Coronavirus: how to make sure remote work is safe and efficient?

13.03.2020 17:35

Workplace Shortages

Can a company remain operational if all its employees can’t come into work?

The question might seem ridiculous from the outset. But in 1914, when the powers of Europe clashed in what would become known as the Great War, business owners throughout the continent were faced with this very issue. All young men of able body were, with few exceptions, conscripted into army service. If your nail manufacturer lost even just twelve or thirteen employees, that’s over 500 hours of work per week in need of filling. What’s more, the talent pool for replacement workers was depleted. Luckily, there was a ready, able, untapped repository of labor at business owners’ disposal: women. In both world wars, women flooded into traditionally male occupations. Their contributions not only mitigated the economic effects of a lost workforce, but, crucially, aided the war efforts of their respective nations.

In 2020, we’re experiencing our own problem of workplace shortages. In these past few weeks, businesses across North America, Europe and Asia have shut their doors as part of larger containment efforts against COVID-19. Unlike 1914, we don’t have half a population’s-worth of ready and able (and immune) employees to step in for those vulnerable to the virus, so companies are resorting to remote operation. It means lots more video conferencing, software management, and a lot less clarity over two business functions which, in the office, felt kind of like a given: employee efficiency, and IT security.

Efficiency

Workplace efficiency is far from settled science. The open questions around how to maximize happiness and work rate, while minimizing distractions and discontentment, fuel today’s massive market for TED talks, online blogs, instructional books and conferences on the subject of “productivity.” Still, on a surface level, there’s a certain amount of accountability inherent to simply being present in an office. Employees don’t want to be caught slacking off, and we naturally don’t want to feel ineffective when others around us are doing positive, productive work.

This brand of accountability disappears, of course, with remote work. But this doesn’t mean accountability is impossible, or even more difficult, with remote workers. Plenty of industries thrive off the backs of employees who don’t punch in and out every day. News outlets, whether they be in television or print or online, send journalists around the country and around the world on assignments. It is by virtue of giving reporters the freedom to go places, find people and pursue leads that the best news organizations get the best scoops, and the most public attention.

Project-based workflow may be the answer for teams looking to maintain operational efficiency while COVID keeps us out of our workplaces. For salaried employees, however, adjusting to a project-by-project payment plan is simply not possible.

This is where software tools come into play. There are dozens of communications, organizational, and content management systems available for free or for purchase online, designed specifically to aid in remote teamwork. Many of these tools–from the more draconian time trackers and screen captures, to scheduling apps and access management platforms–simulate the effects of an office environment by tracking work hours and output.

Security

Even if a remote team does manage to handle their work as efficiently as a local team would, there is still the open issue of computer security.

Keeping IT systems functional and safe from harm is important to any office environment, surely, but the risk is heightened when individuals are working with personal computers, over longer distances, with more unique lines of communication. Why? Well, as an analogy, consider the Coronavirus.

The Coronavirus reportedly originated in a seafood market in Wuhan, China. Today, it can be found in all corners of the world. The reason, of course, is that COVID’s Patient Zero interacted with other people in the market. Now, if all the people in the market stayed in the market, the Coronavirus would’ve been localized, easily tracked and contained. But those people who interacted with Patient Zero also interacted with people outside the market, who themselves interacted with more people outside the market, and so on. Then people in Wuhan began traveling outside of Wuhan, and outside of China, and so on. Now COVID is global, difficult to track and spreading fast.

Now imagine an office computer picks up a virus. A closed IT system, like the one you’d find in an office, is kind of like a closed seafood market. It’s connected to the internet, but also (hopefully) protected behind a layer of enterprise security. If that security is strong, the virus can be snuffed out before it spreads.

Remote teams are more like open seafood markets. They’re chaotic–exposed to a lot more unique kinds of interactions over the web, less-easily monitored than, say, an office computer whose internet traffic travels through a centralized router. This translates to many more attack vectors–paths through which malware can reach important company infrastructure and data.

Say one member of a team visits an unsecured website, or receives a malware-laced email from an unsuspecting family member. At the office, such traps might be avoided with company-wide firewalls and antivirus. With remote employees, it’s up to the individual to maintain effective personal cybersecurity. If this particular employee is not secure (they didn’t wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap, they touched their face, etc), and they digitally interact in some form or another with one of their coworkers, the problem is passed on, and on from there. Eventually, the malware can reach important company assets.

One Possible Solution

There are powerful software platforms on the market that support remote employee efficiency, and keep individuals’ computers safe from harm. One possible solution to cover the whole lot is a privileged access management (PAM) platform. In their simplest form, PAMs are a watchful eye. They track user activity, and structure which users get access to what information in a network. PAMs can keep undesired entities out of systems they may potentially do harm to (security), as well as record the behaviors of legitimate participants in the system (efficiency).

For more information on privileged access management, visit www.fudosecurity.com.

About the author: 
Nathaniel Nelson writes the internationally top-ranked “Malicious Life” podcast on iTunes, hosts programs on blockchain and SCADA security, and contributes to AI and emerging tech blogs.