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Rapid shift to working from home creates new IT challenges

Employees are now connecting from home. Here's a short, but important list of IT issues—from security to bandwidth—that you may encounter while keeping teams connected and productive in this uncharted territory.

Working from home is not at all a new or radical idea. Having everyone work from home during the coronavirus crisis is new and radical. Even though we know, in theory, how to do it, pulling it off with no problems would be miraculous.

Below we describe several classes of problems that could occur. And if the casinos were still open, we'd put money down that there will be many others that nobody anticipated. But you have to try.

Network strain, especially on cellular

Residential broadband networks aren't typically as busy during the daytime as they will be over the next few weeks. Cellular networks can also expect increased use, as people will use work phones at home for purposes for which they would normally use office equipment, from phone calls to email.

There are also potential cost issues for the user: Do you have an unlimited data plan for home broadband or cellular? If you're going to be doing a lot of video conferencing, you'll need one. Internet service provider contracts often contain provisions that deprioritized users' traffic in peak periods, which may or may not result in a detectable difference in service quality. The news is that the "peak periods" of the day may be a lot longer than they used to be.

The major carriers—Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile—have made announcements that their networks are ready for the increased load, and there are measures they can take to do this. Will it be enough? Who knows.

Verizon and T-Mobile have closed at least some of their company-owned stores. Many of the big carrier stores are franchises so closing will be up to the owners.

Vendors whose products support remote work are experiencing significant increases in traffic as well. Can they handle it? Some Microsoft Office 365 services, including the remote meeting service Teams, experienced an outage early Monday morning in Europe. Microsoft fixed the problem within three hours, attributing it to an "upstream power outage," so it may not have been related to the crisis. But the likelihood of problems remains. Smaller vendors, like Zoom and LogMeIn, will be facing a big test.

Microsoft has put out guidance to administrators (go to your Office 365 Admin Center to see it) that it will be adjusting Office 365 features to better handle a surge in remote use by making "temporary adjustments to select non-essential capabilities." It says the following:

Examples of changes we may make include:

  • How often we check for presence
  • The interval in which we show when the other party is typing
  • Video resolution

The reference to video resolution probably has to do with video conferencing capabilities, like Microsoft Teams. The highest video quality may be "non-essential," but it may affect user experience. Whether they have announced it or not, Microsoft's competitors are inevitably considering the same moves.

For similar reasons, look out for features being restricted on free services. For instance, as of this reporting, the Zoom site displays this message:

Important Notice: Due to increased demand, dial-in by phone audio conferencing capabilities may be temporarily removed from your free Basic account. During this time, we strongly recommend using our computer audio capabilities. If you require dial-in by phone audio conferencing, please see our other package options.

Home security

Many remote workers will be using computers and networks they don't normally use for work. This is a real cause for concern.

Hopefully, your organization has a virtual private network (VPN) for access to the network. And hopefully, you have the capacity to handle a sharp increase in the number of users on it. If the VPN is outsourced and you can buy extra capacity, you should at least consider the option.

If you allow users to work on their home computers, it's impractical to think that you can verify their security. It's best to assume they are insecure. In such circumstances, a terminal interface, like Windows Terminal or Citrix, running on a VPN is a good option. But that may not be available to everyone.

There is some low-hanging security fruit though: Consider not allowing unsupported versions of Windows (or macOS, for that matter) to connect if you have a way of blocking them.

Here's how home users should secure their Wi-Fi networks:

  • Use an SSID that doesn't identify you.
  • Use a strong password for the network.
  • Enable network encryption and use WPA2-PSK at a minimum.
  • If you have new equipment that supports WPA3, use it. It's a vast improvement.
  • Make sure the router admin account has a strong password that is different from the network password.
  • Make sure to keep the firmware on your Wi-Fi router and other network hardware up to date.

Unauthorized software

In the absence of clear plans and ample capacity for remote work, employees are going to pick whatever tool seems handy to get their work done. This will be necessary in many cases because not enough companies have clear plans and ample capacity for remote work. But it is something to be avoided, if possible.

If, for example, your company allows you to work on documents together on Office 365, then you don't want to do so with your personal Google Docs account, and vice versa. Not to criticize one or the other, or any particular Internet service, but it is best for employees to confine themselves to company-authorized software and services. It's the best way to maintain security and interoperability, and to avoid problems when everyone's back in the office.

On the subject of company-authorized software, it may be necessary for the company to purchase extra licenses for some products—for example, for VPNs or virtual meetings.

The strain on help desks

Many users will be encountering new technical problems. Can they get on the VPN? Will their regular in-office credentials work from home? Putting together an FAQ and emailing it to everyone is a good idea.

It's also likely that many remote users will want to work on a Mac. There's a good chance that some of your systems will work on it and some won't or will need a workaround. Collect this information in one place so that you can send it out to all who need it.

Watch out for scams related to COVID-19

Be alert for scams attempting to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis. Work-from-home scams, an evergreen in the trade, are likely to be especially popular.

Tell users to scrutinize their personal communications. If everyone is working from home, attackers will spear phish users at home for access to business information. The "would you like to work from home" scam could be flipped to "do you work at home?" with a wolf in a productivity tool's clothing.

Apply all the usual rules of scrutiny and mistrust of Internet communications. AT&T's Cyber Aware page has some material you may be able to repurpose to instruct others.

Working from home is harder

Everyone who actually works at home quickly learns a few lessons about the problems with it. Other than the ones described above, they're not technical problems. They are psychological.

Even if you are home alone, it's easier to be distracted from your work at home than at the office. Home is full of things that beckon to you (the TV, the kitchen, the dog) and that are, at worst, less appealing at the office.

But it's the other people at home who are the real problem. Even if they know you're working, they assume that if you're home, you're available. They look in and see you "just reading your email" and figure that whatever they need is more important.

Remember, if you have kids, you're not going to be home alone. With schools closed, kids are stuck at home with nothing to do. If you are able to work uninterrupted, you're one of the lucky ones.

When it's all over

There is a lot of speculation in the industry about whether this great experiment in working from home will cause companies and employees to fall in love with the concept and make it a regular way of doing business.

Doubtless, this will happen in some cases, but many employees will bless the day they get to commute back into town to the office, smiling at their old friend the traffic jam on the way. Silicon Valley techies will be happy to get back to all the free food and games at the office. Suburban commuters will happily take in all the pleasures of the city again.

Many employers will feel the same, since remote communication just isn't the same as face-to-face interaction. Some measure of creativity and productivity is probably lost.

In the end, we're likely to be changed by this experience but not that much.

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This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.