Spurred by advances in communication and information technologies, millions of people were already working from home well before Covid-19.1 As the pandemic spread, any business that could shifted from onsite to offsite, driven by shelter-in-place requirements. Now, several months in, working remotely is looking like a lasting preference, as many see this necessary pivot as an opportunity to reimagine the standard workplace.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 executives reported that 55% of employers anticipate their workers will want the option to work from home, either partially or fully, long after Covid-19 is not a concern.2 On the higher end of rising demand, another report states that 98% would like to work remotely, at least part time, for the rest of their careers.3
Benefits as well as barriers
Beyond the need to distance for the foreseeable future, employers and employees alike embracing the benefits of working offsite; among them, greater flexibility to juggle job and family responsibilities, more personal space carved out from time normally spent commuting, and even the potential of higher productivity and engagement.
For companies, though, some benefits may be elusive. Anticipated savings from shrinking office space due to fewer onsite employees may be less than anticipated because of continued social distancing, at least until treatments and vaccines are widespread and effective.4 Another barrier comes from the significant costs of additional hardware, software, and dedicated tech support, all needed to mitigate added security risks and potential information breaches from a remote workforce.
These barriers are more manageable and affordable for those who were working from home long before the pandemic. But for those just beginning this practice, the burden of a near-total switch to remote will be difficult to execute and maintain. In those worst cases, organizations new to distance working may be relying on improvisation.
“A company’s risk depends on its maturity and the program already in place,” said Dr. Yonesy Núñez, Wells Fargo senior vice president and group information security leader. “The focus today has not as much to do with digital adoption during the pandemic as the changes in work patterns and arrangements. Work from home in the last few months ultimately represents a shift for many organizations, extending the threat landscape from directly under the company’s control to each employee’s home network.”
Among his chief concerns is whether employees will adopt sound, secure work practices. For example, ensuring that personal digital assistants, like Alexa or Siri, are not recording in the background. In addition, workers may have other connected devices, like their television, doorbell, or even refrigerator, which may be infected with malicious software. While these are not new risks for an organization accustomed to some offsite workers, the threat grows with broader, work from home acceptance.
Another key area of concern, cautions Dr. Núñez, is in responding to incidents. “If you have an incident and folks aren’t physically on location, how do you utilize smart hands to change devices? How do you review the laptop or phones in a remote environment where you can’t collect live forensic analysis based on a cyber-incident? Equally important, how do you keep those systems up to date? And, how do you control unauthorized use of company devices? I’d say these aren’t new challenges, but the scale represented in the environment today puts them front and center. And effective risk management will require some new thinking about workforce management as well as major technology investments.”
Extending the landscape
Businesses that have the appropriate technology and safeguards may decide to retain an extended workforce post-pandemic but with modifications. Some suggest that a hybrid workforce — one that shifts from in-person to remote depending on circumstances and the needs of both employer and worker — may be the most strategic approach. Says George Penn, vice president of Gartner, “Where, and when, work gets done will be determined by what makes the most sense to drive the highest levels of productivity and engagement.”
1 Home Based Workers, U.S. Census Bureau, last revised August 27, 2019 https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/sis/resources/visualizations/homebased-workers.html
2 “When everyone can work from home, what’s the office for?” PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, June 25, 2020 https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html
3 “6 charts that show what employers and employees really think about remote working” by Nick Routley, World Economic Forum, June 3, 2020 https://weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/coronavirus-covid19-remote-working-office-employees-employers
4 Ibid. PwC’s US Remote Work Survey, June 25, 2020
5 “Hybrid Workforce Models Speed Digital Transformation” by Jackie Wiles, Smarter With Gartner, August 3, 2020 https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/hybrid-workforce-models-speed-digital-transformation