Two years ago, the world shut down. We all lived through the start of the pandemic, when the world’s white-collar workforce was sent home en masse. Remote work became the only option for employees in many positions across many companies. This working environment was isolating, and staff required entirely new workflows just to keep business processes functional—but we survived it.
Now, as the world is starting to figure out how to live with COVID-19 long-term, companies are evaluating how to safely bring office workers back on-premises. They want to revive the efficiencies and insights that are possible when staff work face-to-face. At the same time, they want to respect employees’ desire, and need, to continue working remotely at least part-time.
Where all these factors converge, there is an inescapable truth: hybrid work is here to stay. The “new normal” at most organizations as a result of the pandemic will involve a combination of remote and in-person work. Some businesses may require their entire staff to work on-premises three days a week, with two days at home (or elsewhere). Others may offer employees four days a week remote, with one in-person and others will require workers to be on-premises as needed. Obviously, myriad other possibilities may also take root across the corporate world
These are primarily HR and business strategy decisions, no doubt. But they have a big impact on IT and security teams, who need to make sure the company’s technology infrastructure provides the secure and high-performing connectivity every employee needs to get their job done. That is why networking and security leaders should work with senior management to ensure the company’s technologies support whatever hybrid work configurations are under consideration. As the risk of these technologies and the new work location models become strategic, these risks and mitigation approaches must be disclosed to the board.
Flexibility is key to hybrid work success
Before we can build an appropriate infrastructure, security managers need to understand why flexibility in workforce configuration is so crucial. It all starts with the talent shortage that is currently affecting companies across both technology and business jobs. Managers are struggling to attract talent for all kinds of positions, and mandates are sure to reduce their ability to lure new hires. Whether mandates require in-person work, remote work, or some combination, they are a disaster for attracting top talent. They also risk pushing existing employees away.
As offices open back up, many people need to continue working from home on individual schedules. They may have childcare challenges, as schools and daycare centers experience COVID-related closures. They may also be grappling with division-of-labor challenges among family members, depending on different employers’ expectations for reopening. Rigid requirements that staff work specific times on-premises may create a class structure in which those with family obligations that COVID exacerbated are perceived as failing to meet company attendance standards.
Organizations that want to be attractive to the best talent need to offer what I call “hybrid flexible” work. This is the management approach I have taken for the better part of my career. I tell my teams: “Here is the outcome I expect from your group. I don’t care how, or where, you get this work done. The outcome is not negotiable, but how you organize yourselves is entirely up to the team.”
This empowers staff to develop work schedules that make the most sense to them, as long as they deliver the results the business needs. Institutionalizing such an approach requires a corporate policy of hybrid flexible workloads and a focus on outcomes.
Technology infrastructure must facilitate agility
Of course, one more requirement for institutionalizing hybrid flexible work is to provide the right technology infrastructure. Users who move on- and off-premises according to a dynamic schedule need streamlined connectivity wherever and whenever they are working.
They need to access corporate resources easily, via secure cloud applications, without keeping track of a wide assortment of logins. A user should pick up her laptop in her home office and have an identical user experience as when she works onsite all day. Optimized staff productivity requires technological consistency.
Meanwhile, users also need effective security that protects systems and data against external threats, internal malicious threats, and unintentional employee mistakes—without slowing down the performance of the applications that staff rely on.
From a security perspective, all these needs create complexity. The workforce doesn’t require protection just on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—when a certain proportion of staff are remote, or a specific population is in the office. The company’s networking and security technologies must be as flexible and supportive of hybrid workflows as corporate policies are. The technology infrastructure needs to literally be prepared for anything.
Why SSE fits the bill
Security service edge (SSE) is a technology stack in which networking and security tools converge within a cloud infrastructure. Gartner identifies four key elements of an SSE platform: cloud access security broker (CASB), secure web gateway (SWG), firewall-as-a-service (FaaS), and zero-trust network access (ZTNA).
SSE platforms offer companies exactly the type of flexibility that hybrid workforces require. Because they’re holistic and located in the cloud, these solutions protect workloads and users wherever they may be. And because they integrate core security products, they typically offer single sign-on, minimal steps to connect to different assets, and self-service capabilities.
The best SSE platform for supporting a hybrid flexible work environment also minimizes latency for end users. Some remote connectivity and security architectures require a series of cumbersome controls that happen sequentially, reducing employee productivity. By contrast, when security is built into an efficient platform that provides lightning-fast traffic inspection, employees in any location can get more work done, more quickly.
An evergreen investment
And that brings us back to the question of security and networking leaders’ support of workforce planning. When a company puts an SSE platform in place, management has the flexibility to adjust to the constantly changing external landscape as they see fit. Will certain employees be in the office every day this month? Should everyone be sent home today due to a COVID outbreak? Will a particular team be working from Europe or Mexico or China this week?
None of those decisions affect employees’ ability to get their work done, because there’s a solution providing low-latency, cloud-based networking and security that employees already use for daily connectivity. No one needs special technology arrangements to work from home—or even work from the beach, if that’s where they’ll be.
So, senior management and the board no longer need to worry that reversal of a decision about employees’ location might render security or networking tools useless or increase the risk to the corporate strategy. Even if the world reverted entirely to the old normal (which I don’t think it will) and required all workers to be on-premises full-time, nothing would need to change. An investment in an SSE platform will continue to deliver value, whatever happens to the workforce model.
Business is changing faster now than ever before. Employees, applications, and data are located everywhere, and they’re constantly in motion. Companies need a security stack that is flexible enough to protect their assets, wherever business is getting done and whatever the future may hold.