Flexible working – bane or boon?

09 March 2023

Working from home (WFH) has become mainstream with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, opinions on its ongoing adoption in a post-pandemic world remain in stark contrast for enterprises and employees, reports Amy Saunders

As of December 2022, new government legislation allows employees to request flexible working from day one. According to research from VMware, 82% of global employees with flexible working have higher job satisfaction and 53% report increased morale and creativity. Flexible working also creates a more diverse working environment and workforce, which leads to improved financial returns.

“Giving staff more say over their working pattern makes for happier employees and more productive businesses. Put simply, it’s a no-brainer,” said minister for Small Business Kevin Hollinrake. “Greater flexibility over where, when, and how people work is an integral part of our plan to make the UK the best place in the world to work.”

What’s in it for the enterprise?

Remote working has long held the reputation of being a doss, with employees enjoying down time around the occasional email, a mindset perfectly exampled by Elon Musk who in June 2022 demanded Tesla employees return to the office or “pretend to work elsewhere.”

This is backed up by VMware’s survey which revealed that 66% of employers believe anywhere working harms innovation, even though just 38% of enterprises have formal metrics in place to measure impact on innovation.

However, the dialogue has changed following the COVID-19 lockdowns when it was discovered that many workloads could be completed adequately from home. Now, “for many employees, flexible working has changed from a desirable practice to an expectation, meaning employers must accommodate these needs if they are to attract and retain top talent,” says Hendrik Witt, chief product officer, TeamViewer.

Flexible working delivers clear benefits for employees, but there are also incentives for enterprises including “improved staff well-being, reduced overhead costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and more efficient allocation of labour,” outlines Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager, SEH Technology.
Witt concurs: “if organisations can implement the right networking capabilities and embed solutions such as remote support and connectivity, then employees will feel empowered to do their jobs wherever they are located. This will have a knock-on impact for an enterprise’s performance.”

However, hybrid working will only succeed if staff are committed, engaged and able to collaborate effectively, wherever they are located. “This is far from inevitable if IT attempts to impose a solution on the workforce that simply doesn’t work as well as any shadow IT alternative that may be used,” says Jason Barker, SVP EMEA & APAC, IR. “Clearly it is essential that everyone uses the UC solutions that are purchased, implemented and run by the corporate IT team – and that the infrastructure is secure, compliant and well managed.”

Remote and hybrid working can bring many benefits to businesses, especially in terms of attracting top talent. “It removes geographical restrictions when recruiting new talent, enabling companies to tap into larger candidate pools and creating a culturally diverse workforce,” says Hayward.

The demand for remote working can be a deciding factor for many candidates looking for new jobs. Research shows that a lack of flexibility stops people from even applying for roles, impacting businesses’ ability to find and hire the right people, says Hayward: “additionally, with more employees working flexibly, businesses have a greater opportunity to fix their skills gap with a wider range of people from different backgrounds bringing specialist digital skills.”

“With the UK still suffering a significant lack of skills – access to labour (75%) and skills (72%) continue to top business’ labour market concerns, according to the CBI – the hybrid working experience is fast becoming a critical component in employee engagement and retention,” confirmed Barker.

Securing networks and endpoints

With significant proportions of employees now WFH, data security is one of the biggest concerns.

Hornetsecurity says that 33% of companies are not providing cybersecurity awareness training to users who work remotely, and that 74% of remote staff have access to critical data. Moreover, 14% of respondents said their organisation had suffered a cybersecurity incident related to remote working.

“Despite organisations already having a cybersecurity strategy in place, transitioning to a hybrid working model significantly changes the risks and needs of a company’s network,” observes Witt. “Organisations must ensure their networks are agile and secure enough for dealing with a dispersed workforce, where employees will be working in different kinds of environments and be susceptible to a more diverse range of vulnerabilities.”

Remote working can heighten the risk of data breaches or other cybersecurity attacks, with the potential attack surface that needs to be protected growing at an exponential rate, reports Hayward: “cybercriminals have been taking advantage of the shift to remote and hybrid working environments by exploiting known vulnerabilities.”

“Hybrid work has blurred the lines between work and personal lives which, in turn, has changed how we use our devices. Back in 2021, HP found that 50% of employees use their work devices for private purposes and 27% let others use their work device. This poses a unique IT challenge,” added Witt.

The Hornetsecurity study found that the main sources of cybersecurity incidents were compromised endpoints (28%) and compromised credentials (28%). In addition, 15% said that employees use their own devices with some endpoint configuration for remote work. Endpoint security is not a top priority for most employees, however, when transferring data to devices that are not owned or protected by an organisation, IT leaders must ensure that endpoint security strategies are in place.

“Some are turning to simple centralised endpoint management and control systems that are helpful in streamlining the remote working model,” reports Hayward. “This also helps them monitor and have visibility over the number of unmanaged endpoints that are connected to the enterprise network and the actions that need to be taken to reduce cybersecurity risks.”

Educating end users is central to ensuring endpoint security, says Witt. There are measures enterprises can implement to limit the possibility and severeness of incidents: “designated access rights as well as clear role assignments and conditional access measures are mandatory to keep access to relevant resources limited to only the required users. Adding multi factor authentication as well as encryption of the connection to the mix creates multi-layered security framework.”

The networks themselves must also be well-considered, flexible, and secure, Hayward explains: “IT leaders need to consider a secure WAN approach to effectively protect the growing number of connected devices within the remote or hybrid working environment. SD-WAN is a popular choice as it connects users to multi-cloud applications, improves performance and offers greater scalability. It uses various services including MPLS, LTE, broadband, internet, cellular and satellite, to move large amounts of data across the network. This helps businesses to reduce network costs, improve resiliency and better manage the application across the business, without compromising security.”

The hybrid experience should be seamless, especially as employees return to the office for a few days each week, reports Barker. “While IT teams routinely monitor UC performance across the organisation, information is collected on each individual system. With 10,000s, even 100,000s of employees using multiple solutions, it is impossible to gain an accurate and complete picture of system usage or performance. Furthermore, this monitoring rarely extends outside the core office environment, leaving the business completely blind to the work-from-home experience. From calls dropping out when children return from school and plug into games and streaming services, to a widespread resistance to adopting the new corporate UC standard, a lack of visibility across the entire hybrid environment is creating significant business risk.”

A single view of the entire UC environment is required to both accelerate problem resolution and better understand the hybrid employee experience, according to Barker. “Understanding how, when and where individuals are using different aspects of the UC solution set will provide companies with new insight into the way staff are adapting to the hybrid experience – and quickly flag up potential problems.”

Social isolation? Not with the metaverse…

With the first COVID-19 lockdowns a significant proportion of the population suffered with social isolation, even those living with friends, families. In the absence of wider human contact, stress, anxiety, and depression are extremely common, with an obvious impact on work output.

“Reduced staff interaction, collaboration, engagement, and connection are some of the negative impacts, which can significantly affect working culture and lead to productivity losses,” warns Hayward. “Therefore, it is important for companies to utilise technology to replicate in-person interactions to ensure employees do not feel disconnected from their work organisation.”

Duncan Roberts, senior manager, Cognizant, concurs: “working from home has become a norm for many companies since the pandemic struck. However, it does pose its problems, such as decreased social interaction which makes it more difficult for workers to connect with their colleagues and work collaboratively.”

Highlighted as one of the top trends to watch in our January issue ‘2023 – a year of digital transformation’, the metaverse is being lauded by some as key to the future of remote working. “The metaverse could play a large role in reducing these (social isolation) problems, with companies being able to support their staff remotely with virtual training and social interaction,” explains Roberts.

“The metaverse is predicted to solve some of the most challenging problems associated with remote and hybrid working environments,” agrees Hayward. “With colleagues located across the globe, they are able to come together and interact in the metaverse, reading and responding to colleagues’ expressions and body language.”

Witt also believes that the metaverse will play a significant role in remote working as companies look to implement the right technologies and infrastructure to support these practices: “whilst frontline workers are on-the-ground, the use of digital tools such as augmented (AR) and mixed reality (MR) create the basis for the industrial metaverse, as workers can use digital guides to support their frontline processes as well as fix machines and equipment. In turn, these technologies enable many employees such as technicians to take a remote or hybrid role.”

WFH – here to stay

With the new government legislation in full effect, WFH is here for the long-haul. As such, it’s up to each enterprise to ensure that its network is up to the task of supporting flexible, remote working while maintaining security – or risk losing the top talent to their forward-thinking competitors.