Jim Jacobi, PE, Managing Principal and Chief Information Officer for Walter P Moore
In the early months of 2020, businesses across the globe were presented with an unprecedented challenge as COVID-19 forced lockdowns, closures, travel restrictions, and a historic shift for professional services firms who were forced to send their employees from the office in what turned out to be a prolonged work-from-home(WFH) environment. This shift in the workplace yielded some amazing discoveries—namely the fact that many firms were able to operate efficiently with all their staff in a truly remote environment. Now, in late 2021, the world continues to deal with COVID, and a new future of work has emerged for many firms. This new future embodies a hybrid environment where staff divide their time between the office and home office environment without sacrificing efficiency, productivity, profitability, and the ability to effectively serve clients.
A recent study by Accenture reveals that post-COVID companies will be competing on their technology architecture. Seventy-seven percent of executives maintain that their technology architecture is becoming very critical or critical to the overall success of their organization. Ensuring your infrastructure stack is strategically designed and implemented is crucial, both for growing your business and competing effectively in a new future work environment. This article exploresfour key tenants of the IT infrastructure necessary to thrive.
Reliable Computing at Distance
Working remotely can present a variety of challenges for staff in professional services firms. In a home office environment, you are no longer working behind your firm’s firewalls and accessing wide area network infrastructure that is built on circuits containing quality, fast, and efficient bandwidth. Staff are instead reliant on their home internet services which vary widely from home to home and provider to provider. In many cases, only fractional bandwidth capacity is available compared to office environments. In navigating the WFHenvironment in these conditions, we have found three remote access pathwaysthat work well: Virtual Private Networks (VPN), Virtual Desktops (VDIs), and secure Remote Desktop (RDP).
The VPN environment provides a secure connection to your firm’s infrastructure behind the firewall but its capacity for file transfer and program execution is somewhat limited by the individual’s home internet quality and bandwidth. In general, VPN is a good solution for accessing and working with moderate size files contained on your firm’s network file shares and for accessing various internal systems.
For AEC firms, some components of their technology stack do not work well over VPN due to file sizes or other communication protocols. In these instances,the VDI environment provides a great solution. With VDIs, all processing and data are held centrally in a data center type environment. The user is essentially receiving only screen pixels from the data center; it is truly a remote computing environment. For programs working inefficiently, or not at all, over VPN, a VDI environment can be the solution. There are several third-party providers, including Microsoft, that have this capability.
For firms whose desktop environment is not heavily weighted toward mobile laptops, many users had their desktop computers bound to the office when they were forced to work from home. In these instances, secure RDPservices can enable a user to connect to their desktop computer in the office using a personal computer or other device. Given the performance and price parity in today’s computing environment, we strongly recommend that firms adopt a totally mobile fleet. In the long run, this provides much more flexibility for shifting work environments.
Reliable computing at distance will likely encompass all these remote access pathways. When properly designed and implemented, they provide for a seamless transition between home and office.
Next Generation Collaboration
While most firms had experience collaborating with colleagues in other offices and clients remotely from time to time, the pandemic induced WFH environment took collaboration to the next level. Tosupport efficient, productive, and profitable operations with a large contingent of staff working from home, it is essential to take advantage of next generation collaboration tools. WPM Technology created a solution that uses the Microsoft Teams platform as acenterpiece, providing a “frictionless” collaboration experience between staff working in the office and those working from home.
We have been using it for all manner of collaboration between our internal department, operating groups, and projects, including using Teams Voice as a complete replacement for our legacy phone system. For conference rooms and collaboration spaces, our strategy is Video First, Microsoft Teams Compatible and Plug & Play. A collection of modern devices such as the Microsoft Surface HUB, Microsoft Teams Room, and Logitech Rally Bar Touch systems have been leveraged to reimagine conference spaces supporting collaboration. While there are other technology components that can play in this space, designing and implementing the right stack is a critical step in outfitting your business for the future.
Responsive Technical Support
One area that has emerged as critical to remote working is the responsiveness of your firm’s IT support team. When the workforce shifted to WFH, organizations found themselves supporting several hundred home offices in addition to their corporate offices. To be productive, remote workers need fast and efficientresponse to IT-related requests and trouble tickets.
While we had some experience supporting several different entities from an IT perspective,the explosion in number of remote working sites during the pandemicled us to develop robust Knowledge Bases that can be used to drive virtual help desk agents, or Bots, to aid users in gaining self service type of support.
In monitoring the ticket trends,many IT help questions, or requests, can be fulfilled using this Bot/Knowledge Base approach and service users at a high level. Of growing importance in a remote working environment is the ability to accurately track trends in service level response at a high level. Although working from a home office, users still need and expect the same service levels, or better, than they experienced when they were co-located with their IT colleagues.
Creating a Strong Defense
The increase in remote workers has significantly raised the threat of cyber-attack. While the same threat actors are operative using the same vectors such as phishing, spear-phishing, ransomware, business email fraud, etc., the fact that many users are working outside the protection of their company’s firewall and cyber defenses provides more opportunity for compromise. Remote work was very rare a decade ago and networks have been traditionally designed with fast local access to servers and network level protections from the “outside.”VPN solutions were normally scaled for a smaller percentage of remote workers with most people in an office.
Now that those proportions are reversed and most people are trying to work remotely, IT departments may have to adjust (e.g., split tunneling VPN connections) due to overloaded network connections and/or users may disconnect from the corporate network to improve the performance of cloud-based apps like video conferences.Under either situation, the endpoint becomes an island at best behind a home router or local firewall and IT’s visibility is greatly reduced.
These developments make it very important for firms to adopt a “Defense-in-Depth” approach to cyber security within their organizations. Such an approach embodies a well-defined Incident Response cycle that covers prevention, detection, response, and recovery. While beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that most professional service firms have been focusing on the protection phase of the response cycle, with little or no attention on detection, and the formulation of a well-defined and rehearsed Incident Response Plan. The focus must be shifted to a more holistic approach that embodies all the elements of Defense-in-Depth. We expect the cyber threat environment will not be improving in anything resembling the near-term!
In closing, if you are looking for ways to operate efficiently, productively, and profitably in the new world that is emerging post-COVID, ensure that your technology infrastructure is well designed and pay attention to the key tenants above.
Jim Jacobi is a Managing Principal and Chief Information Officer for Walter P Moore, a global engineering firm, as well as the Executive Director for Walter P Moore’s Technology group. He can be reached at email@example.com.