practice has been around for a while in certain industries with several enterprises adopting it in varying degrees. The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled nearly every business to embrace the remote working model and IT organizations had to move quickly to enable this capability for their employees, partners, and clients. This sudden pivot toward solutions that support remote working has resulted in a kaleidoscope of user experiences, performance, and security risks to organizations.

The current patchy adoption of a dispersed and distant workforce will eventually lead to a new normal in the post-pandemic times, where remote working and working from home will become ubiquitous. The driving factors will range from an increased awareness of the benefits of working from anywhere to the tectonic shifts that are prevailing across several industry segments – from increased reliance on human-centric e-commerce channels in retail to growing adoption of virtual healthcare and teleconsultation and many such similar new business models.  

This trend was very clearly visible in a recent CXO survey we did. Workplace transformation has emerged as a key CEO priority with 75% of respondents confirming increased employee productivity as an outcome of driving workplace transformation. 70% of respondents believed that security considerations were among the top implementation challenges and 55% stated that choosing the right solutions and partners is key to driving success in the workplace transformation journey.

Rethinking Working Together, Apart

Addressing these trends requires organizations to rethink the whole concept of seamlessly working together across the traditional boundaries of an enterprise while being physically isolated. From a CIO’s standpoint, this translates into having a robust approach to building remote working as a ubiquitous capability that can be scaled in an accelerated manner while balancing long term costs and security aspects. 

Achieving this elasticity in the enterprise, during a crisis or otherwise, requires changes in all the layers of the stack. You can envisage an enterprise to support two distinct stacks- one that is related to “running workloads” such as hosting workloads, compute, storage, apps, infrastructure, security, etc. and the other is about “interacting with the workloads” that includes BYOD, VDI, endpoint security, remote workspaces, etc. Unless all the layers of the stack are inherently elastic, the overall user experience will continue to be manual and contrite. Most organizations will instinctively focus on security, but that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Five Key Pillars For Remote Work Success

While industry-specific nuances and solutions need to be overlaid for this capability to deliver maximum value to a business, we can narrow down the core technical construct to five key pillars that are common to solutions across all industries. These pillars include the digital workplace and user experience, application publishing or access, compute, network and security.

For enterprises who have already retrofitted this capability into their current environment, the next step would be to pivot to an architecture that is based on a Zero Trust model, so that organizations don’t have to worry about devices and networks being traversed as users access different applications. Policy-driven access to users in a just-in-time fashion will maximize security. This will also involve enabling their existing applications and/or reimagining how next-gen applications can be built ground up to work seamlessly within the constraints and opportunities that these evolving technology building blocks present. 

Digital Workplace and User Experience – Organizations are grappling with questions such as how to allow non-company owned devices; how to provide fail-safe management of devices that are now outside the defined perimeters of the organization; how to make available team data for effective collaboration; and how do you effectively measure and mitigate user experience across various form factors that are not all owned by the organization.

In many cases, a re-definition of policies and practices related to granting secured access to non-company owned devices coupled with tweaks to the device life cycle management processes (strengthened with technical interventions) is required to ensure data protection, compliance, and confidentiality. Existing support mechanisms and OEM contracts may need to be modified to provide newer support touchpoints like city-wide kiosks where users can reach out for help. New ways to capture user sentiments and consciously embedding experience metrics gathering can help measure and improve user experiences.

Application access – Not every application that one accesses from the office is natively tolerant to being accessed from elsewhere on lower bandwidth connections that are susceptible to sporadic network latency. While there are several proven technologies to cater to enterprise application access, not every application is ready to be published with the necessary controls. Some may need wrappers and security API extensions to make them compatible. Specialized systems present their unique challenges to be made remotely accessible and may require custom solutions like remoting mechanisms and IoT extensions. Organizations may have to relook at citizen-developed applications to see if they could be modernized to low code/ no code architecture to allow remote access. This may also trigger the re-imagination of next-generation applications that are natively suited for the Zero Trust architecture.

Compute – The already increasing adoption of public cloud for computing and data storage by enterprises is expected to accelerate in the post-COVID-19 pandemic world. Public cloud offers an attractive platform for hosting and modernizing the application publishing mechanisms for the work-from-anywhere proposition. Once we get over the foundational challenges of making the existing applications compatible, it is important to achieve real-time operational visibility across on-premise and public cloud deployments for quick troubleshooting and establishing a continuous cost optimization mechanism. The newer Platform as a Service (PaaS) capabilities offered by public cloud providers deliver an arsenal of capabilities that are extremely suited to building out the next generation of highly-available-work-from-anywhere applications. 

Network – Traditional internal networks were built and optimized to connect users to applications primarily residing in data centers. However, those architectures have to be revisited as users are increasingly mobile and accessing applications from outside the organization perimeters. Even Internet traffic was getting backhauled through the corporate WAN for security reasons. Now, it no longer makes sense to continue to backhaul all traffic on expensive MPLS networks through data centers and enterprise gateways, but allow it to go directly on whichever medium is locally available for the devices. This calls for a certain extension of network transformation to accommodate these changes. Scalability issues need to be managed with Quality of Service deployments. However once the organizations adopt the Zero Trust architecture, the specific network media become almost immaterial. Everything has to be policy-driven to give appropriate access to users on any device form factor in a seamless, just-in-time fashion. 

Security – A wide variety of security challenges need to be solved for enabling working from anywhere. These include:

  • Solving capacity and license limitations
  • Addressing user awareness issues related to secure VPN access and authentication challenges across trusted and out-of-band network
  • Ensuring hardening of external collaboration tools
  • Providing secure access via personal devices
  • Disallowing open backdoor access

It also involves the uniform distribution of security updates across non-corporate owned assets as well as preventing phishing attacks via these systems. A variety of security tools and processes are required to establish the security and compliance baseline without compromising user experience. The key is to reimagine the security architecture and posture to enable fast, secure and reliable access to data no matter where it lives. 

Today, it is possible to provide seamless work-from-anywhere capabilities with enhanced user experience, better security and manage it on a global scale. Relevant technology interventions coupled with the appropriate cultural interventions could help organizations to not only adapt to the new normal but also derive significant long term business benefits including IT simplification and significant cost reductions across IT spend, real estate usage and business travel. 

Not sure this is the right word: contrite: [adjective] feeling or showing sorrow and remorse for a sin or shortcoming.

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