Fortifying networks for prolonged telework: the pandemic and beyond
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on telework was swift and profound. By early April, about half of the American workforce, including state and local government workers, was telecommuting full-time. In a reversal of the prevailing trend of minimizing work-from-home options for government employees, department heads including 61 percent of local governments directed staff to transition to telework. Now, the big question is whether – and to what extent – does telework become a permanent option?
A Permanent Shift?
A number of high-profile private sector corporations – including Facebook, Twitter and Nationwide Insurance – already have answered that question and announced plans for permanent work-from-home arrangements for employees. While a similar radical shift isn’t a foregone conclusion in the public sector, recent reports indicate a case could be made for continuing telework long after the pandemic ends. NASCIO’s 2020 State CIO survey acknowledged that the pandemic has proven remote work can be successful without negatively impacting the business of state governments. In fact, some state and local leaders are already committing to long-term remote work for their agencies.
Taken together, these factors indicate that the transition to telework scenarios post-pandemic will be top of mind for the sector in the coming months. State and local agencies will need to examine whether their networks are up to the task of supporting a fully – or even partially – remote workforce with employees’ homes essentially acting as new field offices.
As agencies formulate forward-looking telework strategies, three considerations will help them to evaluate and shore up their networks for work-from-home scenarios.
- Overcoming Inconsistent Residential Internet Service
With employees using more cloud-based applications and video conferencing from their homes, quality of service and quality of experience are critical to keeping them engaged and able to perform their duties effectively. Yet employees working from home use a multitude of different broadband access types and infrastructures due to the simple fact that most neighborhoods have only one or two options for home internet access. IT teams that typically manage a single enterprise network with, perhaps, a handful of different carriers and service plans now face the added complexity of having to monitor and address as many providers and service plans as there are employees—all while mitigating network performance challenges that result from using services intended for home use, with limited capacity or lower bandwidth, for enterprise applications.
Across a network of disparate carriers and service plans, a Managed SD-WAN solution can improve network and application performance through ongoing support and optimization across every site in the network, even those based in people’s homes. Managed SD-WAN offers the ability to prioritize applications and optimize traffic to ensure a seamless online experience for all users sharing the network. SD-WAN also allows for the addition of a second circuit, such as an LTE or satellite connection, for home users working with limited internet connections, delivering dynamic load sharing across multiple connections for better traffic flow. Importantly, SD-WAN can even help prevent service disruptions—especially important as households balance the competing demands of remote work and virtual schooling.
- Maintaining Security Posture
Beyond connectivity challenges, the move to telework also presents new security risks. The old adage, “never let a good crisis go to waste,” holds true for malicious actors seeking to exploit network vulnerabilities as people rely more than ever on their home networks for both work and school.
The primary vulnerability in telework actually lies in the devices themselves, rather than the connection. With the migration to work-from-home, devices that typically operate behind a secured perimeter with firewalls and other protections in place now operate in the “wild west” of the home with a direct connection to the Internet. When used for teleworking, those devices – like work-assigned laptops and smart phones – function on the security equivalent of public Wi-Fi, with family members’ devices all sharing the same network. Should another device in the home become infected with malware, for instance, the malicious software will likely attempt to infect other devices on that LAN. Further, if a compromised device at home connects to agency networks via VPN, it can put the whole network at risk. Any form of telework persisting into the future would benefit from the end-point protection and consistent security policy application provided by SD-WAN to keep sensitive data secure.
- Mitigating Risk with Oversight
Finally, agencies need to ensure adequate security response resources are in place and readily available given the broad attack surface a remote workforce presents. In the event that a breach occurs – no matter how small or contained – agencies can’t be caught flat-footed in their response now that their organizations are more widely dispersed. The damage from any incident can become exponentially worse in short order, draining resources at the worst possible time.
State and local governments can rely on a managed services provider, particularly one that is also a managed security service provider, to effectively manage risk and provide the needed resources to monitor and respond to evolving threats in the new telework frontier. A managed services provider delivers clear security benefits including centralized control of an evolving infrastructure, extended security oversight over the entire network, and 24/7 proactive monitoring and support, just to name a few.
A Wakeup Call for IT Modernization
Telework – and its consequent IT issues – existed well before the advent of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has underscored the challenges facing organizations like government agencies in managing a widely distributed network across unplanned endpoints. As the future of work remains fluid, a managed services provider can implement tailored solutions like Managed SD-WAN across the entire distributed organization – including at home offices and worksites. Plus, they can ensure the network performance and security necessary to support business applications in the home environment. Whether agencies answer the question of extended or permanent telework today or tomorrow, they can focus on the future with the confidence that they are prepared for whatever may come next.
Tony Bardo is the assistant vice president of government solutions at Hughes Network Systems.