Preparing for the next level of hybrid work

As companies get to grips with remote working, what progress have they made? And where do they focus their attention?
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Nick Truran, Peermont Group.
Nick Truran, Peermont Group.

How much has the world of work changed since the pandemic? Most of us can agree it's been quite a leap. The move towards hybrid working is not only rearranging company assets and infrastructure. It has already dramatically changed how we perceive co-workers and customers.

Hybrid working is permanent

If you once asked what the new normal of working will be, the signs point to hybrid offices and fluid workforces. According to Gartner:

  • 47% of employers plan to let workers work hybrid-like full-time moving forward.
  • 82% of business leaders plan to use hybrid work at least part-time

But security is a concern. Even though 80% of global businesses are confident their home-working employees can handle cyber threats, says ESET, 41% of organisations polled by the Cloud Industry Forum still believe the office is a safer environment than the cloud.

"I want to give a real-life example of the dynamic that's happening from a social perspective," says Ivan Duggan, MD, Global Sales, SD-WAN and Routing at Cisco. "With all of my team across the globe, I haven't met their families. But I've met more of their kids and their grandkids over the last 12 months. And I've gotten to know them better, even though we were virtual. There's a great social change that has happened in terms of what's acceptable on a video business call these days. I think there is more acceptance of family and the environment that people are in, which is a real positive outcome from this."

For months, everyone talked about the new normal or what's next in rapid workplace changes. After the rush to remotely connect employees and resources, the dust has settled, and some of the more long-term challenges are starting to match with solutions, says Tim Niekerk, IT Operations manager at Isuzu: "From an IT point of view, we put the minimum number of people on site to reduce risk. When this whole Covid-19 started, there was a massive amount of work in terms of connectivity, security, and so on. Our VPN and infrastructure were already in place to support that. So, it was more just a matter of managing it from a workload perspective and getting users connected from home. But I think it's now pretty much stabilised."

But the period of change companies now enter is perhaps the riskiest and most delicate. While the shifts of the past 18 months happened out of necessity, now companies need to shore up their technical capacities while adjusting their cultures.

What we're trying to do is not kill people's way of working with red tape.

Willem Bekker, Capitec

"We're moving to a point where we ask: how do we make it real? How do we make it sustainable?" Duggan adds. "It really is about user experience. So irrespective of where you work, how are you delivering a high-quality user experience where people feel connected? Do people feel that they're collaborating well and that they're being productive in their working environment?"

Willem Bekker, Capitec's head of IT Operations, puts it succinctly: "What we're trying to do is not kill people's way of working with red tape."

Managing the new office

The journey to the hybrid office has moved beyond the initial technology groundwork. It's no longer just about remote access and, instead, about the enterprise as a whole. Examples include facility management and improving home user security, says Brendan Cuthbertson, head of Cisco Private Sector Sales: "You can measure the quantity of people that are in an open space, or how many people come into a meeting room, and actually even control the air conditioning based on the quantity of people that have been invited to a meeting. We're creating a huge amount of capability and a better experience for users as they come back into the workspace in much safer and much more collaborative ways.

“Security is another big focus. How do you secure a workforce when it’s dotted all over the world? That's where companies are starting to look for cross-architectural solutions that embed security."

There are dangers when using a blanket approach.

Jaco Maass, BKB

One thing is clear – there will be no uniform hybrid workplace model, at least not any time soon. Every company out there has to fit unique circumstances into the new paradigm. In the case of BKB, an agriculture services provider, understanding data and providing relevant access to travelling sales teams has become a big priority, says Jaco Maass, BKB's GM and CIO: "We need to start identifying who has access to what type of information and who needs access to what type of environments. It's important to qualify the data and establish the underlying security that goes with it. We as a business need to start identifying what tools are required to make things work. There are dangers when using a blanket approach. A lot of the guys out in the field need to have the freedom to connect with their clients. But not all of them have access to personal information."

Security as a catalyst

Security is a considerable concern as companies adjust. Still, it can also be a great launching point to embed other digital advantages, says Roop Maharaj, manager of Umgeni Water's ICT Operations: "Security was a foundation for us to allow as many staff to work from home, and at the same time create access to Internet of Things devices and the protection that’s required by the organisation."

Yet while security is firmly on the agenda, solutions aren't always as available. Specifically, Roop notes, legacy systems that run specialised software are not likely to be upgraded for current conditions: "We have legacy systems that can’t run on later operating systems. You have to wait for the software vendors to upgrade the systems, but it's such a niche market that it probably won't happen. A secure DMZ (demilitarized zone) has enabled us to take all the data and workloads, and put it into a secure area."

Brendan Cuthbertson, Cisco.
Brendan Cuthbertson, Cisco.

The growing needs of security in hybrid workplaces give new emphasis to zero trust. Specifically, says Conrad Steyn, CTO and head of Engineering for Cisco Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a better view on how user profiles, security and productive access come together: "When we look at the journey throughout zero trust architecture, it's all about the journey from the user to the application. With zero trust, we have the ability to do segmentation across the real estate. So, it's important that we understand the profiling of users. That would ultimately impact policy from a segmentation point of view, as in what resources the end-user is actually allowed to connect to."

User experiences

To echo Duggan's earlier comments, the real question is how to provide better user experiences in a hybrid workplace. In some cases, it can involve pretty straightforward challenges that have eluded good solutions. Niekerk cites two examples where addressing user needs led to better experiences. "We separated part of our wireless network on a specific SSID (Service Set Identifier), then anyone bringing outside devices on site used that network. And then in the manufacturing space, we've had requests to use WhatsApp for video or photo content relating to anything to do with the manufacturing process. And we've enabled those devices."

User support was another area that had to change rapidly, adds Nick Truran, CIO at the Peermont Group. "One of the things we did was centralise our support model and slightly change the way we work. We centralised our service desk in the way we operate and the way we route our calls from a support perspective. We also changed our first line and second line support models."

IT teams have to reconcile major changes to systems and security while giving users access and helping them stay productive. It's a big challenge, but, clearly, many are getting it right. All that work builds a necessary foundation because the next stage of the journey is to help the rest of the company change its cultural norms to fit with hybrid models.

There's a great social change that has happened.

Ivan Duggan, Cisco

"There are people not used to outcome-based management," notes Bekker. "I call them – excuse my joke about this – the clock watcher team. If the guy swipes in and swipes out, you think he's working. Normally what we find is that the people managing in that manner are struggling with the new way of work. They're not used to planning an outcome with employees."

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