In 2018, the future of the location-independent workforce is brighter than ever. Who wouldn't want the flexibility of taking the occasional (or regular) opportunity to break from the office and work where it suits you? Employees love it, and businesses increasingly see the sense in it, too.
Some 43 percent of employees worked remotely in 2016, according to a Gallup report. A globe-spanning 2017 study from Polycom further confirmed that the remote workplace is on the rise: 62 percent of 25,000 surveyed workers reported “regularly taking advantage of flexible working practices offered to them.”
But with remote working comes a shift in culture. Connection and structure are still essential – even if all-hands meetings happen over Google Hangouts, rather than in an overly-warm conference room. One of the biggest concerns raised by the ubiquity of all-remote workplaces? Online security.
But going remote comes with an counterintuitive benefit, as well. Here's a look at the challenges, benefits and best practices that an all-remote workforce faces today.
The Risks to Remote Work
So first, the bad news. A remote office means everything from the biggest contracts to your last Slack emoji are potentially vulnerable to leaks, breaches, and hacks. “The main security concern stemming from remote workers is the vast amount of online information sharing,” Mike Hicks, VP of Strategy at Igloo Software, tells me.
One of the biggest security concerns facing a largely remote workforce, according to Hicks, is the fact that even the water cooler conversation is online.
“Employees in a single office can talk about projects and to-dos in person, while for remote employees, all communication is done online. Not all employers provide workers with tools for communication to take place efficiently and securely, and with a variety of non-work approved communication tools distributing trails of sensitive information, organizations can be at risk.”
Hardware is also a challenge: Office equipment tends to not be as standardized for remote workers.
“Employees in a traditional office setting are often issued their laptops or desktops with specialized security software controlled by the companies,” says Jessica Ortega, Product Marketing Specialist at website security company SiteLock. “Remote workers and freelancers face a unique set of challenges, because they’re in control of their own website and cybersecurity.”
And remote workers typically do more than just put their sensitive information eggs in one easily hackable basket: They often add their personal information as well. They're more likely than non-remote workers to “mix work and personal data on the devices, and in the apps, where work is done,” Hicks adds.
It's a move that might lead to “unintentional exposure to friends and family,” Hicks says, as well as to online attacks. In a world where the average website is attacked 44 times per day, that's a problem.
The Unexpected Benefit
With the right culture and the correct guidelines, a remote organization can turn their security risks into security benefits.
One concern often voiced by remote managers — the fear that workers won't do their work if not directly monitored — can be a boon for security. Without a physical office, workers can avoid the pack mentality that leads to poor security practices, according to Hicks.
“A potential security benefit of remote employees is the ability to more easily combat shadow IT, which can sometimes be influenced from an office pack mentality, for example, ‘My coworker doesn't follow this protocol, therefore I don't need to either,'” he says.
“Because a majority of remote employee training comes from organizational handbooks, training manuals and more, rather than leaning on ‘what my coworker does,' leadership can better ensure proper security processes are followed.”
Of course, this is only a benefit if those training manuals are easily accessed and if all remote workers are aware they need to stick to them. Clear, precise process guides are always great, but in a remote workplace, they're all that's available – so all the more reason to follow them to the letter.
Best Practices for a Remote Workplace
It's impossible to be one hundred percent secure. Still, remote workers (and their employers) can stay on top of security concerns unique to their environment through a few easy steps.
Reduce Points of Vulnerability
The biggest answer: Keep everything in the same place. If you and your teammates are on the same page about when and where to share information, you'll be able to keep it relatively secure. Make sure everyone on your team keeps any and all business-sensitive documents in one secure cloud location, rather than on their individual laptops.
“The most effective and easily implemented option is storing data and exchanging information through a secure corporate hub,” Hicks explains, “which also comes with the added benefit of improved knowledge management. Having a central platform, like a company-wide digital workplace, eliminates having thousands of files, and all of their different versions, stored in employee inboxes, hard drives, disconnected file shares or spread across multiple chat applications.”
In addition to increased security, collaboration within this digital workplace will likely be far easier than if workers were forced to play a game of back-and-forth with a constantly downloaded and re-uploaded document.
Keep Connections Secure
Remote workers in particular are vulnerable to internet attacks, given how many opt for the unsecured internet of coffee shops or cafes when they get bored or feel claustrophobic working at home. The solution here is a virtual private network, according to Ortega.
“We all understand the need to get out of the house, and the pull of that pumpkin spice latte is tempting,” she tells me. “When working from public WiFi, always connect through a virtual private network (VPN) to ensure any data you transmit is encrypted.”
Much like a single hub can keep a breadth of information safe, a single VPN can keep all employee internet traffic secure. Using a third-party VPN service to encrypt traffic allows a company to ensure security patches are quickly applied across the board and any breaches are quickly identified.
Brush Up on Password Safety
Your company's corporate information hub is only as strong as its weakest link, and that link is likely that one coworker who always uses the same password on everything.
Company-wide password security tutorials never hurt anyone, and they're more essential in a remote workplace. Ensure everyone knows the basics of how to craft the perfect password: Keep it complex, lengthy, and easy to remember.
The remote workplace isn't going away. By focusing on centralizing software and keeping everyone in tune with it, companies can turn the remote workspace into an advantage.