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Homeworking as a new norm for the public sector


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Covid-19 has triggered a big transition to homeworking, but people and technology issues have to be addressed to make it sustainable in the long term, writes Andrew Candlish from Cisco UK Central Government

Millions of people have become used to working at home during the Covid-19 lockdown, and all the signs are that many will continue to do so post-pandemic.

Public sector organisations have proven, supported by digital technology, they can function effectively with many staff at home, and many employees have found that it suits them and they can do their jobs effectively.

A strong consensus is now emerging that homeworking is likely to be more widespread in public and private sectors. However, as people get used to the idea it is raising questions around the people issues and the management of the technology used.

These came up for discussion at a recent UKA Live webcast involving representatives of Cisco along with Nadira Hussein, director of leadership development at public sector IT association Socitm, and Simon Billington, ICT strategy manager at Wrexham County Borough Council. It confirmed the benefits but also highlighted a number of challenges for organisations as they look to make homeworking a major element of ‘the new normal’.

Hussein outlined evidence of how the pandemic has affected the landscape. Socitm has taken part in an international survey of around 2,500 respondents from 90 organisations that showed the proportion of people working at home increased from 5% to 82% as the pandemic took hold. Many respondents reported significant benefits: 47% learning new ICT skills; 47% in increased productivity; 46% a better work-life balance; and over 40% felt that there were benefits to citizens.

Saving time

The big advantage for many is the time saved in commuting - helping to improve productivity and a sense of wellbeing - and there have been reports of people spending less time in unproductive meetings. From the organisational perspective, homeworking provides the scope to rationalise the use of office space and achieve and reduce costs over the long term.

It also appears that the public sector has reacted extremely well in adapting its technology at short notice to support the change. Most organisations have reported that they pulled it off without serious disruptions and are confident that they can continue to support people at home permanently.

But there are challenges in doing so. Billington pointed out that some home environments are far from ideal for some staff, with limitations on space, disruptions from pets and family and problems with connectivity.

Others have suffered from a growing sense of isolation, causing mental health problems for some - and even those who feel good about homeworking have indicated they would appreciate more social interaction with colleagues.

Organisations will have to find ways of supporting staff through these problems. Some have experimented with online social events to maintain morale, while others are talking about a blended approach in which staff can work some days at home and others in an office as appropriate.

Demands on technology

There are also technology challenges. Billington said that responses to the pandemic have shown the importance of working closely with other agencies, most of which will also have staff working at home, and this will need the right digital platforms in places. It will require an element of consistency to ensure that everyone will have access to the necessary systems and data, people will need the right equipment at home, and this will raise questions around who pays for it when multiple organisations are involved.

This reflects one of the core pillars in the work of Cisco’s Meraki division – in making sure that people have access to key applications on a plug and play basis. As homeworking becomes established people will need to use a wider range of applications, and their employers will need to simplify the installation, management and user experience of these without compromising on security arrangements.

Along with this, IT teams will need to understand what devices and applications people are using and how they are performing. The ‘bring your own device’ approach is bound to be a big factor in homeworking, but the dangers of shadow IT – in which it does not know what other teams and individuals are using – have long been seen as a problem.

This can be mitigated by use of applications such as the Meraki Dashboard for managing home workers’ technology. It can provide information not just on the work applications being used but also about when they are being used and the levels of activity. This can help an IT team assess which applications are safe and which might create a risk, and to set priorities for access to some work systems.

It is a question of providing the team with the same kind of visibility of what is happening on the network as when most people are working in the office.

Need for security

The other big issue is ensuring it is all secure - as secure at home as it would be in the office. An audience poll during the discussion showed there are areas for concern: only 15% of respondents said their organisation had a clear policy and checks on the devices used in homeworking; 35% said they had to use multi-factor authentication; 28% that their organisation had multiple ways of keeping staff up-to-date on security issues; and 34% restricted them to using only what they need to use. While for each question there were a large number of ‘don’t knows’ or no replies, it indicated the organisational awareness around security measures overall left room for improvement.

This is where the visibility from the dashboard provides another asset, although it has to be used within a broad framework of policies and protocols. The discussion emphasised the importance of a ‘zero trust’ approach, in which access to a digital resource is only granted when the user can verify who and where they are. This requires more than just logging in with a password, demanding approaches such as multi-factor authentication and the ability of IT teams to control devices and identify 'unusual' activity outside normal working patterns.

One of the big challenges for public authorities when we come out of this pandemic is going to be building strong but flexible security frameworks to support both office and home working simultaneously. It can be argued of course that nothing will ever be 100% secure, but a zero trust approach with rigorous controls around access to applications, and a strong educational campaign for employees, can help to make homeworking a secure element of the new normal.

Cisco has put together a tailored and flexible Remote Access Solution for the public sector to enable secure homeworking - more info here

Catch up now with what the UKA Live expert panel had to say

For further information on any of the issues discussed in this webinar or to discuss how Cisco products and services can help you enable secure home working REQUEST CONTACT HERE

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