Technology Leaders Reflect on the Technological Impact of One Year of Remote Work

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Click to learn more about author Richard Cassidy.

Throughout the past year, COVID-19 showcased IT’s ability to not only fight the virus but also drive innovation to keep businesses up and running while protecting them from cyber-adversaries.

Innovations in communications technology has ensured that nearly 60% of people working from home due to COVID-19 are content. In particular, Zoom saw its users jump 30-fold in April 2020, as businesses quickly learned how to manage remote workforces. The pandemic has also changed attitudes to technology forever, with more than half of executives investing in technology for a competitive advantage or refocusing their entire business around digital technology.

Remote work has also forced security teams to work together to combat growing cyberthreats. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 300% jump in cybersecurity complaints, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Forbes also reported in 2020 that even as the pandemic caused many companies to reduce IT spend overall, investment in cybersecurity increased during the year compared with 2019.

Below, several leading technology vendors (including myself) share stories and lessons learned from the past year, and what to look for as we move forward in the forever-altered technology landscape.

Jay Ryerse, CISSP, VP of Cybersecurity Initiatives, ConnectWise

In a typical year, the rate of technology adoption among businesses is fairly pedestrian. Many organizations may pick up only one or two new pieces of technology as the need arises. If a sales department needs new billing software, budgets are checked and funds are reallocated to make it happen. There is change, but not without a lot of forethought, and it usually doesn’t happen very quickly.

As we all know, 2020 was a different ballgame. Though it probably seems like much longer to most people, it’s been about a year since the pandemic spurred a massive global transition to work-from-home. And in that single year, companies adopted technology at a rate we would typically see over an entire decade. The reason? Changes occurred not because we wanted them to, but because we had no other choice.

The obvious example is technology that allows for greater connectivity, communication, and collaboration – things like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are far more common today than they were a year ago. But cybersecurity technology also saw rapid growth. As people scrambled to get a home office together, employers rushed to get them the tools they needed to work and stay productive – and in many cases, security took a backseat to productivity. That changed once employees became more settled, and companies began rapidly implementing technologies like virtual private networks, endpoint detection and response, security information and event management, and two-factor authentication. Getting everyone smarter about these technologies was also important, so cybersecurity education and training became more popular than ever too.

A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine having every meeting online and every event be virtual. While some things will return to normal, the work environment has likely changed forever. It will be interesting to see if technology adoption will continue at a fast rate, and how companies will deal with new challenges, like providing IT support remotely, handling HR issues, and what to do with office space. But in the end, people are resilient, and society has shown it is willing to make these changes and continue moving forward.

Nicole Sahin, CEO, Globalization Partners

The advent of global remote work was born out of crisis, but society has found unexpected silver linings even as we begin to pull out of our collective grief. Global remote work is here to stay, and with it, stronger family ties, greater diversity in the workforce, and democratization of opportunity. Companies have realized that they can hire great talent anywhere in the world, and opportunity is no longer limited to a 50-mile radius of where people live. The doors of opportunity have flung open to everyone, everywhere, and with it comes our ability to harness the great minds that can be found in every corner of the earth.

Bob Davis, CMO, Plutora

For organizations like restaurants, airlines, and travel companies that rely on customers being out and about, the past year was a tremendous struggle through no fault of their own. It’s been heartbreaking to see so many companies forced to permanently shut their doors because of these hardships. However, many companies in different industries were able to weather the storm by quickly adapting to the new way of working. For enterprise companies, this meant ensuring they were still able to deliver high-quality, efficient software that delights customers and delivers value to the business – all while teams were physically separated.

This kind of success could only be accomplished with complete portfolio and pipeline visibility, smooth handoffs between teams, governance and compliance, and a system that facilitates collaboration – or in other words, the guiding principles of value stream management (VSM). Since last March, VSM platforms have helped many companies overcome the challenges of our new remote world by providing the necessary foundation and visibility to keep projects moving forward.

As our world inches back to some semblance of our pre-pandemic days or whatever our new normal will be, many changes that were established to keep business moving, such as remote and flexible working, will stay in place. Whichever way companies decide to continue operations – whether it’s requiring all employees to be in the office again or allowing them to work remotely – VSM will ensure that teams are completely connected and still able to deliver the best software possible.”

Richard Cassidy, Senior Director, Security Strategy, Exabeam

The rapid shift in workplace practices over the past year has been a steep learning curve for most security organizations. With most working from home for the first time, meeting and collaborating online in a cloud-based environment has been a drastic change.

As we begin to move through the pandemic and the most severe restrictions are lifted, organizations should prioritize reinvesting in their security teams. For most businesses, there’s been a stark shift in working practices and the world has accelerated its shift to a more distributed operating model. All things considered, we need a far greater focus on security and the already limited supply of security professionals tasked with ensuring this will need our full support. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we ensure we operate with the right tools and approach, maximizing our employees’ productivity, promoting the well-being of our workforce, and ensuring better collaboration between business stakeholders.

We have struggled to survive and operate in the age of alert overload for far too long now. Our security, risk, compliance, and response teams are overwhelmed by the data points they need to manage to avert outages or audit failures! As a year has passed, and we slowly move into a plan for a new approach to business dynamics and operations, we need to consider how we can better support our security teams and automate as much of the more “time-intensive” and mundane tasks as possible. As business leaders, we have to better support our security professionals in protecting our organizations and enable our rising stars to accelerate their enablement and learning to more effectively support their teams. We also need to rethink security operations center (SOC) practices and look at what is needed to foster the outcomes that are aligned to our new business operating model and cybersecurity needs.

Unsurprisingly, the attack surface is far greater now, and IoT security is a bigger risk vector than ever before, making it important that organizations cast their net of inspection far wider now. The home office is the new corporate cubicle for many, but the majority of companies are considering a hybrid in-office and remote work model. Security teams now need to detect anomalies from corporate networks and home networks, users and devices – at a rate almost never seen before – given that the home office can be far easier to compromise due to the inherent lack of corporate security capabilities.     

The key to transforming business security operations and outcomes is the foundation of behavioral analytics and the automation of incident detection, triage and response. Done correctly, such an approach will undoubtedly free up security teams time enormously, and enable your existing datasets to be better leveraged in the detection of anomalies across the entire estate, not least transform how you monitor critical assets (user accounts and devices) to find early signs of suspicious or potential breach activity. 

When presented with the most critical information and with all of the necessary context, security teams can better respond, mitigate, and remediate the many threats they are faced with. Furthermore, to ensure flexibility that will work both in the office and remotely, companies should help their security teams transition their security controls to the cloud. 

Continuing to apply legacy approaches in this evolved “digital business” era is almost a nonsensical approach to take. We only need to look at breach statistics this past year alone to understand the fact that it wasn’t working before. Organizations should look at this period of great change as a catalyst for innovating, evolving, and enhancing their approach to security, not least how to better serve the needs of the business in terms of operational transformation.

Ali Knapp, President, Wisetail

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., leading to lockdowns and entire companies abandoning their offices for safer but more isolated remote work approaches, it’s critical for organizations to not only review their business strategies but also their people strategies. With nearly one-third of workers claiming they’d rather take a pay cut than return to an office and more than half believing all companies should offer a remote work option, keeping staff engaged and excited from afar is a need that’s here to stay.

Research shows that social and collaborative interactions are key to corporate prosperity. Employees perform better when they work collectively, customer retention is higher with training and engagement programs, and partners and sales teams are more successful when they have ongoing learning experiences.

While the bottom line is important, ensuring staff feel valued and passionate about their work can help turn a company into a true community. On the one-year anniversary of this new remote world, we are highlighting key steps businesses must work into their people strategies to help bring distributed staff closer together, despite being far apart:

1. Provide a personalized and social learning experience: Whether a company is onboarding new joiners or providing training for existing employees, making these engagements targeted to their roles, interactive, and engaging can reduce feelings of loneliness and help individuals retain information.

2. Communication and social gamification: Turning learning opportunities into games that help staff collect points for attendance, leading to praise and prizes, can foster wider training buy-in from employees.

3. Culture of community: Encourage staff to communicate on internal message boards and even chat apps about their work experiences and what’s going on in their personal lives – try out an amazing new recipe? Share it! Run a 5K? Share it! Finally teach your new pandemic puppy how to sit and heel? Share it! Including one another in the little wins in life can create a community within a company and help individuals feel like they are in this together, regardless of location.

In short, the right people strategy leads to a strong culture and a greater brand, while making each individual feel heard and appreciated.

Art Gilliland, CEO, Centrify

After a year of remote working, enterprises have learned that the cloud is no longer just a ‘nice to have,’ but a requirement of the new reality. Even as we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine rollout, cloud has emerged as a game changer in terms of availability and scalability as well as flexibility and reliability, making it a must-have moving forward.

Companies who want to continue to drive their cloud initiatives forward must apply the same security controls and operational disciplines across on-premises, hybrid, and multi-cloud environments. Our recent survey revealed that 65% of respondents experienced attacks on their cloud environments in the last 12 months, with cyber-attackers achieving an 80% success rate.

Our research also showed that 90% of cyberattacks on cloud environments this past year involved compromised credentials. To address cloud-based threats, the IT stack should be secured by a centralized privileged access management (PAM) solution architected in the cloud, for the cloud. Centralized identities and privilege elevation strategies empower granular access controls to hybrid environments, even as digital transformation accelerates and workforces evolve post-COVID-19. With multi-cloud strategies becoming the norm, the ideal security approach relies on zero-trust principles for strong authentication, employs least privilege to restrict lateral movement, and leverages key benefits of the cloud economy in order to minimize attack surfaces.

Jon Clemenson, Director of Security Technology, TokenEx

During the past year, with the pandemic forcing a change in traditional work environments, security professionals in all industries are still grappling with how to address the increased vulnerabilities and risks that come from expanding the corporate network to accommodate remote workers.

These circumstances should trigger a comprehensive review of security policies and controls to determine if additional technologies or processes are required to address new risks created by remote working.

The onus for securing sensitive data and making sure that consumers are protected remains on the organization regardless of where employees are working from. Technologies such as tokenization, which swaps sensitive data for a ‘token’ that holds no intrinsic value or relationship to the original data set, can remove sensitive data from the network entirely. As companies plan for future work arrangements, tokenization can give organizations flexibility in their decision making without risking the compromise of their most sensitive data.

Michael Jack, Chief Revenue Officer, Datadobi

The past year has tested us as individuals, stretched organizations thin, and reshaped society in ways that we can’t fully understand yet. We’ve pushed through when we needed to and changed course when we had to. It’s been hard, but the resilience displayed all around has been impressive. Through it all we’ve turned to technology at a scale that we never have before. Social media has kept us connected, work is being done virtually, and commerce has shifted online in a massive way.

Moving our essential activities online isn’t new, but this past year has increased that shift exponentially. This has caused a substantive increase in the amount of unstructured data being created just going about our everyday lives. We’re seeing data sets growing at monumental rates and organizations are trying to handle new unanticipated challenges in Data Management. It’s my view that in the same way that many individuals have benefited from a little extra support in their daily lives, organizations could use closer and more personalized support in a world that is digitally transforming faster than may have been expected a year ago.

Organizations need support from Data Management solutions that addresses and tailors migration solutions to be as beneficial as possible and provide data mobility capabilities that understand and adjust to a rapidly changing world. As we move forward into what’s next, being able to offer individualized support for unique organizations can be a make-or-break factor in many data migration or protection projects. The best Data Management solutions in the days ahead will be the ones that understand that. As we pass beyond what felt like the twilight of civilization into the dawn of what comes next, a little support can make all the difference.

Brian Raboin, COO, Pathwire

As we approach the one-year mark of the rapid shift in workplace practices, it’s been a steep learning curve for nearly everyone impacted. Email has always been a critical part of many organizations’ communication practices, but the remote evolution has heightened its importance.

At this time last year, newly distributed work practices required frequent check-ins with employees, whether it was for questions about the internet not working at home or how to properly navigate using their personal email. These communications through email were necessary at the onset of the outbreak and have continued to show their worth in keeping employees connected from afar.

Email deliverability has also become essential for survival for many companies. Organizations that did a good job in terms of keeping their customer database info relevant were able to take advantage of that. Non-traditional and non-email-first companies, however, might have struggled to adjust. Restaurants and gyms, whose close-contact physical locations were widely shuttered, for instance, were hanging on by a thread, and if they didn’t communicate with their customers properly, they would have been at an even greater risk of collapse. The ones that kept their heads above water used email to stay in front of customers and keep them engaged. For organizations where email was not a necessity, it very quickly became one.

As we move forward to a more typical sense of normalcy, asynchronous communication will be something that still exists as organizations evaluate the need for remote work and if it’s practical to continue going forward. Some organizations have had staff that are remote, but COVID leveled the playing field. Distributed team members are just as important, and organizations that keep this approach in place will continue to use the best practices learned over the past year as a part of their overall communication strategies. Email strategy has to be critical to that, and for those that were able to leverage these new strategies to communicate with their customers will reap the rewards in the present and continue to do so in the future.

Gina O’Reilly, COO, Nitro

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been completely remote for an entire year now. While most of us have adapted to this new way of working, many are still feeling overwhelmed and stressed. In fact, a recent survey found over 90% of workers feel stressed while working from home, with 41% feeling either extremely or very stressed.

This isn’t surprising considering how many people are dealing with financial worries and job security while also trying to stay healthy, take care of children, and maintain some form of social contact with friends and family. Managing all of that and juggling work deliverables makes working from home that much more stressful.

Interestingly enough, much of the WFH stress has come from a lack of document productivity tools. Eighty-three percent of workers said the way their company handles documents has not improved significantly during the pandemic, which is concerning given over 60% work with more than six documents a day.

WFH (at least in some capacity) is here to stay, so companies should reevaluate their technology stack to better fit and adapt to this ‘new normal.’ Providing access to the right set of digital tools can help employees thrive in the future of work and take unnecessary stress off their shoulders.

Meg Riat, Human Resources Director, Leaseweb USA

When I reflect upon the last year, as an HR Director, I can pinpoint several positive changes that impacted my team and the industry more broadly. 2020 brought significant unforeseen challenges – and they were incredibly difficult – but I’d encourage every HR professional to examine the challenges they endured last year, and seek out and acknowledge the resulting successes.  

At our company, we’ve focused on learning ways to realistically effect a healthy work-life balance for our staff. Burnout has historically been very high in IT, but that’s only increased during the pandemic. During the pandemic, wise leaders realized that they need to actually enforce their employees’ work-life balance on their behalf. Even for me, someone who harps on healthy work habits for our employees, I found myself looking at the clock and realizing I hadn’t gotten up from my desk since 8 a.m. This just goes to show that we have to be intentional in order to maintain a healthy work culture. 

We began introducing step challenges and non-work-related events like virtual bingo, workouts, and book clubs last year. We’ve learned that there is a sweet spot when it comes to requiring video in meetings – at first, we set up video for every meeting, but then recognized it was most effective in smaller team settings. We’ve mastered the skill of creating a positive onboarding experience for employees with zero face-to-face interaction (something I never thought I’d do).

Despite everything going on, we have been able to maintain a culture of togetherness, resiliency, and supportiveness that I believe has allowed our employees to feel more comfortable, motivated, and appreciated, even if they’re working from their living room.

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