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How Covid-19 Created a Massive Remote Workforce Overnight

FEATURE / 04.17.20 / Sam Bocetta

How Covid-19 Created a Massive Remote Workforce Overnight

Remote work has been on the upswing for a few years now, but no one expected it would become the new global normal over the course of a month. But that’s exactly where we are now thanks to the rise and spread of Covid-19.

What began as an interesting but apparently minor news story out of China rapidly became the only thing that mattered to global attention, and spawned a litany of brand new terms that the United States and most of the rest of the world now have had to learn - terms such as social distancing, shelter in place, and flattening the curve. (Or re-learn, for those who have read about or even lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.)

Like dominos falling, state governors issued proclamations that there would be no public gatherings of 10 people or more, and that only essential businesses would remain open (grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and gas stations to name a few). Overnight, companies had to figure out how to continue operations and communications remotely for an indeterminate length of time.

Ready or Not, Covid-19 is Here to Stay

On the last day of 2019, China first reported a case of a flu-like disease of unknown origin that caused pneumonia. By the middle of March, with tens of thousands sick and hundreds already dying, the reality hit America just as March Madness was getting set to swing into action. 

The first indication to some that all wasn’t right was when the NBA floated the idea of playing games with no fans, then cancelled the season. Professional hockey soon followed suit, and then the near billion-dollar 2020 version of the men’s NCAA postseason basketball tournament was over before it began.

Next, schools and universities were shuttered, then workplaces, while employers were advised to figure out how to let employees work from home because it appeared that the best strategies were to deploy social distancing and hunker down, only going out for groceries, exercise (though not to gyms - they were ordered closed), and to the doctor.

Now, in the middle of April, with two million sick globally and over 120,000 dead*, America has entered full lockdown mode after overtaking Italy to become the country with the highest death toll from Covid-19 in the world. 

Some companies were more prepared than others to make a wholesale switch to remote work, notably tech giants like Google and Microsoft, which already had infrastructure and policies in place that shifting a great number of employees to remote work wasn’t such a big deal.

Smaller companies that didn’t necessarily view the Internet as critical to their business were in for a shock that continues still. Many don’t provide their workers with laptops as standard and were still joined at the hip with a desktop computer hard-wired to a corporate intranet, making an overnight switch to remote work an extremely painful headache, both financially and logistically.

Business Essentials for Remote Work

Bosses and owners have been forced to learn a lot in very little time about how to set up and manage a remote workforce. For those who still might be struggling, here are the items to focus on making sure each employee has:

  • A computer, preferably a laptop less than two years old, and the latest updated OS (complete with all applicable security patches).

  • A stable Internet connection. With more than 58% of the world’s population already online, connection won’t be the problem as much as the quality of that connection. In the cities, it’s no big deal because high-speed Internet is readily available, but many rural areas still rely on lower quality alternatives like “high-speed” satellite connections, which are not really fast at all and notorious for locking up if you’re trying to have a video conference.

  • Chat/messenger solutions, and videoconferencing – there are plenty of good options out there.

  • Modern cybersecurity and antivirus solutions. Companies need to ensure remote workers have the same security they would expect from inside a firewalled office, which means looking into the latest advancements in cybersecurity. Mobile protection solutions should also be considered, considering the prevalence of mobile malware combined with the fact that most employees now use their own personal smartphones to access and read corporate email. 

  • A dedicated workspace. With kids home for potentially the rest of the school year, this becomes really important. If working parents don’t have a physical door to shut, establishing ground rules in the household can be a challenging job.

Now come the big ones. We’re talking about discipline and a strict routine. Many a prospective remote worker has been laid low by the absence of a fire-breathing dragon of a manager over one shoulder and the heavy hand of distraction over the other. The point here is that, unless you figure out a productive routine and how to stick to it, your escapade into remote work land will come to an inglorious ending.

If you think your boss won’t notice a lack of productivity from miles away, you’re wrong, especially considering the plethora of remote monitoring and productivity apps many companies pre-install on their employees’ computers.

Staying Secure While Working Remotely

So that a cyberattack doesn’t hamstring your work-from-home efforts before they begin, make sure you keep a strong focus on cybersecurity. If your company is forward-thinking enough to invest in something more robust, there are complete AI-powered remote work solutions like the Blackberry Digital Workplace that make it easy to remotely access and securely edit files on the company network and work on them offline as well as guard against known or unknown malware, including zero-day threats.

Final Thoughts

The main thing to keep in mind is that not all employees (or managers for that matter) will be able to seamlessly make the transition to remote work. Come prepared with a large dose of patience and a plan to assist those who aren’t millennial tech nerds. (Editor’s note: I resemble that remark.)

One thing is certain. Our world and the way society functions has changed at a fundamental level, thanks to Covid-19, and likely won’t be going back. This isn’t to say that a large number of remote workers won’t be eager to return to the office once the coast is clear, but it does mean that, depending on the industry, management might realize that maintaining a larger external workforce is actually good for their bottom line.

*Numbers correct at time of publication. Source: CDC and World Health Organization.

Sam Bocetta

About Sam Bocetta

Security Researcher & Freelance Journalist

Sam Bocetta is a freelance journalist specializing in U.S. diplomacy and national security, with emphases on technology trends in cyberwarfare, cyberdefense, and cryptography. 

Previously, Sam worked as a security analyst for the DoD, and spent 30-plus years bolstering cyber defenses for the Navy. Much of his work involved penetration testing Navy ballistic systems. He also helped plan, manage and execute sophisticated "ethical" hacking exercises to identify vulnerabilities and reduce the risk posture of enterprise systems.

Sam is now semi-retired and educates the public about security and privacy technology. He is currently writing his first book about democratizing personal privacy solutions for the broader public, due for publication in early 2021.