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Flexi-tech and working from home

Flexi-tech, or flexible technology, is meeting working from home (WFH) to create a perfect marriage of convenience for employer and employee. There are benefits, but also risks, writes Matt Bennett, pictured, UK Managing Director, at mobile communications company Cellhire plc.

First, what is flexi-tech? Briefly, it’s the technology that drives mobile computing and mobile communications, and helps align them with office-based IT infrastructures and cloud computing to provide maximum flexibility both now and going forwards. It’s an enabler of business agility, including the opening of temporary hub offices, closing or mothballing existing offices and maximising efficiencies whether employees are WFH, in an office or anywhere in between. At different times employees they may be doing all three, seamlessly from a computing and communications perspective.

The benefits are clear, and more about them later. Looking under the bonnet, risks are there, with clarification of them coming from data and device security companies and technical media. In August, publisher ZDNet reported, “Working from home causes surge in security breaches, staff ‘oblivious’ to best practices”. That followed reports from Kaspersky and TechRadar that many employees access their workplace systems via their personal devices, with, at 57 per cent, personal smartphones being the most popular access device, followed at 36% by personal laptops or desktop computers.

Kaspersky found that 47pc of personal smartphones and 43pc of tablets lacked anti-virus software, and 31pc of smartphone users had never given thought to making their device more secure by using antivirus software; and 21 percent believed their phone couldn’t be hacked.

What can employers do?

With security professionals highlighting personal devices as fundamentally weak spots in mobile infrastructures, suppliers of hardware and data connection and data bundles are offering alternatives.

In the very short term, before reaching buying decisions, employers should do their utmost to protect – against viruses, hacking and ransomware [not to forget theft or damage] – their worker’s personal IT and communications equipment, and any head office equipment being used, short term at least, at the homes of WFH employees.

Organisations can conform, if they wish, to enterprise mobility management (EMM) guidelines, and, in tandem, follow practical steps given below. EMM is a set of technology, people and processes that focuses on managing mobile devices, wireless networks, and other mobile computing services, within a business context. It includes a focus on supporting staff when they are using mobile devices for work. EMM evolved from mobile device management (MDM), which deals with managing mobile devices throughout their lifecycle in an organisation. Included is enforcing security policies on the devices, remotely controlling devices (where appropriate), tracking device location in real-time and wiping the data and device when lost or stolen. Today, MDM is one feature of EMM.

Practical steps

Employers should (i) protect employees’ devices and date with antivirus software and firewalls (ii) make sure everybody, the business included, carries out or enables system and program updates.

Everybody, employers included, should (i) ensure that anybody who logs on via a router must enter its password, whatever type of router is being used – a MIFi (a portable router/hotspot) or the larger, more traditional type found in offices and at home). In addition, they should change its password regularly (ii) ensure the router uses a high level of encryption e.g. WPA2 (iii) be aware that public Wi-Fi hotspots may not be encrypted. If they are, users should remain vigilant because the password will be known to others users. Instead, they can use a MiFi and/or virtual private network – VPN (iv) practise good web surfing, email management and attachment opening habits, to reduce data theft and other risks, ransomware included. Be wary about clicking links in emails (v) use the corporate systems provided. For example, don’t be tempted to use a private email system for sending and receiving documents (vi) back data up regularly, locally and remotely – e.g. on the cloud. Backing up can eliminate the pain of losing a device through theft, fire or losing it accidentally; and through damage/loss of function. Backing up is also insurance against successful ransomware attacks. Strong passwords should be created whenever passwords are required.

New (purchased/leased/rented) hardware devices and data connection and data bundles can be used for reducing security risks while optimising business agility. They are suitable for WFH, “pop up” satellite/hub offices and enabling work to continue at other locations [airports, for example] and when travelling by train. At the same time, they can be used seamlessly with fixed, head office technology.

In detail

Connectivity is an early issue to address. It comes in the form of fibre, copper or satellite broadband, and/or a 3G, 4G or 5G network signal, any of it typically the home worker’s choice where WFH is involved. Where “wired” or satellite broadband is used, the router must be secured against hacking etc as much as possible, as described earlier.
An added data security measure is separating WFH use from leisure use. One option is to use a MiFi with its own integral data SIM card, with data bundles provided by the MiFi supplier. To recap, a MiFi is a secure personal hotspot. An advantage of a MiFi is that it provides complete mobility for all computing tasks by allowing the user to work wherever there is a network signal.

Data bundles that cover regions outside the UK (Europe, North and South America, the Far East etc) can be included or dropped at any time. A MiFi can be used by more than one person. In a hub or temporary office, for example, one MiFi can accommodate up to 10 users. All they need is its unique password. A MiFi helps business agility by allowing the employer organisation to upsize or downsize workspaces without traditional commitments to wired broadband landline contracts and possible delays in getting a broadband connection.

Where a WFH user’s own hardware device is being replaced by purchased, leased or rented alternatives, one option to consider is a thin client, also known as a “dumb terminal”. Thin clients are designed solely for carrying out cloud-based or in-house server-based work, and reduce threats to themselves to zero because no data/work processing happens on the devices; it’s all done in the cloud or the in-house server. In essence, a thin client is just a keyboard with a screen.

Flexi-tech can be used for highly flexible phone systems – an example is AllTalk – where VoIP phones provide free and low-cost calls and can help a business dispense with the need for traditional “fixed” phones. The flexi-tech approach to work is proven. It has been around for a long time in one form or other and its latest iteration, personal hotspots and data bundles to suit any situation included, makes it completely complementary to flexible working/WFH and business agility … provided data and device security is given high priority.

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