Now that it's clear remote work is here to stay, what are the technology priorities for IT departments charged with keeping the enterprise workforce productive and secure?
In a December report, research firm Gartner said it expects 48 per cent of employees will work from home, even after the pandemic, compared with 30 per cent pre-pandemic. Forrester, too, expects the remote worker population to remain elevated.
"While there is no clear end point to the pandemic yet, the number of employees working remotely will begin to dwindle, eventually settling in at 300 per cent of pre-pandemic levels at the minimum," wrote Forrester principle analyst David Johnson, in a blog post about 2021 remote work and automation trends.
"With that many people working remotely long-term, companies will need to rethink what that experience is like — not just from a technology and environment perspective but from leadership, change management, and career-growth perspectives, as well."
That shift can put extra pressure on enterprise IT groups tasked with locking down remote-office connectivity and security.
"As the pandemic wears on, we are seeing organisations solidifying their plans for remote working, including adding more sophisticated hardware and software for work from home, with primary drivers including security and productivity," said Neil Anderson, senior director of network solutions at World Wide Technology, a technology and supply chain services provider.
"For IT, this means quickly assessing and deploying new cloud-based security models and building trust quickly in a solution. We're also seeing a lot of interest in experience monitoring and optimising software to put better analytics in place around what the home-office employee app performance is like and how to make it better."
While individuals have limited options to speed up their home-office connectivity, IT can step in to provide enterprise-grade services to high-value workers for whom every minute with clients, customers, and coworkers counts, wrote Jean-Luc Valente, Cisco vice president, product management, enterprise routing and SD-WAN, in a blog post about the future of home office connectivity.
"The high-value workforce needs superior connectivity that makes working at home just as fluid as being in the office with consistent connectivity and performance. What was once 'good enough' for occasional evening and weekend work-at-home stints is no longer adequate."
How IT can upgrade home-office set-ups
When tasked with upgrading workers' home offices, IT needs to look for a variety of features, Valente says. Those include:
- Centralised policy management and zero-touch provisioning to bring thousands of remote offices online quickly
- Monitoring of quality of service (QoS) and remotely troubleshooting connection reliability to enhance application experience from non-standardised home internet connections and Wi-Fi to cloud and SaaS resources
- Centralised, cloud-delivered, multi-layer security - including DNS URL-filtering, application aware firewall, intrusion protection system, and advanced malware protection - to protect sensitive traffic on its round trip from home offices to cloud or data centres and back
- Ability to automatically detect and define devices connecting to the home office network and apply segmentation policies to control access permissions and prevent infections from spreading from home offices and to corporate resources
One of the most accessible technologies that can offer these features is SD-WAN, which is available from a number of vendors including Cisco, VMware, Extreme, Juniper, Aruba and others.
Cisco offers a package called Remote Workforce Routing that offers zero-touch onboarding of all remote workers' wired and wireless devices and the company's wireless LTE Advanced PRO for backup connectivity. The bundle also features Cisco's SD-WAN Cloud OnRamp and Umbrella security support to let users access applications remotely and securely, Cisco says.
The package supports split tunneling that lets customers select specific, enterprise-bound traffic to be sent through a corporate VPN tunnel. The rest goes directly to the internet without going through the tunnel.
"A split-tunnel configuration over a single WAN interface or second WAN interface over LTE provides redundant connectivity. IT can continuously monitor the edge-to-SaaS performance on both DIA and backhaul paths to ensure appropriate application Quality of Experience and consistent connectivity," Valente stated.
Another example is VMware's SD-WAN Zero Trust Service, which is delivered through VMware's service-node network deployed across more than 100 global locations and operated by VMware and its 120 telecom service-provider partners. It will also become part of the VMware Workspace ONE Intelligent Hub.
According to VMware, the Workspace ONE platform securely manages end users' mobile devices and cloud-hosted virtual desktops and applications from the cloud or on premises.
The remote-access client automatically connects to the closest VMware SD-WAN cloud PoP. Based on enterprise policy, the user traffic may be passed to a cloud firewall, a web security service, to another enterprise branch or data centre, or to an application or service that's needed. The VMware service also employs split tunnelling.
Home office security options
While offering strong connectivity options will be key for remote/home-office users, security obviously plays a big role as well.
"WWT is seeing a move to cloud-delivered security models like SASE and zero-trust models," Anderson said. "Instead of trying to deploy thousands of security stacks in home offices, enterprises instead are routing their sessions to a cloud-edge service, to more easily achieve scalable security. For IT, this means quickly assessing and deploying new cloud-based security models and building trust quickly in a solution."
According to Anderson, there are several schools of thought on how to approach home-office security, including traditional methods such as VPN clients, home-based router/FW, and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), as well as emerging approaches such as zero-trust networking.
"Of all of these home-office security methods, we are spending the most time with clients on zero trust and VDI, with a few of our largest clients also working seriously on home-based router/FW solutions as well," Anderson said.
Cisco's Valente says that a cloud-based Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) umbrella provides security protections at scale for thousands of remote workers.
"Policy-based routing also secures access to confidential as well as non-sensitive data while protecting against man-in-the-middle attacks," Valente says.
"Because policies are managed and deployed centrally through SD-WAN controllers, when workers move among home, branch, and campus locations, the access and security policies follow them, ensuring that their connections are secure regardless of location. IT gets a single-pane view of workforce connectivity and security to simplify the management of thousands of distributed connections."
For some organisations, a managed approach to remote-worker security may be the best option.
"Though many companies are moving towards a zero-trust environment, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often don't have the resources needed to make this shift quickly," said Mike Puglia, chief strategy officer with management software vendor Kaseya. "In 2021, we'll likely see SMBs rely more heavily on managed service providers, as MSPs have the IT expertise and economies of scale needed to provide the security capabilities required in this remote work environment."
What else is in the future for remote/home office users? 5G is one possibility.
"5G still isn't mature enough to see wide-scale deployments; most organisations are still relying on a single home broadband connection. However, as 5G continues to mature and devices become more readily available, remote workers may come to rely on the next-gen network as an alternative to home broadband," Anderson said.
"Imagine the home network 'splitting' - with wired broadband continuing to serve the home network, and 5G serving the home office user, improving the quality of experience for collaboration tools. It may also serve as a backup connection for remote workers, much like how businesses support branch offices today."
Automation will be another area of increased activity.
Companies will focus their automation efforts on helping remote employees be more effective, with one in four information workers receiving help from software bots, robotic process automation, and AI while some frontline workers receive help from physical robots, according to Forrester's Johnson. "HR leaders will get support from better tools for analysing and acting on workforce data while also assuring employees' health and wellness," Johnson said.
In the big picture, providing office-like connectivity and security to home workers will remain a priority for enterprises, Valente added.
"WFH is not just a reaction to a health and safety emergency either. It is a work-style made possible by technology that has important energy and environmental impacts as well as physical and mental health - does anyone really love commuting?" Valente asked. "The more seamless a work-at-home employee’s connection is to information, applications, and coworkers, the more productive the experience."