As more states mandate that people stay home for all but their essential needs, offices around the country will finally have to confront their squeamishness about remote work.
For some offices, those reservations may be institutional. Managers who believe employees are more productive at the office are now testing that hypothesis at scale, or will soon have to, and companies that value their office culture will have to try replicating it virtually. Along the way, they may find that remote work isn’t as detrimental as they thought.
But there’s also a more mundane reason that working from home could become a lasting option for office workers: Companies are finally investing in the technology they’ve always needed to make remote work possible. Investments that might’ve seemed superfluous before have now become necessary to keep their businesses running.
“We once assumed this shift would take place over 5 to 10 years, but now we are seeing that it is happening much, much faster,” says Sagi Gidali, the cofounder and chief product officer for Perimeter 81, a company that helps businesses secure their networks for remote workers.
The scramble to support remote work
It’s easy to assume that sending workers home is trivial from a technical standpoint. Cloud services such as Slack and Google’s G Suite are designed to be accessible from anywhere, so you might think workers could simply access those same services from their computers at home.
But for many office workers, it’s not that simple. Companies in the financial and insurance sectors, for instance, are dealing with sensitive data that can’t leave their own internal servers, and some companies use proprietary apps that they only offer from within their office networks. While remote workers can sometimes use corporate virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access their office networks, sending everyone home requires more network bandwidth and expanded hardware to encrypt the connections.
Sagi Gidali, Perimeter 81
We once assumed this shift would take place over 5 to 10 years.”
“These offices don’t necessarily have or pay for the network bandwidth to assume that everybody’s coming in from the outside,” says Thomas Hatch, an IT infrastructure expert who is the founder and CTO of SaltStack.
Simon Migliano, the head of research at Top10VPN.com, says he’s heard anecdotally that some teams were caught unprepared and have been rushing to stress-test their VPNs to make sure they can handle the load.
“We know of at least one company whose VPN capacity is 8,000 users,” Migliano says via email. “Now, they have over five times as many employees as that trying to connect, with predictably frustrating results.”
Rob Smith, an analyst with Gartner, says he’s been inundated with calls from companies that are now trying to put remote work solutions in place. He estimates that roughly one-third of all companies were ill-equipped to send all their employees home, while another third had no remote work plan in place at all.
“My number one inquiry call is, ‘We have X number of employees who have never worked from home before, who are now forced to work from home. What do we do?'” Smith says.
The irony, Smith says, is that corporate VPN is an aging technology, and before the coronavirus pandemic, he believed it was on its way out as more companies migrated to cloud-based services. As a result, companies weren’t really interested in beefing up their VPNs so that more employees could work at home.
Rob Smith, Gartner
They just didn’t care. It wasn’t even a cost issue.”
“They just didn’t care,’ Smith says. “‘It wasn’t even a cost issue. It was, ‘We don’t need it, or it’s good enough what we have.'”
Gidali’s company, Perimeter 81, has also seen an uptick in demand. The company presents itself as a hybrid solution, allowing workers to access a company’s internal networks and cloud-based services through a single secure platform. While it was onboarding about 70 to 80 new clients per month before the coronavirus outbreak, its rate of new clients has roughly quadrupled since.
“There was a hesitancy to begin that process of using a cloud service, of migrating to the cloud. And now the reality is here that we have to be prepared for these kinds of scenarios,” says Karen Mesoznik, Perimeter 81’s corporate marketing director.
What happens next?
Now that companies are making these investments, experts believe they’ll be much more likely to stick with remote work—at least as a part-time option—even after the threat of COVID-19 subsides. Both Perimeter 81’s Sagi Gidali and Gartner’s Rob Smith say workers are more productive when they can stay at home, and several studies back this up.
“It’s an old-school mentality to think you have to have a presence in an office and that people only work within the office,” Smith says. “Once people adjust to working from home, they actually do more work and work longer because they’re not dealing with commutes, they’re not dealing with being interrupted.”
That’s not to say some institutional hurdles won’t remain. In addition to counseling companies on how to make the technological shift, Smith says he’s been giving companies cultural pointers, advising them, for instance, to factor some “water cooler” time into conference calls so workers can talk about other things.
“You’ve got to be able to budget that human element into working from home,” Smith says. “It’s not just the technology. It’s so much more than that.”