Between the Bytes Podcast: Remote Work & Coronavirus

Between the Bytes Podcast: Remote Work & Coronavirus


Gary: Hello. Welcome to Between the Bytes, our tech podcast giving you updates on all things IT, cloud, and cybersecurity. My name is Gary Arnold. I’m your host today. 

We wanted to talk a little bit about remote work. Obviously, it’s on a lot of people’s minds right now due to Coronavirus. A lot of people are having to work from home across the nation. Today, I have with me James Fair, the Senior Vice President of Technical Operations at Executech. James is an Executech veteran. He’s been in the industry for years and at Executech for nearly ten years as well. Welcome, James. 

James: Thanks, Gary. I appreciate the introduction.

Gary: So, I have James here with us to talk a little bit about how he’s seeing remote work impact businesses now and how he predicts it will impact businesses in the future. James, why don’t you talk a little bit about what you’ve seen happen so far?

James: So, we are definitely seeing a big uptick in clients reaching out to us and asking, “How do we set this up? How do we securely send our staff home to work remotely, productively, and yet still be secure in all of this?” 

So, the first thing we recommend is having company-issued laptops or computers. That may not be feasible in the timeframe you’re working in, but that’s certainly preferable. You want company-owned property whenever possible. 

Then, remote workers need to connect over a VPN. That’s really the only way to do it these days. So, you should be checking with your IT company, or us if we’re your IT company, and making sure you have enough licenses in your software and your firewall to support the number of simultaneous users that may be connecting here in the near future. Look at your VPN connections. Do an inventory on your laptops and make sure you’re prepared that way. Those are our two biggest tips. 

Gary: That’s awesome. Thank you, James. This has crept up on all of us, I think, rather quickly. What can you do if you’re a company that has moved to remote work for the foreseeable future but don’t have a stock of laptops? Many organizations may not have had a remote-first mindset, so what can they do on a quick turnaround basis?

James: Well, first, there may be a low stock of laptops here in the near future because of Coronavirus. But, so far, I don’t see that to be the case. So, currently, I would certainly put an order in and put it in soon. If you can see ahead of time what you’re going to need, place your orders. Prepare your organization now, and hopefully, you’ll never need them. 

But worst case, get geared up, get your laptops, and start those conversations with your IT firm now. Ask, “How do we work remotely? What does that look like for us? How do we access our resources and do so securely?” And we’d be more than happy to have those conversations and help with that.

Gary: Fantastic. You know, I’ve heard the phrase, “bring your own device” being thrown around. Can you tell us what that means and how it fits into the context of this conversation?

James: Yeah. So a lot of environments these days, rather than purchasing company-owned laptops or phones, they’re encouraging people to bring in their own equipment and then doing their best to put security layers on top of those. And that can be very effective. 

For example, we have seen tools like Microsoft 365 leverage Intune. With Intune, you can push out software updates and require certain software to be active before an employee can access the resources for your company. 

It is a bit of a complex procedure, but it is very effective to have these parameters in place. These parameters could include requiring an antivirus program have current definitions, requiring only one user on the account, or so on. So, in the event you can’t get laptops, you can still keep people secure on their own personal devices. 

Gary: You’ve addressed it a little bit, but I do want to hit a little more on the security concerns that a company should have. When it comes to remote workers, what are some things they need to think about in terms of their data security, and how can organizations address these concerns?

James: Sure. So traditionally, most data that companies housed was kept in a file server locally at the office. And there are still many environments where that is the case. But there are also a lot of migrations that have happened or are happening where companies are moving to a more cloud-based environment. 

If you’re already in the cloud, possibly stored on Microsoft 365 or another similar cloud-based product, then you’re probably already geared up for remote access to those files. You don’t need a VPN connection. There’s no reason for people to connect to the office. They’re going to connect to your resources anyway. 

If you’re not in the cloud, and people need to connect to the local office to reach those resources, then you don’t want to open up holes in the firewall. That will leave room for hackers to try and do their thing. So instead, we leverage what’s called a virtual private network. And what a VPN allows us to do is, without getting too technical here, it allows us to create a secure connection over the internet between a computer at home and an office network at the location. That is a very secure connection that, to date, has not been hacked. 

So, don’t poke holes in your firewall. There are options, such as remote support tools. Just be careful when setting those up. You don’t want to grant too much access to those. 

Gary: Thank you, James. Let’s transition to what companies should expect from their IT provider when it comes to getting support for a workforce that is now remote or mobile.

James: Sure. So, that may be a challenge. I don’t know that all IT companies are going to be geared and ready to move to a remote environment. However, I think most are. Most have a help desk and are used to taking calls. 

There may be some adjustments for onsite technicians that now need to work remotely. But, generally, the majority of IT tasks can be handled remotely. There are some things, you know, hardware replacements or physical connection issues that may be a challenge, but with FaceTime, Skype, remote apps, and other tools, we are overcoming a lot of those challenges. 

So, I would say the vast majority of IT support can certainly be covered remotely. If you’re headed that way, contact your IT support, and make sure they are prepared and ready to handle the additional remote load.

Gary: James, talk to us a little bit about Office 365 and specifically, Microsoft Teams. We use Teams here at Executech, which has been great. Tell us a little bit more about that product or other products that can enable teams to work just as effectively at home as they would in the office.

James: I guess it depends on what kind of environment you have and how your team interacts. For us, Teams works really well because we have, primarily, a field group of consultants who are out in the field and remote. So we need some way to communicate together. And Microsoft Teams thus far has proven very effective. 

We can create groups within the organization and subgroups within that. We can create chats, planners, Excel documents, and Word documents. Also, we can post intranet sites, and during events such as this one, it allows us to dynamically create groups on the fly. So if I suddenly have three technicians who need to consult together to handle a need at an organization, I can very quickly do that inside of teams. 

Slack probably servers a similar feature. And I’m sure there are other products. I’m the most familiar with Teams, and I’ve been very impressed with the effectiveness of the product. 

Gary: You’ve mentioned VPNs quite a bit. That’s an advantage both from a security standpoint and an accessibility standpoint it sounds like. Still, I also want to ask you about how Azure might be able to play, in terms of, maybe virtual workstations and other ways to approach remote work through Azure. 

James: That is definitely an option. I would worry a little bit about the timeframe. Typically, cloud migrations take some time to set up and move properly. That’s not to say it couldn’t be done. The possibility exists. 

Number one, as we move to more cloud-based environments, we’re seeing more organizations choose to put their servers in the cloud in Microsoft Azure. 

There are some advantages to this. For instance, I don’t have to house a server at my location. I don’t have to worry about air conditioning. I don’t have to worry about having redundant power and battery backup or redundant internet and air conditioning. Someone else is handling it all. 

And it has very flexible resource usages. If I bought a server, put it on-premise, and I wanted to upgrade, suddenly I have to go buy a new server or add some additional things to it. Whereas Azure and similar virtual cloud environments, it’s a couple of clicks, and suddenly, I can change the resource usage and the associated costs with it to match my needs. So in terms of servers, it’s a fantastic solution. We strongly recommend it. 

Then, in terms of workstations, there are virtual desktop environments that you can leverage. Microsoft 365, I believe, has some options there. Again, those are probably more of a migration if you’re not prepared for that already. But, it’s a great idea, and definitely an option I would explore.

Gary: Awesome. Thank you. Maybe tell us a little bit about what are some policies that a company should consider? What are some policies as it relates to IT in tech for work from home?

James: So, a couple of policies that come to mind right off the bat are, first, an internet use policy. For example, what is permissible if someone’s at home using work resources? Do you want them going on questionable websites? 

And then there are questions about what if other people use those computers at home? That is one of the challenges we run up against as IT professionals, is that, is your home computer used by your spouse, your children, or anyone else? Are they being safe in their usage of that computer? So, we certainly recommend single-user computers whenever possible, for work. We’d love to say go ahead and use the family computer, but often it’s just not safe and secure. 

Gary: Any other considerations around policies?

James: Yeah. So on top of an internet use policy, we recommend to everyone these days to create a breach policy. It’s easier in an office environment to yell out to the group, “Hey, something weird or something suspicious is going on. I want to raise a red flag.” But at a home environment, who do you tell? How do you get to someone? 

So, you should certainly update your breach policy to guide someone who suspects a breach or data loss. What should they do? Who do they contact? 

And make sure everyone knows ahead of time how to react and when to react. Try to reduce the amount of time. Hopefully, it never happens to anyone, but should a breach occur, a lot of damage can occur from the time someone knows or suspects it until someone like an IT professional can do something about it. So, we want to reduce that gap as much as possible. That’s typically done through a breach policy and education of those end users. 

Gary: You know, to segway into the security side again, we are unfortunately hearing rumors of bad actors using this Coronavirus scare to their advantage through increased phishing attempts. Talk to us a little bit about phishing scams. Just briefly how they work and how they might be using this scare to get people’s information. 

James: Any news sensation is going to be leveraged this way. If I can get you to click on something in my email because you’re not really paying attention and I can send you to a bad site, then that’s what these folks are doing. 

As always, be cognizant and cautious. You’re not going to get Coronavirus from an email about Coronavirus, but your computer could certainly get something equivalent. Unfortunately, these days it’s often ransomware, which can be deadly for some businesses. 

So, the usual protocols for email apply. Is it something you expected? Is it from someone you expected? Did they spell things correctly? Take a closer look. For example, would your grandma send you an email at two o’clock at night? Probably not. Are there other people on the email list that you don’t know? 

A lot of times, hackers realize that people are busy. So, they go after busy people, and because we’re all dealing with a crisis here, it’s an opportune time for them to attack people who are busy and not paying attention. 

It’s on us now to be even more vigilant and make sure we’re checking our email. If it’s a warning about my flight being late, I’m not clicking on a link in the email. Instead, I’m going to delta.com. Or, if you need to check a package, go to FedEx and put in your tracking number. Don’t trust email links. It’s a big red flag to click on links inside an email these days. If you’re not certain, just don’t trust it. Type it in yourself. That’s probably your safest bet. 

Gary: Awesome. Sound advice for any time. James, are there any other closing thoughts you have about this move to work from home?

James: Yeah. I want to urge patience and understanding. This is a trying time for many people. It may be a stretch for your organization and your IT resources. So, at this trying time, let’s all be supportive of each other and understanding and give each other a little latitude.

Gary: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you, James. Thanks, guys, for listening. That’s it for this week. Be sure to check back for additional podcasts from Between the Bytes on the latest tech news and tech updates. If you have any additional questions about remote working, be sure to reach out to us at executech.com and check our resources page, which has more blog posts and articles about remote working and other IT issues during this time. Thanks. Bye.