Mar 17 2021

How to Best Support Hybrid Work Environments

Agency IT leaders need to think through the collaboration and security tools they will need to support a new way of working in government.

As vaccinations against the novel coronavirus accelerate and as variants of the virus spread, the course of the pandemic remains uncertain. One thing that is certain, however, is that the pandemic has changed the way organizations of all kinds conduct business.

That is true even of the federal government, and it seems clear at this point that there will not be a return to business as usual at agencies. Instead, many are likely going to adopt a hybrid model of work, with employees working remotely for part of the week and then coming into offices for the remainder.

“I expect after COVID that more people will appreciate working remotely, and a higher portion of our workforce may want to work remotely,” National Science Foundation CIO Dorothy Aronson told FedScoop in January. “I would anticipate that we’ll need to look very closely at those hybrid meetings, where some people are in the office and some people are at home, to even out that interaction.”

That sentiment seems to be widely shared. An October 2020 survey from SAIC that polled 300 federal government respondents found that 82 percent expected remote work to continue into the future, with 41 percent expecting to telework an average of three days per week, post-pandemic.

To make such arrangements successful, agency IT leaders will need to invest in the appropriate network, collaboration and cybersecurity tools to support large-scale and long-term hybrid work. That investment and planning should be happening now as agencies prepare for a future in which the pandemic has ebbed but its effects remain.

The Network and Cloud Tools Needed for Hybrid Work

When agencies pivoted last March to telework as offices closed and lockdowns began, they were simply focused on enabling telework — getting devices to users, expanding VPN capacity and increasing licenses for cloud software. IT leaders were not as focused on maximizing collaboration among users.

Now, a year later, what they should be exploring is the best ways for users to communicate and collaborate with colleagues who are not in the same room. That includes determining the best team collaboration tools, how to share documents and how to have interactive discussions.

Microsoft Teams has many of those capabilities, and many agencies are using the platform, but it may not be the best fit for every agency. The underlying imperative remains the same, however: determining the best collaboration tools to support the agency’s mission.

These discussions should be happening not only within IT teams but also among the larger workforce. Engineers might have different needs than accountants, so IT leaders need to speak with users from various departments about their challenges and look for technologies that meet users’ needs and expectations. It likely will not result in a single platform for all users, but that’s OK. What matters most is that users have the tools they need to effectively do their jobs, whether in the office or at home.

A lot of this will depend on the state the agency was in before the pandemic hit and the tools they had in place, as well as what users have grown comfortable using over the past year. If agencies already had a mature cloud collaboration toolset before the pandemic, they should be well positioned to use that architecture to deliver and secure collaboration. If not, now is the time to determine the best path forward and how to catch up to support hybrid work.

LEARN MORE: How can agencies secure data from shared documents after users leave?

How to Ensure Security for Hybrid Work in Government

In addition to figuring out how to best enable collaboration for hybrid workers, IT leaders also need to ensure that such work can be done as securely as possible.

With so many users working from home, more agency data is being shared than in the past. Before, if a group of employees met to discuss a presentation, only one user might have access to the document. Now, many more likely do. Controlling and tracking the flow of information is becoming more difficult.

The way forward for securing hybrid work will rely on a combination of technology and policy. There is no shortage of security technology to ensure data protection and encryption, but IT leaders should work with mission heads and agency leaders to make certain the agency’s policy on data usage matches, hand in glove, with its security technology suite.

With a distributed workforce, agency IT security teams need to shift their focus from securing an agency’s perimeter to securing the endpoints in users’ homes, and ensuring that network access control and authentication best practices are being implemented and followed. No one wants an intruder sneaking into agency files via an unsecured home Wi-Fi network. Additionally, IT security teams need to work with users to enhance cybersecurity education so that users keep their devices as secure as possible, because malware could potentially crawl into an office via a device a user brings in from home.

Overall, IT security teams need to be more proactive and conduct more threat hunting. The goal should not be to just defend against threats, but to actively look for them. Conduct random sweeps of network activity and run forensics on endpoints. Simply having anti-virus software on laptops is not enough.

There also can no longer be any ambiguity with users on data protection and usage policies. It needs to be crystal clear what users can and cannot do on their devices.

Agencies may not have the resources to do all of this, nor the funding to expand IT security teams. That is why it is imperative to make end users more vigilant. Now is also a good time for agencies to turn to trusted third parties to evaluate any cybersecurity automation tools they have to ensure they are configured appropriately.

Hybrid work is here to stay in the federal government. Now is the time for IT leaders to plan for the workplace of the future.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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