COVID-19: Can Working Remotely Be Sustained After Lockdown?

April 27, 2020
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The Coronavirus pandemic has forced employees of companies and government agencies to work from home. Can this be sustained after the pandemic? IJEOMA OLORUNFEMI examines the indexes.

Remote Work Model (RWM) that allows professionals to work outside of a traditional office environment is not new. It is predicated on the fact that work does not need to be done from the work place or permanent environment.

When President Muhammadu Buhari on March 29, ordered lockdown of activities in the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos and Ogun states, to check the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), it was imperative that workers of many organisations, public and private would work remotely.

Even before the lockdown ordered by Buhari, many states had done the same in order to check the spread of the COVID-19.

Mr Jide Awe, the Managing Director, Jidaw Systems and an Information Communication Technology expert, said that remote working is universally embraced because of its flexibility.

He listed: Voice calls, e-mails, messaging applications, cloud-based productivity applications,  audio conferencing, meetings through desktops and mobile devices, as tools that enhance remote working.

Awe said individuals and organisations decide their remote work model based on their needs and capacity, and responsibilities and tasks that can be done out of the office.

“Affordability and availability of technology tools for remote working are key. The large and sophisticated organisations in Nigeria are able to go the whole hog, utilising all the digital resources, including advanced video conferencing and online collaboration.

“Smaller businesses, which are in the majority, tend to limit themselves to lower end resources, such as telephone calls, e-mail and messaging services such as WhatsApp.

“Some organisations adopt a mix of technologies that change with the tasks at hand according to requirements and culture, because there is no size that fits all models.”

According to him, it should be expected that remote working after the pandemic will still persist as organisations will change their structures to realign with the reality that certain work activities are better performed remotely.

“More employees and employers will embrace the benefits of more flexibility at work, better work-life balance and reduced physical costs that produce quality work.

“There will be a new trend that will see organisations continue to use remote work and learning tools. We are at a turning point that will change how we work and learn forever. Organisations will however need to invest to support remote working.”

Awe, however, made a case for remote work policies, and also stressed the need for a full buy-in and alignment among all stakeholders, which would help in growing relevant fields within the IT sector.

According to him, this will require greater investment in technical equipment and services.

He regretted that most of the technology companies in the likes of Microsoft, Slack, Google, Zoom, leveraging on remote working and providing enabling tools are foreign-based, with little local companies’ representation.

Awe said there will be better local value on remote working and learning, if processes of organisations are digitised, adding that the IT sector needs to galvanise resources to promote this emerging requirement.

“Technology innovation can help to address current limitations of remote work, to further enable the remote workforce, which the major development will be innovations for jobs and work activities that currently cannot be done remotely.

“It is both a challenge and an opportunity for the IT sector, but the future of work is upon us, as we `re-imagine’ how to work more productively.”

He emphasised that lack of digital inclusion, access to digital equipment, quality internet services, broadband penetration, infrastructure development, cost of technology tools and cyber security, are some of the bottlenecks needed to be addressed for RWM to thrive.

Mr Akindayo Akindolani, Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Zariah Foundation, said massive adoption of remote working is long overdue, adding that it is having encouraging impact on organisations that never engaged in RWM before the pandemic and lockdown.

Akindolani observed that such organisations are migrating from the diverse challenges associated with the model, which ranges from network hiccups to adapting to change and are finally embracing the new model.

According to Akindolani, talents, skills sourcing with no location barriers, smaller physical office spaces and boosting of internet facilities by providers, will change in the work place and enhance remote working.

“Now we know that from being afraid of embracing change, to getting confused and now enjoying full remote work, remote working is about to disrupt the work place, even in ways we may not envisage at the moment.

“With remote working, demand for larger office spaces will drop to accommodate only a few support and administrative staff, that may necessarily need to come to a physical office.

“Internet service providers will need to look at suitable pricing model for remote work, because it relies heavily on exchange of information through multiple means such as text, image and video.

“The role of human resources managers is expected to change, as they will need to start thinking of benefit, packages that will make staff work effectively and efficiently remotely.”

He, however, agreed that every leap that brings change in the activities of humans, have a downing effect which will require time for readjustment.

Akindolani opined that having smaller physical office spaces will affect real estate practitioners and contribute to loss of jobs.

Mr Ime Udoko, Director, Research and Marketing, Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA), said that RWM may encourage upsurge in cyber-attacks if organisations fail to protect their work space remotely.

Udoko noted that most home digital devices are not protected by corporate firewalls and anti-phishing security controls and connections.

He said in the office space, browsers on many computers provided by companies hold sensitive information like user IDs, passwords and they are already susceptible to attacks.

He added that some people believed that connections to corporate networks in the work from home model were done through Virtual Private Network (VPN) and could be secured.

Udoko disagreed, adding that VPN of a system used for corporate work could easily be manipulated, thereby exposing the organisation to threat.

He recalled that prior to the COVID-19 era; there were already some disturbing statistics about Nigerian internet space by the Threat Intelligence Reports of CheckPoints, an institution monitoring cyber threats globally.

“Typical organisations in Nigeria with internet presence are being attacked 1,292 times per week in the last six months compared to 411 attacks per organisation globally.

“Eighty-eight per cent of the malicious files targeting institutions in Nigeria were delivered through e-mails, compared to 66 per cent of malicious files globally.

“The most common vulnerability exploit type in Nigeria is Remote Code Execution (RCE) which is impacting 70 per cent of organisations in the country.”

Udoko said COVID-19 had changed business model, thereby creating every avenue to double the rate of attacks which could be blamed on low cyber risks awareness level.

He added that the attacks stated by CheckPoints were being launched on organisations operating 90 per cent physical model and less than 10 per cent cyber dependent.

Udoko advised that government and private institutions should consider setting up a cyber risk management team, to evaluate all possible risk scenarios, provide adequate IT resources to support staff.

“Companies should invest more on creating awareness on the do’s and don’ts, while working from home, ensure employees’ devices comply with organisations’ internal policy, have up-to-date security software and security patch levels.

“Ensure all the corporate business applications are accessible only via encrypted communication channels, ensure Data at Rest (DAR) on employee laptops are encrypted to protect against unauthorised disclosure in the case of theft or devise loss.

“Where possible, get full protection from credential theft through phishing or social engineering, as well as malware, exploits, ransom ware, and other e-mail delivered threats, by investing in relevant services.

“Safeguard access to application portals through the use of multi-factor authentication mechanisms, vet Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) such as personal laptops or mobile devises from the security standpoint.”

He also advised institutions to ensure policies for responding to security incidents and personal data breaches were in place, as well as keep the staff informed.

According to him, the processing of personal data by the employer in the context of remote working, should be in compliance with the local legal framework on data protection, such as the Nigeria Data Protection Regulations (NDPR).

Udoko warned that employees should be discouraged from sharing the virtual meeting URLs on social media or other public channels, adding that unauthorised third parties could access private meetings and breach business confidentiality.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown popularising the RWM, there is need to come up with initiatives that will accommodate working remotely and boost digital skills capacity building.

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