Reimagining the Digital Workplace for the New Normal

Photo credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks

COVID-19 has changed organizations. Nearly two-thirds of IT and business leaders said so in a research paper by Global Data, commissioned by Telstra.

Titled “Business Continuity, Flexible Working and Adaptive Infrastructure: Five Actions for When the Economy Reopens Following COVID-19,” the paper (see link below) showed what happens when the line between the workplace and home becomes blurred.

This has major implications as companies reopen and welcome their remote workforce to the on-premises offices.

“Essentially, it showed that businesses are recalibrating their digital transformation strategy,” said Dustin Kehoe, APAC head of research at GlobalData, the paper’s author at a recent webinar. As part of this recalibration, the webinar discussed how companies are reimagining the post-pandemic workplace.

This recalibration needs to be done fast. As employees head back to their workplaces, they will come with different expectations and needs. Regulators and governments will also add additional restrictions that will shape the post-pandemic workplace.

In the study, 93% of businesses stated they have changed their IT priorities because of COVID-19. Many are updating their overall IT strategy, with the top priority for respondents across all regions being to set up policies for their remote workforce.

“Some workers will need to be prepared to work at home while others need to work in different teams, like Team A and Team B, at the workplace,” said Ronald Ng, head of solution architecture for North Asia and Global Wholesale at Telstra, who led the discussion.

For companies, employee experience will be as important as customer experience. Before the pandemic, the former often took a back seat. “But this has changed, as companies saw a need to keep employees collaborating during the WFH period,” said Nelson Chu, head of systems engineering at Cisco at the webinar.

So, what do all these mean to companies looking to operate in a post-pandemic world? The webinar discussion highlighted some interesting insights.

Accelerating IT Strategy from BCP needs

These measures will impact business continuity planning (BCP), which the study worryingly noted that nearly one in 10 enterprises did not have before the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those who had one, 29% were not prepared for a global event like the pandemic.

The pandemic “showed that organizations need to widen the scope of their BCP,” said Kehoe. He advised companies to understand the hidden relationships between different data sets, identify gaps and create a risk score.

Definitions and coverage have to change. For example, in a post-COVID-19 world, your branch office might be your home office.

The study showed that some companies are already looking to reduce their HQ and physical branch office footprints. “And somehow we have to do this and have a distributed workforce that works at home, at the office and still be ‘agile’ as an organization,” said Kehoe. 

One area that BCP did not address during the pandemic was the emergence of shadow IT. “People simply wanted to get things done. Which means they may use poorly configured systems and even cut corners. It also made it more difficult for IT to manage the work environment,” said Chu.

Ng saw this driving companies faster to a multi-cloud environment, while focusing on core networking offerings like secure access. A well-architected network and multi-cloud strategy allows IT organizations to standardize the security posture across the world.

“They are also looking at how they can get their partners and SaaS vendors to use secure landing zones to manage security better,” he added.

The network becomes a business enabler

The increasing focus on remote collaboration, workforce agility and multi-cloud has put the spotlight on networks.

In fact, Kehoe noted that the 100% of Hong Kong companies that said videos would replace face-to-face meetings will not only shift work practices but have major implications on network strategies.

“Just think about it from a cultural point of view. We are going to be recruiting your new members completely online; you may be doing performance evaluations and promotions over video. You may also be working with people you will never meet in the flesh or have had coffee with,” he said.

To enable this, networks infrastructure need not only have the capacity but have the flexibility to adapt to different demands.

Ng and Kehoe talked about the drive toward SD-WAN as helping to address these needs. Kehoe pointed out two different approaches — one for overlay and the other for underlay. The former offers a quick way “to orchestrate and traffic engineer” to deliver capabilities to more workers.

“You have a point solution to help you. You can set up remote offices really quickly through a centralized controller. Configuration and management of networks is going to be easier. You are going to have Layer 4 and Layer 7 capabilities for the software-defined branch.”

But the latter — the underlay — is where network automation becomes a challenge. “You will need to consider deterministic routing, and which means private peering agreements are going to be more important than before to deliver a better end to end service, including third-party networks,” added Kehoe. In the not too distant future, we may even be looking at many network-related AI/ML use cases to improve network availability, agility and/or performance.

Robust networks become mandatory

When employees were asked to work from home, security became an employee issue. “Hackers like to hit us when we are the weakest. So, we are seeing a peak in security attacks,” said Kehoe.

The problem is that company security is not what employees think about when they get home. Behaviors “like shopping at websites or surfing unsecured websites” can be counter to what they practice at the office, said Chu.

“When people are working from home, there is a security debt. In the office you have all the security [policies and solutions]. When you go home, your home broadband setup will not have the same level of setup,” he explained.

This realization has sped up companies’ deployment of new networking security measures and embedding them into all work processes. It has also shifted interest toward SD-WAN where companies have better control of the networks they are using, said Ng.

Make people part of the defense

Human behavior can get in the way, like not using the VPN when surfing the Internet at the start of a work day. Employees are also often sharing the same devices for personal and work use. “So, they tend to purposely bypass the VPN — which means their notebooks are exposed to the Internet,” Chu added.

For Ng, security was the biggest concern when companies were scrambling to get their workforce remotely collaborating. He saw this as the first phase “which was to get employees working remotely by addressing various security issues.”

As companies shift to return-to-work, Ng sees many taking a more proactive approach on how to improve security and looking at what they need to fix. However, the third phase, which will come after companies operate in a post-COVID-19 world, is embedding security in the ways of working.

Chu advised companies to make their employees custodians of  data security instead of viewing them as their weak links. “This allows them to consider security regardless of the environment they are working in.”

Vendors recalibrating their solutions, services

Companies like Cisco and Telstra are helping businesses to address the above challenges. They are adding more artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities to ease the network management workload.

Correctly done, it can also be the foundation for roles-based ICT where the network environment can be tailored to fit different work personas.

These are not new concepts. But after COVID-19, they have become more urgent. Companies no longer have the luxury to wait or have one-year trials. And when the survey showed that eight out of 10 businesses had a percentage of employees who “cannot work due to ICT challenges”, it became a matter of business survival.

To learn about other insights and go deeper into the study figures and trends highlighted above, please download the whitepaper titled “Business Continuity, Flexible Working and Adaptive Infrastructure: Five Actions for When the Economy Reopens Following COVID-19" here.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/metamorworks