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Telecommuting surge will raise new technical challenges

In response to the mounting novel coronavirus threat, the recent move by many companies to encourage, and in some cases mandate, employees to stay at home to work is sure to create problems for corporate IT managers. Although telecommuting has been growing in the US, just 20% of workers worked from home at least once per week as of January 2020, according to the 2020 US Home Worker Study published by Independence Research LLC. This number is now growing dramatically.

IT managers facing the emergency scenario of 20% of employees working from home potentially surging to 90%+, with perhaps just a few days to prepare, will have a number of potential challenges to deal with. These potential challenges include:

  • Overloaded network capacity
  • Help-desk volume increase
  • Cybersecurity concerns
  • Home worker training and on-boarding
  • Remote access to critical productivity applications
  • Sharp increase in the need for better collaboration and conferencing tools

While these challenges are all addressable, the extraordinarily short window to create an efficient process means that IT leaders are facing an enormous test. Among all these challenges, the most critical will be creating and maintaining reliable and secure connectivity between the telecommuter location and the company network.

According to Independence Research's 2020 US Home Worker Connectivity Survey, reliable Internet connectivity is one of the key technical issues that telecommuters face. In the survey, 60% of telecommuters indicated that they had a problem with either connecting to the network and/or the connection getting interrupted (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Telecommuter Challenges

There could be many reasons for spotty home Internet access: Wi-Fi issues, upstream bandwidth limitations, in-home application usage competing for capacity, etc. – especially if more family members are online at the same time. Companies need to assess their workforce's broadband capabilities and provide guidance based on corporate bandwidth requirements.

In addition, providing teleworkers with financial support for faster broadband speed tiers and managed Wi-Fi services would improve connectivity results. According to the 2020 US Home Worker Connectivity Survey, just 8% of companies pay for 100% of full-time telecommuter Internet costs, another 16% split payments and 75% pay absolutely nothing at all.

In addition to establishing a reliable connection, there is also the matter of securing that connection. One of the most basic ways to improve security when connecting remote locations to corporate networks is to use a virtual private network or "VPN." This technology creates a secure connection to the company network using encryption on the network side and password authentication on the teleworker side (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Telecommuter VPN Usage

Connecting to the company network without using a VPN creates a more vulnerable digital environment that can be more easily compromised by threat actors. Despite the growing number and complexity of cyberattacks directed at US businesses, almost half of telecommuter survey respondents indicated they do not use a VPN to connect to their company's network.

Final word
Home workers need greater support from their employers to effectively handle a scenario where work from home becomes necessary. Sloppy, haphazard telecommuter policies might work when small percentages of workers are remote. But when a company flips the switch and mandates remote work, for all, a new set of policies and technology practices is required. Addressing this challenge will not only ease the short-term crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic but lay the foundation for a future where remote work becomes the norm.

— Matt Davis, Principal Analyst, Independence Research

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