It is increasingly important for workers to be able to access their data and applications while working from home, in a client’s office or another remote location, such as on a train or in a cafe. How do we ensure that they can do this quickly, easily and – most important – securely?
Having the information you need when you are on the move or working from home is one of those small but significant pain points of modern life. USB sticks are easily lost, causing a data incident, and cloud-based document sharing solutions often contain only a subset of the data a worker might need.
The best solution is secure remote access to the corporate network. Sensitive data can be transferred over a public network, such as airport lounge WiFi, using an encrypted, point-to-point virtual private network (VPN). This allows staff to login remotely and access all their data and applications, as if they were in the office, without compromising security or compliance. It’s a service that is becoming increasingly necessary, and one that brings benefits for employers and employees alike.
The remote working boom
The Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020 forced millions of people to work remotely, whether they were prepared to or not. Suddenly, many companies that had avoided full remote working, either by relying on USB sticks and other workarounds or by giving remote access to the fewest number possible, had to find ways to implement it.
This only accelerated an already-growing trend, however. Between 2005 and 2018, according to a US study, regular working from home grew 173 per cent. Around 56 per cent of workers in the US have a job where they could work from home – particularly knowledge workers. And among those who could work from home, demand to do so is very high. For example, 74 per cent of knowledge workers in the US say they would quit their current job for one that would allow them to work remotely. The same survey found that respondents would rather have remote work than perks such as a free lunch, unlimited holiday allowance or in-office recreation such as ping pong.
Companies must understand that allowing greater flexibility in where employees do their work is important for both retaining their best workers and attracting the top talent. Jason Phillips, VP of Digital HR and Global Chief of Staff for Silicon Valley technology giant Cisco, told LinkedIn in 2019: “Work flexibility is becoming the norm. The challenge is how fast can organisations provide it. Those that can are going to be in a far better position to retain top talent over the next three to five years.”
Secure remote access removes one of the past problems with remote working – ensuring that employees have everything they need to be productive. The days of a manager working from home to finish an important report and having to email or call the office every hour to ask for data are long gone. Workers can login to a desktop that is identical to the one they use in the office – and the result is improved productivity.
More productive mobile workers
One study, by Stanford University, found that call centre staff who worked from home were 13 per cent more productive. A well-implemented remote access solution improves productivity even further because workers can use the device they prefer, whether it’s a work-issued one or a personal laptop or smartphone, and still get all their work done in a familiar interface that works exactly as it does in the office.
The benefits of secure remote access go beyond working from home, however. For example, the Coastal Housing Group in Swansea, South Wales, is a not-for-profit that develops homes and commercial properties to rent and sell. Its housing officers are constantly on the move, carrying out work such as visiting rental tenants to explain payment arrangements.
Coastal turned to Redcentric to provide a flexible and adaptable network that would meet their needs. Remote access has allowed housing officers to carry less paperwork with them each day and eliminated journeys back to the office for a document that they hadn’t expected to need.
Other staff, meanwhile, now have the freedom to work productively from any location and on whatever device they choose. They can make more use of downtime, perhaps while waiting for an appointment, and quickly perform a task that would otherwise have to wait until they were back in the office.
Delivering business benefits
At heart, secure remote access is a straightforward technology. It creates a virtual tunnel from the user’s computer to the corporate network and ensures that the data travelling through the tunnel is kept secure. It’s the kind of thing that many companies might build for themselves, especially if they are small businesses.
However, this creates an extra overhead for the IT team, giving them another service to manage. Going to a third party, on the other hand, ensures that the service is provided by experts who can keep it running at its best at all times.
A third party supplier can also provide a flexible and expandable service. If the business suddenly needs to provide remote access to a much larger group of people, as happened during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, then this can be accomplished very rapidly. Very often, third-party suppliers automatically upgrade the technology supporting the remote access service to ensure that the quality is as good as can be.
An in-house system would have to compete with other IT department priorities before it could be expanded or upgraded, meaning that there would either be a wait, or other priorities would slip to support remote access.
An added challenge for many businesses is that they must work within regulations that govern how they can use customer data. This applies particularly to the financial services and healthcare sectors, where companies need to be able to account for where data is stored, who has access to it and even, in some cases, whether it crosses international boundaries.
Redcentric has had experience providing remote access services to companies in these areas, which was beneficial when it came to working with the NHS Midlands and Lancashire Commissioning Support Unit to ensure that five clinical commissioning groups were able to allow GPs to work from home, without jeopardising the safety of patient data. To achieve this it was necessary to connect to the UK’s Health and Social Care Network, a private network with particularly stringent security requirements.
Keeping remote access secure
Of course, security is essential for every business. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre recommends that “where it’s reasonable to do so, you should provide workers with a ‘presentation’ of information on their device, rather than storing it locally. You could do this using remote apps or remote desktop technology.”
The implementation of GDPR in 2018 significantly increased the risk of a data breach, with companies potentially facing huge fines, in addition to potential reputational damage. Customers expect businesses to make every effort to keep their data secure, so a remote access solution cannot be a point of entry for attackers.
The good news is that secure remote access removes the needs for workarounds like USB sticks, as discussed above. Carrying your data on paper or on a storage device is a security risk, even if the data is encrypted. A lost USB stick is a data breach, whether or not anyone is able to access the files it contains. Remote access removes that risk at a stroke.
That is of limited value if the remote access service is not itself secure. Most workers will be familiar with logging-on to the network with a username and password. That’s fine for devices that are kept in an office because the building is probably not open for anyone to walk in. Remote workers need to be more careful, because they might leave their device in a cafe or on a train. Should it fall into the wrong hands, a username and password might not be sufficient to prevent access to the network.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, in the UK, recommends that organisations “consider using multi-factor authentication for remote access” on company devices and, on personal devices, “consider these security risks and put mitigation methods in place to avoid data breaches”.
Multi-factor authentication, which is becoming more popular even for consumer-focused cloud computing services, requires a username and password plus some other verification, such as a code sent to a smartphone via text message. In this example, gaining access to files on a lost laptop would also require someone to have – and be able to access – the owner’s smartphone, which is much less likely than gaining access to one device alone.
Once again, security options are a good reason to use a third-party provider for remote access. They will have had experience in providing – and securing – services for a much wider range of companies and will be able to draw on this to ensure that the remote access service is as safe as possible. They can also provide specific security tweaks, such as prohibiting access to the network from public WiFi or allowing certain types of data to be accessed only from a company device and not a personal one.
Any business that doesn’t have a secure remote access service in place should hopefully be convinced by now that they need one. Remote working is a trend that will only grow in significance, so it is important to have ways for employees to work remotely easily and securely. Attracting and retaining talent, improving productivity and supporting workers who spend a lot of time on the road are all good reasons to invest in secure remote access solutions.
For those companies that do have remote access in place, it is worth asking whether it still meets your needs. If you manage your own service, then this is a good time to ask whether that time – and money – could be used on more important tasks, while an experienced third-party takes over the remote access. If your service is provided by a third-party then make sure it is as flexible and modern as you need it to be. Can you scale the number of users up or down quickly and without fuss? Are you immediately getting the latest technology as it becomes available?
The corporate network no longer stops at the walls of your building. Maximising your productivity and effectiveness depend on making that network available wherever your employees need it. Fortunately, that does not need to be a complicated task. It’s one that every company should accomplish.
- Remote working will only become more important to companies, both for retaining and attracting new talent, so it is vital to ensure that you have the technology that makes it seamless and secure.
- Secure remote access can lighten the load for mobile workers, such as sales reps, so that they can get what they need from the corporate network instead of lugging around paperwork and storage media.
- Don’t overlook the need for security. Remote access to the network can be a vulnerability, especially if workers use their own devices, so ensure that security is as good as can be. Ideally use two-factor authentication.
- A third-party supplier will deliver remote access and ensure your IT department can deal with more important work. Find a supplier that will deliver a fast and secure service that is flexible enough to expand as necessary.