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Reimagining Remote Work

The Next Wave in Digital Transformation

1. Introduction

Working outside the office used to be the exception to the rule. Here and there, a single employee had to work from home because of unusual circumstances. Or a partner signed on to help with a project. Businesses had procedures for issuing the right equipment and setting up the right connectivity. But the need for remote work was small and scattered. 

Then COVID-19 hit the world fast and hard. Suddenly remote work was the rule for the majority of workers everywhere. Organizations had to deal with a disruption that dwarfed any in modern memory. Existing business continuity plans went out the window because they didn’t account for the speed, scale, and longevity of the response demanded by the pandemic.

A Cisco survey of over 3,000 organizations worldwide

found a significant spike in remote working during the pandemic1 (from 19% to 62%) and higher predicted rates for remote working afterward (37%). 

1 Future of Secure Remote Work Report, Cisco, 2020

CIOs and their organizations have been keeping their heads down, doing whatever they could to stay in business. This disruption has been relentless and traumatic.

But people are starting to look up and forward. They’re considering how to change their organizational structure, adapt to the evolving role of the office workplace, and embrace a workforce that can work from anywhere. IDG Research2 found that leading digital transformation and improving remote work experience are the top two priorities for CEOs to help their businesses persevere through the current disruption.

2 CIO COVID-19 Impact Survey, IDG Research, 2020

The global crisis created by the pandemic gives you a chance to reimagine and transform remote work into a robust, comprehensive strategy that helps your organization rise to new levels of resilience and create a more inclusive future of work.

The next wave of digital transformation

Digital transformation—the practice of turning physical business processes into digital ones—has accelerated because of the pandemic, where measures to restrict physical interactions forced us to move those interactions online.  

The IDG survey lists 1) digital transformation and 2) remote work as two separate CIO priorities. But reimagining remote work is itself a business-critical component of digital transformation. It’s all about removing the workforce’s reliance on physical processes to do their jobs and serve their customers well.  

Before the pandemic, remote work hadn’t been explored on a large scale as a business success strategy. As the cultural resistance and practical barriers to remote work continue to break down and misconceptions are dispelled, remote working won’t be blue ocean territory for long. That’s why we believe that remote work strategies are the next wave of digital transformation. We’re predicting a competitive advantage for the organizations that create the right next-generation workplace. 

2. The New Realities of Remote Working

In the past, on-site work and remote work were often treated as opposite poles. Either an employee worked remotely all the time, or they never did. Now organizations are seeing that they can take a more nuanced, flexible approach to the mix of on-site and remote work. In some cases, pandemic conditions are still in flux. At the same time, employees appreciate the perks of working from home but also miss the office and are expressing preferences for hybrid models where they have a mix of both experiences.

Striking the right balance

Hybrid workplaces aren’t feasible for every organization, or even every industry. But some jobs that were once thought to be impossible to do remotely have now been proven otherwise.  

Office-centric and high-tech environments are more easily adaptable. And even sectors like manufacturing, healthcare, and entertainment are finding creative ways to operate remotely. For example, remote sensors, mixed reality tools, and smartphone apps can sometimes substitute for in-person support staff. 

Organizations are also recognizing the potential benefits of embracing hybrid workplaces

Hiring and retention

Expand the pool of candidates to cultivate more diverse workforces.

Cost savings

Cut spending on rent and equipment for office space and reducing travel. 

Health

Support physical safety and mental wellness. 

Resilience

Strengthen preparedness for future disruptions with more flexible work environments.

For hybrid workplaces to be successful long-term, organizations must create inclusive work environments that enable and engage their workforces

Enablement

Remote workers need the right infrastructure so they can work on any device, from anywhere, at any time. This infrastructure must adapt quickly to changes in requirements and demand.

Engagement

Remote work environments need to be seamless and performance needs to be optimized so that employees always have the same high quality of experience, whether they are in the office, at home, or elsewhere.  

Inclusivity

Remote work environments should be equitable and accessible, creating a more inclusive future of work with reduced barriers to employment and collaboration. 

Organizations will need to reexamine the purpose of physical locations for their particular industry and business model.

  • What types of activities do employees still prefer to do in person, such as training or brainstorming?  
  • How can operations technology be employed to create hybrid workplaces for factory and industry workers?  
  • What do mobile employees such as social workers and construction professionals need?

The renewed role for IT leadership

Gartner3 finds that COVID-19 has created a new opportunity for CIOs to play a leading role in creating the future workplace. Many CEOs are convinced that remote work should continue, and technology has proven critically important to the organization, not just to operations.  

CIOs and other IT leaders now have an opportunity to lay claim to a clear strategic initiative: hybrid workplaces. They can capitalize on their relationships with other C-suite executives, which have been strengthened during this disruptive period. By working cross-functionally, IT can help orchestrate and drive remote work strategies so employees are empowered whether they are in the office, at home, on the factory floor, or somewhere in between.  

3 The 2021 CIO Agenda: Prepare for Increased Digital Acceleration, Gartner, 2020

Let’s look at two key areas where remote working can be reimagined

User experience (UX)

As the pandemic has shown so clearly to leadership, workers are people first and foremost, and working remotely is an experience first and foremost. Whatever the technological underpinnings, organizations need to look at remote work from the employee’s point of view. Is the experience smooth or frustrating, supportive or alienating, productive or clunky? 

Security

Many of the security threats that popped up in the wake of the coronavirus were predictable: fake domains with the word COVID, phishing emails that referenced the pandemic. But one new threat is that organizations can no longer rely on physical cues such as calls from corporate phone lines or encounters at the coffee machine to authenticate each other in the corporate environment. In this way, widespread ongoing remote work has increased security vulnerabilities.

3. Opportunities for Improving User Experience

When organizations were scrambling to roll out remote access across their workforce, the priority was to keep going with whatever was at hand. Virtual meeting software was pressed into service because it was already licensed or people were familiar with it. Some organizations found it easier to ship routers to their remote workers, so they could simply plug in a box and send the box back if it didn’t work. Others went with a software VPN so they didn’t have to deal with the logistics of shipping. 

Now organizations have the opportunity to reevaluate those temporary measures and improve the experience. They’re looking beyond the basics of enabling remote work. They’re considering the nuances of creating an engaging and inclusive remote workplace that moves the business forward. So what opportunities are there for improvement? 

Organizations are also recognizing the potential benefits of embracing hybrid workplaces

Performance

Employees want…Fast connections and reliable uptime. 

Operations can…Revisit network design to make sure the right service level agreements (SLAs) are in place and traffic is being routed in efficient ways. 

Seamlessness

Employees want…The ability to work easily anywhere, on any device. Quick access to all the apps and systems they need.

Operations can…Deliver single sign-on, better user interfaces, and collaboration tools that accommodate remote workers to reduce the amount of friction they encounter. 

Security

Employees want…Security measures that are strong enough but not too annoying.

Operations can…Ensure that employees and the corporation are well-protected from new vulnerabilities in the remote work environment. (The next section will cover security in greater detail.) 

Support

Employees want…Easily accessible help and training. 

Operations can…Prepare to handle the new support issues created when using non-corporate infrastructure and devices and working from remote environments. 

Operations

Employees want…Well-executed operations that are invisible to the user. 

Operations can…Make it easier for the organization to support remote work. This could mean making everything as policy-enabled as possible rather than doing manual one-offs. It could also mean achieving greater observability. (A later section will look further into observability.) 

These improvements involve a transition from reactive tactics that maintain minimum functionality to proactive strategies that promote long-term success.

User experience isn’t limited to employees—it also applies to customers, whose expectations have risen even higher as more commerce has shifted to digital because of the pandemic. Customer satisfaction metrics and conversion rates should reveal how well a business is keeping up with customer expectations around performance, seamlessness, security, and support.  

Note that the better the employee experience, the better the customer experience. For example, a contact center employee may not be used to troubleshooting technical issues with their own infrastructure, which is now more complex and high stakes. They can’t lean back and call to a team member for help with a challenging inquiry anymore. What needs to be done to make sure that the experience of contact center staff is the same or better when working remotely than it was on-site? That achievement will directly improve the customer experience. 

4. Next Steps for Optimizing Security

The third CIO priority cited by IDG Research is upgrading IT and data security to boost corporate resiliency. Security is clearly a prominent concern for IT leaders. 

The sudden demand for remote work infrastructure, which changed the employee experience, also had security implications. Supply chain problems for hardware like laptops forced many organizations to allow employees to bring their own devices (BYOD). Bandwidth requirements suddenly shifted from corporations to residential networks through ISPs. Everyone wanted to collaborate on video, which started an additional flood of traffic that competed with home uses like entertainment and online education. The quality of service, bandwidth management, and security were suddenly out of corporate visibility and control. 

Security measures that had relied on physical cues and interactions were no longer viable. Smart cards and badges that had been swiped or shown to someone were suddenly unusable since the swiping equipment wasn’t available and cards couldn’t get issued to new users or replaced if they were lost. Healthcare organizations that used to share fingerprint readers for biometrics had to find alternatives since sharing was no longer sanitary and everyone was wearing gloves anyway. 

Some of the temporary security arrangements proved inadequate as organizations threw in whatever they could acquire. Over-the-counter remote access software might not be very secure, but at least it was cheap and available. People had to use whatever computer equipment they had at home, possibly sharing with their kids for video classes. 

But in other cases, the new solutions were overkill. Encrypted web communications are so widespread that a VPN going the long way around to access a web resource isn’t really necessary. In fact, the only thing you may be getting is degraded performance for little, if any, additional security. 

In short, the work conditions changed quickly and drastically, and the stopgap security measures often provided too much or too little protection for the cost and usability trade-offs.

As operations leaders take stock and start transitioning to longer-term security solutions for remote work, they are looking to improve in several ways

Management

Shift some responsibility from the organization to the employee. For example, organizations can check the health of an endpoint without managing it and give employees a deadline for doing updates, after which they’ll no longer be able to access corporate systems.

Performance

Again, revisit network design to make sure that connectivity is stable and efficient, not unnecessarily degraded by security management. 

Policies

Design more flexible security policies that focus more on user identity. If it’s not possible to ban BYOD entirely, how can it be handled in ways that respect user privacy while preserving visibility and security enforcement? 

Training

Upgrade skills, particularly for operations and support, as they deal with the new circumstances created by remote work. 

Remember that reimagining secure remote work goes beyond protecting the organization; it’s about filtering security through the lens of user experience so as not to undermine the employee engagement that ultimately drives business success.

5. The Potential for Observability

The challenge of remote work has highlighted an important direction for organizations to explore. With the future always changing and filled with unknowns, organizations need to see more to solve more. 

When the remote experience is subpar or when remote security isn’t properly tuned, operations must be able to pinpoint the issue and resolve it. But that process has become more challenging as more of the technology stack and services have been removed from corporate management. Where cloud is the new data center. And the Internet is the new network. 

The long tradition of individually monitoring the performance of applications, infrastructure, and networks is not enough. Modern architectures demand that monitoring evolve into a process that offers actionable insights into digital business applications and experiences—a process known as observability. 

But observability, though easily claimed, can be harder to fully realize. Because true observability needs to look beyond a single layer, which provides only a siloed view. It needs to understand the interaction and interdependencies between multiple systems in distributed system architectures that span the digital experience. And it needs to help bring teams and business context together to more quickly identify the root causes of performance issues, prioritize fixes based on potential business impact, and take action. 

Achieving observability and driving impact involves three components

1. Improved visibility

Increase the scope of monitoring and boosting the quality of data collected. The result? Visibility of the full stack of available data across the entire digital experience.

2. Actionable insights

Expand the data analysis to find correlations between systems (that is, the interactions and interdependencies) and derive actionable insights. Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) can help make sense of and scale with the increased amount of data.

3. Faster action

Respond to the insights derived by resolving issues more quickly, optimizing infrastructure to proactively prevent problems, and automating responses to drive improvements to KPIs, such as mean-time-to-repair (MTTR), application uptime, infrastructure uptime and, ultimately, employee and customer satisfaction. 

6. How to Chart a Course Forward

Some years ago, the role of the CIO seemed to be contracting. Cloud infrastructure, third-party service providers, and line-of-business application developers meant that there was less under the CIO’s direct control and influence. 

But the pandemic has demonstrated just how significant their role is. A CFO alone can’t figure out how to keep the business functioning. The CMO won’t save the company singlehandedly. The CTO may understand technology, but executing and scaling it is another issue. CIOs have been on the front line, working with these other roles and providing strategic organizational and technology leadership in response to disruption. Previous disruptions were local and short-term. If something hit one line of business, that line of business could address it. But COVID-19 hit the entire organization, at the same time it was hitting every other organization.

That’s why CIOs and IT leaders have taken such a prominent role. In the Security Outcomes Study4 conducted in 2020, keeping senior leadership informed was one of the top three practices that helped organizations minimize the impact of the global pandemic on their operations.

Building on that communication by working with CEOs to understand business priorities and with COOs to get things deployed, CIOs can lead the way in turning remote work from today’s necessity into tomorrow’s advantage. 

The growing conversation about hybrid workplaces and the evolving role of the office is not just a technology conversation. It’s an organizational and process conversation, and ultimately a human conversation. With IT leaders at the center, where all of these conversations come together, CIOs are ideal candidates to work with the various stakeholders and chart a course forward.  

By collaborating with other senior leaders and understanding their requirements, while keeping the employee and customer experience paramount, CIOs and their IT organizations can make a significant contribution to helping their organizations ride the next wave of digital transformation. And not just recover and adjust in the face of change, but thrive. 

4 The 2021 Security Outcomes Study, Cisco, 2020

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