The still unfolding health crisis of 2020 has driven federal agencies and private businesses alike to send people home to work, closing or severely limiting office access to avoid spreading COVID-19. Organizations that never anticipated allowing secure remote work for large numbers of people have found the unexpected demand difficult to meet.
Maintaining network security is always a challenge, but shifting work from your office to a remote location can heighten the threat dramatically. A virtual private network (VPN) is a key tool in the threat protection process, providing a way to connect to a secure network over a personal internet connection.
A VPN makes secure remote work possible, but organizations that have not planned for such a large-scale, rapid shift might quickly discover they lack the capacity to maintain large numbers of VPN connections.
Planning and implementing scalable VPNs falls under the umbrella of business continuity. COVID-19 quickly brought to the forefront the importance of planning for unlikely scenarios when creating continuity plans. The reality is that several situations could potentially lead to the need for more employees than usual to telework securely.
CGI Federal recently worked with a large client responsible for major programs in agencies that require high levels of data security. Here are some observations and recommendations from that initiative to help others prepare for future situations that demand similar rapid responses.
When everything is normal
- Create a VPN backup at a separate site. Even if you never need to expand capacity quickly, the backup will provide failover protection should the primary VPN malfunction.
- Prepare the workforce to work from home. Training your employees and validating their readiness will ensure that everyone who might suddenly shift to remote work can do so as quickly as possible.
- Take stock of technology assets and licensing agreements. If you don’t have sufficient equipment, bandwidth and VPN connections in place to allow a large increase in employees working from home, fill the gaps—or at least inventory them—before it becomes urgent. Understand that filling gaps does not always mean spending more money; for example, you might mitigate inadequate bandwidth by scheduling employees to work in shifts.
When the crisis hits
- Communicate and monitor constantly. Managers and leaders must ensure the transition is coordinated and runs smoothly. Talk to employees about their questions or uncertainties and get help for any who need it.
- Set up a virtual war room. Daily meetings with your technology providers will keep everyone apprised of progress, unexpected issues and plan changes.
- Keep the (virtual) service desk prepared and well-staffed. Provide documents and self-help workflow forms for common processes to cut down on the need for calls to the service desk, but assume there will be high demand for assistance.
What comes next
On the other side of this crisis, people will begin returning to their offices. That presents its own set of hurdles to clear. It might be necessary to maintain social distancing for a while even from within the office. There might be more strain on office telephone systems or bandwidth as employees continue to conduct meetings virtually.
The pandemic has forced many organizations to think more expansively about business continuity, and to be more open than they historically been about working remotely. With diligent foresight, the next such event will find organizations prepared and avoid undue impact to their enterprise.
For another perspective on working remotely during the crisis, read my colleague Joseph Cuminale's blog, "Helping from home: How our service desk went remote and kept client satisfaction high."