The COVID-19 pandemic has created several new difficulties for global workforces and brought many existing challenges into sharp relief. For the first time, tens of millions of people are suddenly working in relative isolation amid varying circumstances. They might be at their primary or secondary home, caring for parents or children, or even on a road trip. To survive the aftershocks of coronavirus, companies have no choice but to embrace new techniques for productivity, connectivity, and security—and to do so quickly.

The current state of workforce technology

Global Workplace Analytics notes that 56% of U.S. employees (that’s 75 million workers) already have responsibilities that could be performed, at least in part, from anywhere. According to Gartner, 82% of company leaders still intend to permit some remote working as employees return to the workplace post-pandemic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, IDC’s May 2020 Tech Index noted that, despite budget cuts, IT demand is rising for the technologies required to support distributed workers, with top priorities being cloud, security, and workforce/employee tools.

This reality, of course, has major implications when it comes to protecting your users, applications, devices, and data. It’s accelerating the erosion of traditional network perimeters, and contributing to a rise in cyberattacks, especially phishing. According to the ISACA, 92% of technology professionals say digital attacks on individuals are growing, and 87% say the rapid transition to remote work has increased their data protection and privacy risk.

But COVID-19’s impact isn’t all doom-and-gloom. In fact, companies that can successfully overcome all of these hurdles in the short-term will be poised to gain significant long-term business value.

Distributed work: IT’s next frontier

The silver lining in all of this is that forward-thinking CIOs and IT teams are recognizing they face a once-in-lifetime opportunity to elevate their role in the organization by delivering crucial results fast. As we navigate continuing waves of the current pandemic—as well as ripple effects that will surely persist long after we contain the virus—the technology function will either be perceived as a business blocker or an enabler. This is why it’s important to think beyond just how to support your newly distributed workforce today.

According to McKinsey, more than 90 percent of global executives expect COVID-19 to bring fundamental changes to their companies, and experts forecast that over 25 million U.S. employees will regularly work from home within the next two years. This has the potential to help enterprises tremendously, since 70% of managers report the same or better work performance since widespread quarantine began, and a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time remote worker each year—thanks to increased productivity; reduced turnover, absenteeism, and real estate costs; and being able to continue working in the event employees can not get to work.

In addition to these workforce performance improvements and cost savings, providing secure remote access drives several other mission-critical benefits. For instance, it acts as an accelerant to digital transformation timelines, clearing the deck for you to laser-focus on projects that might have been on the backburner for years. Now that these initiatives are an imperative rather than a nice-to-have, you can get the top-level support you need to transform the business in new and innovative ways. By honing IT priorities, this new (not-so) normal will help teams dramatically boost agility and take big leaps towards powerful zero trust security strategies that deliver lasting impact.

Barriers to maintaining resilience amid uncertainty

Naturally, opportunities like these don’t come without some challenges. Across the board, IT teams are under intensifying pressure to enable new ways of working while protecting a shifting security perimeter. The move to teleworking requires additional tools that you must deploy rapidly. That’s why 87% of global IT decision makers agree that COVID-19 will cause their organizations to speed up migration to the cloud, and 74% believe the vast majority of their workloads will be in the cloud within the next five years.

In the short term, teams expanded VPNs to ensure employees had access to all of the business tools—both in the cloud and on-premises—they need to stay productive. However, network bottlenecks have caused problems. In the United States alone, VPN usage soared 124% in the first few weeks of the March 2020 shutdown. Research amongst our own customers breaks this down, showing that Palo Alto Networks GlobalProtect grew 94% in March over February, compared to 20% for that same period in 2019, and Cisco AnyConnect was close behind with 86% growth.

Unfortunately, 23% of global firms say they’re experiencing major disruption to network security, with 61% claiming VPNs have suffered connectivity issues. This also exposes new risks for IT to worry about, according to the Cyber Infrastructure Security Agency, which advises,

Shifting business continuity and security priorities

Many of the IT changes that enterprises have made to accommodate business demands during the pandemic will most likely become permanent, and this is especially true for security improvements.

Of course, many that were late to the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) game are realizing that personal and professional device lines have blurred, so they must now embrace more flexible policies. Providing consistent, positive user experiences is crucial to support remote workers with many competing priorities and demands on their time. A recent study found that 69% of companies allow their employees to use personal devices to perform their work, while a quarter also enable BYOD for contractors, partners, customers, or suppliers. These organizations say their main BYOD security concerns are data leakage, unauthorized access to data and systems, and malware infections.

How to protect and enable workers, wherever they may be

IT leaders know that having modern identity in place is a key lynchpin for securing remote work. As your company responds to stay-at-home orders and other pressures of the current pandemic, more and more stakeholders should be waking up to the potential value to be gained by expanding your adoption of identity and access management (IAM). In Okta’s work with thousands of global organizations, we’ve observed four primary stages of maturity that IT teams reach as they strive to more efficiently empower highly distributed workforces.

Stages of distributed work IAM maturity

Stage 0: Gradually migrate traditional work environments to the cloud

Before the pandemic hit, many companies still relied on legacy on-premises user directories, such as Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD). Some organizations at this stage have started to adopt cloud services or might even be midway through a cloud migration journey. However, those efforts are not quite fully baked or integrated with the rest of the hybrid IT stack yet. That’s because most older approaches to identity lack integration with new cloud services, and only offer limited, if any, remote access capabilities.

Stage 1: Rapidly enable secure remote work

In the spring of 2020, when governments around the world followed Asia’s lead to implement shelter-in-place and other protective measures against COVID-19, global enterprises had to react fast. Every IT team’s first priority became enabling secure distributed work in order to keep basic operations running, such as by extending their VPNs. Once they discovered the staying power of the pandemic, many businesses moved quickly to adopt new (usually cloud-based) collaboration solutions that helped their workers become more productive at home.

Stage 2: Enhance productivity for your distributed workforce with IT automation

As the dust settles from COVID-19’s initial upheaval and organizations prepare for ongoing waves, the majority of IT teams should move into the next phase of the IAM journey if they haven’t already. At this level, you’re likely adding tools that will not just enable remote employees, but truly enrich what is becoming a “new normal” of dynamic work. To do this efficiently, you’ll need to leverage automation across your identity processes.

Some key steps to take during stage two include:

  • Look for ways to reduce manual, error-prone on- and off-boarding tasks, so you can get employees up and running fast.
  • Enable self-service password resets and other services that reduce the burden on your help desk.
  • Use low-code or no-code tools (e.g., Okta Workflows) to free up your developers and automate processes that are complex or unique to your enterprise.

Smart teams use the flexibility of cloud computing to adjust quickly as their business needs fluctuate. For instance, by storing non-corporate identities (such as those for temporary or contract workers) in cloud directories, you can more easily scale up and down amid today’s uncertain landscape, or for seasonal requirements, future contractor or partner needs, and more.

Stage two is also a good time to rethink secure access for your global workforce, and adopt a more unified approach across cloud and on-prem apps. Your goal should be to ensure the right users have access to only the resources they need, and at the right time. You should:

  • Set context-based access policies that utilize risk signals such as device and geolocation, rather than relying primarily on corporate network context.
  • Extend access controls to your on-prem systems, infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) platforms, or APIs.
  • Protect against credential-focused attacks like phishing with adaptive MFA.

Stage 3: Embrace zero trust access rooted in identity

As the FedEx example demonstrates, stages one and two help to establish the essential infrastructure for your long-term zero trust security strategy. When you’re ready to head down this path, look for ways to enhance risk evaluation with identity as the cornerstone. Integrate your modern IAM platform alongside other key security technologies to improve security posture and ease-of-use.

A robust zero trust strategy allows you to balance security with usability—and by better understanding risk, you can also make experiences easier for end users, even enabling passwordless login methods when risk is low. Another helpful approach is connecting Okta to a Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) tool like Zscaler and gradually reducing your VPN reliance.

Read this whitepaper to learn:

  1. The current state of workforce technology
  2. Distributed work: IT’s next frontier
  3. Barriers to maintaining resilience amid uncertainty – Shifting business continuity and security priorities
  4. How to protect and enable workers, wherever they may be – Stages of distributed work IAM maturity
  5. Ensure rapid time-to-value and agility

To read full download the whitepaper:
The Next Value Accelerator for IT