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Is COVID-19 going to accelerate the future of work?

Menlo Security
April 19, 2020

Literally overnight, COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way we work. The future of work was always going to be remote, based in the cloud, and mobile. Trends were heading that way even before hundreds of millions of workers were ordered to shelter in place for the foreseeable future last month, but the change was supposed to be gradual—played out over the course of years or decades as technology enabled safe, secure access to the tools and information remote workers need to keep the business running. COVID-19 simply accelerated that trend—pushing the population of remote employees at most organizations from 10 percent to 100 percent of the workforce over the span of a few days.

We’ll investigate the technical challenges of this avalanche of a sea change in an upcoming blog, but first let’s talk about what this is going to mean for users and the organization as a whole.

Whatever happens, there’s no going back to the way things were. Commuting from home to a central office where you have face-to-face interactions with co-workers will seem quaint. Organizations that do not enable flexible work-from-home policies will struggle to retain employees and attract qualified applicants. Knowledge workers will expect to be able to work from home, where they will rely on Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms, VPNs, video conferencing, and online collaboration tools to get work done.

Location won’t matter for job applicants’ prospects as long as they have the soft skills related to long-distance collaboration: communication, giving and receiving feedback, project management, self-motivation, abstract thinking, and problem solving. While overreliance on screens was considered a public health issue just a few weeks ago, mobile phones, tablets, and laptops are now seen as vital links to the outside world. Expect accelerated 5G rollouts in markets across the world as traditional network architectures strain under enormous traffic loads.

The role of the IT department will change as well. Instead of managing servers and network infrastructure, IT administrators will manage vendor relationships with SaaS and cloud providers and ensure secure Internet access for a workforce spread out across the world.And this is where organizations will struggle to keep up with the change to a remote workforce. You can’t simply take existing on-premises applications, upload them to AWS, and call it a day. It takes time to migrate systems to the cloud in a careful, deliberate way that makes sense and provides security. In the meantime, we’ll be stuck in a kind of purgatory where armies of remote workers will need fast, secure, and reliable access to business systems in both the cloud and the data center.

But what will this new network architecture look like? And how will we get there? It’s clear that organizations need a straightforward path to a new way of arming remote employees with the tools and information they need to do their work.

VPNs can provide highly secure access to on-premises applications, but that’s only half the equation. What about traffic to the web, cloud apps, and SaaS platforms? You can’t just route all Internet traffic through a VPN, because it would crumble under the massive traffic load. And you can’t just let remote users connect directly to the Internet without implementing any security controls at all. That would expose users and the organization to all sorts of risk from malicious cyberthreats.

Split tunneling is a good start. It works by separating Internet traffic from VPN traffic, reducing VPN traffic by up to 70 percent—a much more manageable load. But split tunneling still leaves Internet traffic unsecured. Providing an Internet breakout for every remote user is unscalable, so the second step is for organizations to assess whether their VPN architecture is still a relevant option given today’s business reliance on the Internet and the explosion in remote work.

It's something to think about as we look at the future of work and will be the topic of our next blog.

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.

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