YOUNGSTOWN – In the months since the pandemic began, there have been countless musings about how everything that’s happened will affect the future of workplaces. A central part of those thoughts is where people will work.
“There are people who are adamant this will change the workplace forever and that offices will close down and people will always work from home forever,” says Robert Merva, owner and CEO of Avrem Technologies. “Then there are people like a client I spoke with who thinks it’s all garbage and that after six months people wouldn’t want to work from home anymore. It’s likely more of a middle ground.”
The most likely outcome, Merva and other local IT experts say, is that businesses are going to offer the ability to work remotely, but not on a permanent basis. Instead, it will be blended, with employees able to work off-site when the need arises.
“Things come up. Kids get sick and need to miss school, as an example. So the ability to work from home is a big asset for both employees and employers,” says Ralph Blanco, owner and CEO of Executive Computer Management Solutions Inc. “Many are seeing that it’s not bad to work from home and that people are still productive. It provides flexibility.”
Implementing such an option, however, necessitates much preparation. Home computers often aren’t equipped with the same strict security measures as office machines. Mark Richmond, president of Micro Doctor IT, says commercial-grade anti-virus systems that are monitored and updated regularly are a must, along with other layers of security.
“We like to layer on a lot of stuff like DNS filtering that blocks you from going to known malware sites,” he says. “Make sure you have the correct tools and monitoring. Two-factor authentication has been big and we’re starting to implement that for both logging into your PC and into Office 365.”
Home computers, Blanco adds, are often powerful enough to handle the work being done. The biggest concern, however, is upgrading them to ensure that data are protected.
“Where we see people slip up is they don’t put anti-virus, breach detection, malware detection and that kind of layered security to prevent things from entering the work environment,” Blanco says. “It’s the responsibility of the company to check those assets and lock them down to internal infrastructure. Don’t let them install things on computers and the like.”
Moving to a remote workforce is also a question of money. While the initial discussion often includes saving money on rent – either from a smaller office or none at all – Merva says there are other costs that will arise in its place.
“If you’re paying $2,000 a month for your office space. If you go remote, you’re not just saving that $2,000. There are increased costs for a VPN or a phone system or a Microsoft Teams license that you need to pay for,” he says.
Money isn’t necessarily saved by having employees use their home computers either, he says. If they’re being used for work in a home office, those machines ought to be treated the same as a desktop computer in a cubicle.
“You still need an anti-virus. You still need access to company resources – so that needs to be locked down. If those resources are on a hard drive or I can’t guarantee you aren’t storing copies locally, some industries require that information be encrypted,” Merva says.
“So now we have to mandate encryption. It’s not built into Windows 10 Home. It’s only on Pro or above so we have to get a new license,” he continues. “By the time all that’s been done, we might as well have given you a company computer.”
As countless people began to work from home last spring, combined with the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain, there was a shortage of equipment that is still affecting the IT sector.
Merva says he’s still waiting on some equipment he ordered last March, while Blanco says he, too, has seen delays in shipping, although not as severe as Merva’s case or when the pandemic began.
Businesses need to plan out a remote transition and take the time to think it through, Richmond says.
Equipment needs to be ordered well in advance and written policies – which all three IT experts have helped clients with – need to be updated to include working remotely. That includes outlining how users will connect to company platforms, how machines will be updated and a disaster recovery plan.
“Businesses need to have an IT strategy as part of their day-to-day business, now and tomorrow. With that, they need to continue to look at what kind of layers they need to protect their data. Make sure you’re patching things,” Blanco says. “Make sure there are backups. With malware, it’s not like it just appears. It’s usually induced through employees. The social engineering of penetrating a network has become very good.”
Just as there have been waves of the pandemic, there have been stages of the remote work movement over the past year.
At the onset, Richmond says, it was making the initial move. Then, as money through relief programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program became available, companies worked to get the necessary equipment. “Now, policies are being written and, depending on the size of the company, requiring a company-owned computer to log into the network, especially through a VPN,” he says.
“The move to a permanent work-at-home workforce has quite a bit of talk around it,” he says. “We have discussions every day about someone who needs to work from home, either for a little while because something happened or sometimes permanently.”