Over the past few years, remote work has become an increasingly popular practice due to factors such as changes in the global workforce, competition for top talent, and advancements in collaboration technologies. But despite the adoption of remote work, nothing could have prepared companies for the moment when all of their employees and contractors would suddenly be working from home at the same time, all of the time. This is not a one-day fluke where networks experience stress. It’s an everyday reality expected to play out for weeks, possibly months, to come. Even modern networks were not designed for the present conditions.

VPN Issues Abound

While a number of serious issues have popped up with the volume of people accessing their corporate networks via VPNs, an underlying cause for concern is how much bandwidth employees are using up. The dramatic increase in traffic and subsequent strain on VPN infrastructure is causing outages that correspond with the global spike in novel coronavirus. And this is not just due to Zoom conferences or live-streamed fitness classes.

Companies need to deploy software, updates, and patches to machines in order to secure networks, and delivery of such content generally requires a lot of bandwidth. Under normal circumstances, network performance is negatively impacted, and employees are inconvenienced by content distribution. In the current environment, the issue is so prevalent that many machines don’t receive the updates and patches they need at all.

This is extremely problematic when you consider that organizations have become so desperate to supply their workers with the tools they need to work remotely that companies have resorted to buying laptops off of Amazon. They’re sometimes being issued without the enterprise’s standard security software and regular configurations because IT staff simply cannot spin up ample machines quickly enough. If the content is not being delivered in a timely manner, such practices leave corporate networks vulnerable to attack.

Admins Lose Control

Compounding the problem is a complete loss of control by system admins. Many are operating in the dark about what is happening in workers’ home environments. For example, I keep hearing stories about kids taking over their parents’ machines and installing flash so that they can play video games when their mom or dad isn’t working. Everything inside of me wants to say “Do NOT do that!” but that’s not life — especially in the days of COVID-19 when children are trapped at home alongside their parents.

Additionally, many people are working from home for the first time ever. For their entire career, they have gone into their offices dutifully, plugging away on a desktop that was set up and maintained by their IT department. These workers are not only being forced to learn new ways to perform their core job functions, but they also don’t know the “rules” or the danger they put their corporate networks in with a simple download. On top of this, they are probably a bit unclear on how to set up their machine, let alone their VPN. As a result, they are flooding IT departments with calls and support tickets. It is very difficult for admins to give the perfect assist under these conditions.

Yet, there are bad actors coming to these machines. They’re phishing with COVID-19 as a hook as people desperate for information and news willingly and unsuspectingly open these emails with a supposed “voicemail” attachment that contains malware. The bad guys are even leveraging WhatsApp and text because people tend to respond right away without thinking, allowing hackers clear access to the home network. Once in, they can do tremendous, costly damage.

Weather the Storm

So, what is to be done? Businesses must find a way to move forward, even under these unprecedented circumstances, and they are doing the best that they can. As everyone hunkers down, clear communication is key, with the proactive distribution of information that articulates expectations for equipment and/or timelines for product updates. Such communications should also explain what can happen if procedures are not followed. This will help educate employees about why certain precautions must be taken — something that will serve organizations well long after the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Establishing self-serve portals with “How to” resources can also help reduce IT strain and decrease problems. If employees are given the tools to take care of themselves, IT has more capacity to assist the most pressing and complex cases in a timely manner. Another strategy for “getting by” is to rank support tickets as they come in and attend to the most important, high-risk ones first.

Additionally, if resources allow, it could be well worth implementing automated solutions that ease IT burdens, reduce bandwidth consumption, and resolve security issues. Automation is a powerful tool in the current climate, and strong endpoint management today can prevent significant problems in the future.

As we wade through this uncertain period, expect the number of cyberattacks to rise considerably. The temptations are too great for bad actors who spy many potential vulnerabilities to exploit. At the same time, your own people and your systems can be resourceful. With awareness, and maybe a few good tools, you will emerge as a stronger organization, with new practices and procedures that power an entirely different way to work.

As first published in Collaboration.Toolbox.