Understanding Remote Work Security and IT Support in a Post-COVID World

Empty cubicles. Polished cafeterias serving no one. Offices absent of company officers. What seems like the opening of The Walking Dead is how many businesses left their offices at the close of a very challenging 2020. In the wake of COVID-19, business workforces mass shifted to remote work.

It has presented what is certainly a daunting challenge – making the necessary technological and infrastructural adjustments, including everything from boosting network throughput and VPN capacity to implementing remote-in software like Splashtop to access computers at the office. Companies around the world embraced Microsoft Teams and Zoom to continue the new “business as usual” model of teleconferencing. Over the course of 2020, businesses adapted and made it work.

So where does that leave us for 2021?

According to Reuters, the number of permanent remote workers looks to double this year as businesses found that workers are more productive working from home. Businesses (and employees) have embraced working from home. In fact, prior to COVID-19, companies were already shifting to more remote-workers. Four years ago, Dell and UnitedHealth Group were already embracing remote work and, just recently, Forbes believes that an estimated 70% of global workforce will be working remotely at least five days a month, putting it succinctly: “While 2020 may be considered the year of remote work, it is just the beginning as we see the trend continuing in 2021.”

But for many companies, the remote worker model is not without its challenges. First and foremost is cybersecurity — Cisco’s recently published Future of Secure Remote Work Report shows cybersecurity is “extremely important” or “more important than before the pandemic” to 85% of 3,000 IT decision-makers in both small and large businesses. And why shouldn’t it be? Employees aren’t bottled up behind company firewalls anymore; they are sending and receiving multitudes of company data over their home networks. As Cisco’s report put it:

 

“The global COVID-19 pandemic has forced digital change on organizations at high speed and certainly faster than many had dealt with before the pandemic,” Durbin said. “It meant that senior IT and security managers have been called on to refocus efforts and help their organization re-orientate around secure remote working practices.”

 

What’s interesting is IT and security are, of course, focusing on protection measures for company communications and data. What are not being discussed enough are the simple protection measures that every remote worker can and should be taking at home. A 2018 User Risk Report from Proofpoint found that, out of 6,000 surveyed technology users in the U.S. and Western Europe, a whopping 44% of respondents say they have not added a password to their home Wi-Fi networks! “In addition,” the report goes on, “that despite widespread FBI warning earlier that year about router vulnerabilities, 66% of users have not changed their router’s default password and 79% have not updated firmware.” Cybersecurity extends beyond the company’s IT — remote workers need to take it upon themselves to make sure their home networks and technology are secure.

In addition to home security, companies should be wary of whether end users’ home technology is up to the challenge of a permanent workload beyond passwords and router firmware. Are a company’s end users using older routers with outdated 802.11 type networks? An old router can severely crimp load speeds, a potential headache for end users dealing in large files and zoom calls. It’s not just speed — Wi-Fi range can also be impacted, limiting a remote worker to a particular room or corner so they don’t lose connection. Maybe they also live in an area with limited cable internet coverage. As Vox puts it, “remote work requires reliable, secure at-home broadband connections that can power video conferences. Because much of rural America lacks broadband internet, remote work is restricted to areas with access to that tech.”

Shifting Toward an All-Remote Model

Here are some of the greatest challenges that companies with an all-remote model are facing and how best to overcome them:

Remote Support

Prior to COVID, most IT support teams were on site and resolving end user tickets either over the phone or at the users’ desk. A faulty keyboard or charger needing replaced was a simple fix: stop by the cube or office and swap the item out. It kept customer support personal.

In the realm of all-remote support, everything must be done by phone, computer, or mail. Desktop support teams quickly adjusted to resolving issues by walking customers through processes or procedures over the phone, or remoting in and taking control of an afflicted users’ device. For physical device replacements, the operations side of things has gotten busy shipping and receiving product to and from end users.

Deployment

New hires are beginning their first day of work at home, and may not even venture into the office for weeks.  This makes efficient deployment critical so the new worker has their company asset at the home on the first day and pre-installed with all necessary software to access the company network, files, and email.  In some cases, a company may send out a pre-provisioned asset.  FedEx or UPS drops the laptop or mobile device off at the user’s home, the user logs in and finds everything they need to get started.

Challenges remain in doing this to scale because large numbers of assets need to be pre-installed with company software, updates run, network or VPN configurations  setup.  Then someone has to ship and track all the shipments up to delivery.  This is where MDMs really shine, particularly with zero-touch deployment.  By utilizing Apple Business Manager or Microsoft Azure, brand new devices can be shipped from the seller to the end user, bypassing the company altogether.  The asset connects to the user’s home network and “checks in” with the Mobile Device Manager.  The device then begins to download all the predetermined software and configuration.  Even in a post-COVID world, companies that need to deploy large amounts of new assets to users, zero-touch simplifies things enormously.  As 9to5mac.com puts it:

 

“When the world gets back to ‘normal’ in the post-COVID–19 world, I think the workplace will be changed forever. That means that IT policies will change forever. If a large subset of employees is working remotely, how will you do device deployment when your IT policies and procedures are all built around in-the-office employees? This fact is why zero-touch implementation has to be central to your future device deployment plans.”

 

Inventory Management

In “the before time” of pre-COVID, inventory might have been more manageable. The end user was usually working in their cube or office, where their company-issued asset was. If you needed access to a computer, or if a user left the company, it was easy to track down an asset. With remote work, company assets are scattered to the wind. Collection of terminated or retired end users become critical, as does securing an asset with company data on it. This would also include collecting assets that need to be serviced or repaired and getting a working computer back to the user with absolute minimum downtime.

Consider creating a dedicated operations manager role that is responsible for all inventory coming and going. With workforces going remote, it is imperative to figure out how best to manage the new way physical devices and accessories are being handled. If not properly monitored, costs could quickly rise for a company with poorly managed inventory; lost assets and accessories would have to be replaced much faster.

File and Documentation Access

This area of focus is critical for all businesses, small and large. Sometimes, when working remotely, business owners or employees need to access company information or even company computers left in the office. Sometimes a user needs to be able to access devices at their desk and print something at the office without ever going in. Software like Splashtop comes in handy for small businesses who need to remotely access an office computer (and fulfill tasks like printing elsewhere from home). For larger businesses, a VPN is usually required to safely join the company network for access to shared network drives.

Also included in this group is sharing documentation among end users. In the past, users could gather in a meeting room or stop by one another’s desk with a laptop to share presentations or spreadsheets. Now, these documents are almost exclusively shared amongst each other virtually, requiring the ability to edit, comment, and make notes and pass back. Microsoft Teams and Google Docs offer easy solutions for sharing and collaborating on documents.

The other point to make here is the absolute necessity of Mobile Device Manager (MDM) software. MDMs allow for more automation, ensure security and software version compliance, and provide real-time status of physical location and device status. They allow a company’s end users to work from anywhere in the world and still receive updates, track location and provide security (imagine losing your laptop full of company secrets on a crowded bus or train — an MDM allows it to be tracked, locked down, and even remotely erased if necessary).

A proper MDM setup helps resolve the challenges I listed above. By utilizing JAMF, a company’s fleet of devices can be easily managed wherever they may be. Updates are sent out regularly to prevent any potential security holes with out-of-date or unpatched software. Deployment is greatly simplified, even to the point of “zero-touch” where a new hire can receive a brand-new device, and watch as the device “checks in” with the MDM and sets itself up. And, of course, inventory management — with an MDM, we can track and “see” every device, as well as lockdown systems and remote erase.

What Your Business Can Do to Adapt

Remote workforces and remote support is here to stay in 2021. Companies that were caught off guard by COVID need to embrace remote support and transition their IT to manage workers offsite. Even if the COVID vaccine brings a ‘return to normalcy’, employees have adjusted (and come to enjoy) working remotely. Therefore, employers should be prepared to welcome and support a remote workforce.

For business owners and IT managers, the following steps are recommended to begin the journey to a healthy remote support environment:

  1. Embrace an MDM – Whether it’s JAMF, In-Tune, MobileIron, WorkspaceOne, make a Mobile Device Management system a welcomed addition to your company. It will only help with management, deployment, and support.
  2. Give Your Employees Guidelines for At-Home Setups – A simple guide for employees to review their home setup. Chances are, it hasn’t changed since they moved in. Help your end users identify out of date routers, secure Wi-Fi networks, and check network speeds. Are they using surge protectors? Do they have roommates? Should their company asset still be cable locked even at home to prevent theft? You can even consider in-home consultation to end users, reviewing their setup and making suggestions and upgrades.
  3. Bolster Your Desktop Support – For Mac systems, conventional “Windows IT” is usually left to handle MacOS and LinuxOS support. This is a situation that would be easier to navigate in person as the IT support specialist could usually fiddle with the Mac or use trial-and-error to resolve an issue. Now, Mac and Linux support is even more critical because it’s being done over the phone or at a distance; it pays to have knowledgeable people ready to assist to prevent downtime or user frustration.
  4. Consider the Cloud – A lot of big company architecture is unwieldy and outdated; e.g. not suited for a totally remote workforce. On prem servers require security and firewall credentials, as well as proper access if being contacted from off-site. This can make MDM deployments tricky. Hosted on prem email or file sharing can also bog down a company