Tech Shaping the Future of Work Beyond 2020

Digital workspace expert Mark Bowker envisions how remote desktop, security and other business technologies will change how people work after COVID-19.

By Calvin Hennick

By Calvin Hennick May 15, 2020

Practically overnight, the entire concept of business continuity radically changed after COVID-19 was proclaimed a pandemic. Until recently, the term referred mostly to the ability to keep up if an office site were to become inaccessible for a few days or a couple of weeks due to a weather-related event like a massive flood. Very few business or IT leaders foresaw a situation where entire industries would shutter their offices for months in response to a global pandemic. And even fewer actually prepared for such a scenario.

“Organizations have traditionally considered questions like, ‘What if we experienced an outage and people couldn’t get to the office?’” explained Mark Bowker, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group and leader of the organization’s digital workspace practice. “But that group of people was measured in tens, or maybe hundreds, of employees. Now the issue has really become scale – how do you scale that to the rest of your employees?”

Bowker spent over two decades in the IT industry before becoming an analyst. Now he researches how businesses apply end-user computing, applications and mobile technology strategies to stay competitive.

Businesses found ways to get the vast majority of their employees connected to corporate data and applications from home even before COVID-19. But in the weeks and months following the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses struggled while others kept humming along as usual – with, perhaps, a steep increase in the number of children and pets making cameos in the background of video meetings. Bowker thinks that a number of the tech solutions used and lessons learned from this period will carry over to a post-quarantine work world.

Bowker sees a handful of trends shaping the future of workplaces.

Increased Instances of VDI and DaaS

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) both offer employees a way to access their work desktops from practically anywhere, using any device. Typically, the term “VDI” is used to describe virtual desktops that are hosted in a company’s own datacenter, while “DaaS” refers to desktops that are hosted in the public or private cloud. Both solutions allow workers to log into work using a browser on their laptop, tablet or smartphones, using a mobile network or home WiFi connection, giving them immediate access to all of their work data and applications.

[Related story: How Vodafone’s End User Computing Strategy Kept Workers Connected During the COVID-19 Crisis]

“You take a time like this, where people are completely working from home, and maybe you didn’t have a method in place to deliver a secure experience before,” Bowker says. “Now you can take a desktop that’s hosted inside a datacenter or in the cloud and project it to that user. And you can do this at scale really within minutes or hours, as opposed to having to procure devices and install operating systems and applications. The time savings alone can be enormous.”

Before the coronavirus crisis, Bowker saw VDI adoption plateaue, with around one-third of organizations adopting the technology. He said that may have jumped as high as approximately 80 percent during the crisis, before falling back to around 50 percent once most people are back to work, he predicts. 

“People are going to realize that the technology works, that it’s secure, and that it delivers a good user experience,” he said.

Reduced Reliance on VPNs

Before the coronavirus shutdown, many organizations were relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to allow employees to remotely access corporate resources. VPNs create a secure tunnel for workers and managers to remotely access data and applications, but the tool can sometimes be clunky, and Bowker said many companies are running into trouble as they try to scale out VPNs to their entire workforce.

“Suddenly, if you go to double, or triple, or even 10 times the number of users, you’re going to have performance problems,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”

Expanded Remote Work Programs

Along with remote desktop solutions, a number of organizations are racing to adopt cloud collaboration suites, file sharing solutions, video conferencing tools, and other technologies that support remote work. In part because they now have these technologies in place – but also because executives are seeing just how productive their employees can be from home – Bowker predicts that more organizations will continue to make remote work a key part of their operations, even after the economy kicks back into gear.

“I think you’re going to see a range,” Bowker said. “You’re going to see some companies that are going to put all those employees back inside of offices and go back and operate as before. But you’re also going to see some companies that say, ‘This [remote workforce] really works, and a percentage of our employees really could benefit from this model.’”

More companies than before, Bowker predicts, will allow existing employees to work from home one or two days each week. Others will increasingly use flexible scheduling as a selling point to prospective hires, or as a way to bring in talent from a wider geographical area.

Renewed Emphasis On Security

In some ways, Bowker notes, remote work technologies may actually provide a security boost. If data is housed on central servers or in the cloud instead of on employee laptops, for instance, that greatly reduces the danger of a data breach resulting from a lost device.

However, as organizations increasingly adopt remote work solutions, Bowker said it’s going to be important to pair these tools with robust authentication solutions.

“If you’re only protecting with a username and password, it is very easy for the bad guys to attack,” he said. “Companies really need to look at tools like multifactor authentication.”

Bowker said businesses should also consider investing in monitoring tools that can sniff out suspicious behavior, such as an employee appearing to log in from an unusual geographic location or an unfamiliar IP address.

Especially because organizations are rolling out new technologies in a rush, Bowker believes IT professionals should take a step back to assess their evolving environments to ensure that they aren’t unwittingly opening up new vulnerabilities.

Continued Importance of Physical Offices

With such rapid, massive movement toward a work-from-home model, one might be tempted to assume that the world of knowledge workers is poised to become entirely digital. “Are we headed toward a time where physical office spaces become largely a thing of the past?” Bowker asked. “Probably not.”

He said there’s a notion that companies will reduce from three floors inside an office building down to two floors, or even one, as the world moves beyond COVID-19.

“That may happen here and there, and I’m sure we’ll see those things in the news, but I don’t think most places are going to make that drastic of a move,” Bowker said.

Bowker notes that interpersonal relationships remain vitally important in many industries. And for many workers, the office serves as the hub of their social lives.

“The office is where these workers see people, and eat their lunch, and go out to dinner with their friends,” Bowker said. “Remote work will increase, but this idea of a trend where half of companies reduce their office real estate by 75 percent…you won’t see anything like that.”

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Calvin Hennick is a contributing writer. His work appears in BizTech, Engineering Inc., The Boston Globe Magazine and elsewhere. He is also the author of Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. Follow him on Twitter @CalvinHennick.

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