Remote working in the time of COVID-19

As South Africa undergoes a necessary lockdown, increasing numbers of organisations are enabling remote working. However, such operations are only as effective as the quality of the network they run on.

Johannesburg, 06 Apr 2020
Ernest Mavhunga, senior server and network engineer, TechnoChange Solutions.
Ernest Mavhunga, senior server and network engineer, TechnoChange Solutions.

In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, enterprises have had to effectively consider multiple contingency plans, in order to stave off a potentially serious disruption to their business. 

To this end, remote working, whereby employees work for an extended period outside the formal office, has rapidly become a key element for these organisations to remain operational.

This method of operation is viable as it is enabled by a host of digital tools of virtually every description, from Web conferencing and e-mail, to mobile collaboration applications and virtual event platforms.

Of course, says Ernest Mavhunga, senior server and network engineer at TechnoChange Solutions, the advent of the coronavirus and the concomitant global lockdowns have hastened the adoption of these tools. The problem, however, is that without a fast and reliable network, remote working becomes impossible.

“Remote connectivity obviously introduces a greater level of flexibility for workers. If employees are enabled to remotely access an enterprise's network, systems and data, this will clearly benefit any organisation. However, at the same time, remote access creates additional security risks that must be carefully reviewed and monitored, particularly if the business works with sensitive information or data,” he says.

“The network, naturally, is the key to enabling true remote capabilities, and having a fast, well-maintained and reliable network should ensure a more efficient use of resources, while permitting communication and collaboration across distance and time. Furthermore, with file-sharing, all employees – regardless of location – have access to the same information, while shared databases also eliminate duplication of effort.”

Mavhunga suggests that when we talk about the network, what is meant here are the types of IT networks that companies use to connect employees and teams together, encompassing everything from local area networks (LANs) and metro area networks to wide-area networks (WANs).

“The WAN is the most important of these and one that is a key enabler for remote operations, because it does not matter where the employee is, with a WAN they can communicate and support customers anywhere.”

“Therefore, without those specialist organisations that are there to ensure these networks are well-maintained, upgraded and improved, companies will not be in a position to run their critical operations – as most have to do at present – from a remote work environment.”

As it is, he continues, there are many challenges faced by businesses when enabling remote work. Among these are issues such as asynchronous collaboration and communication, which can paralyse teamwork; an inability to deliver high-priority projects, owing to remote work constraints like time differences; and failure to manage daily performance properly, leading to abusive micromanagement practices that cause unneeded pressure on employees.

“Other problems that may arise are issues relating to siloed knowledge that doesn't flow to remote workers freely, making them feel isolated and lagging behind their in-house colleagues; and unbalanced working schedules with regular overloads, leading to decreasing productivity or, at worst, lasting periods of apathy.”

But, of course, adds Mavhunga, there is no question that poor network performance remains the top challenge to implementing effective remote working.

“There isn't simply more total traffic – there's more traffic in all directions. Without the right equipment at endpoints and midpoints along the way, it's impossible to provide the high-speed communication needed, especially with lockdowns, and companies that are now being forced to send employees home.

“In the current unprecedented situation, businesses would do well not to forget the other top challenge, namely security. Because the perimeter of today's network is unclear, simply blocking unauthorised outside traffic from the internal network isn't adequate for protecting data anymore.”

The final challenge companies adopting increasing levels of remote working must bear in mind is that available budgets almost never meet the need for network services. This is especially true, he points out, when the network now needs to support not just traditional IT applications, but also conventional business services like telephony and video-conferencing. After all, these require new levels of network quality, as they need to be capable of handling the large numbers of additional employees who are now working from home.

“Thus, the ability to remotely access an organisation’s network, systems and data can prove the difference in spurring productive and profitable days. In these tense times, those organisations that have already put in place measures to enable remote access are better placed to leverage the benefits.

“Of course, under the various stresses already outlined above, it is vital that businesses ensure they have a partner that has the experience, skills and a long-term understanding of the network environment. The right partner will ensure the enterprise’s network is as strong and resilient as it can be, thereby enabling workers to perform their day jobs from home with little to no impact on the business. Moreover, if you ensure your network is in tip-top shape, you will be able to keep your employees safe, while also remaining on the right side of the new laws governing this crisis,” concludes Mavhunga.