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How tech is ensuring no lockdown on work even in times of Covid-19 crisis

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Covid-19, a pandemic which has locked down not only countries but the world economy at large, is magnifying the prominence of technology in our lives.

With our country of 1.3 billion people under lockdown now, we are seeing individual houses turning into workplaces.

And as we are taking lessons of several new things like how the earth is cleansing up, or how humanity has come together to resolve a common issue, there will be no denying that one great lesson learnt will be, how technology (along with human intention) has emerged as winner to ensure that people are connected and that locked down was the thing for only physical structures including offices but not of work. We see how…

IT initiatives by companies for seamless work from home for employees

Although working remotely or as commonly spelt out work-from-home (WFH) is not a new phenomenon, but extreme newness lies in it the scale with which it is executed today, when the entire office has to WFH at the same time. And how different organisations are going about it is the story of its own mettle and intentions.

Tata Group owned Large Format Retailer Croma developed tools which are hosted on cloud that enables remote access and working. “Office 365 enables us to remain connected via emails and Microsoft Teams. Also VPN connections have been enabled on their systems which ensure safe and easy access. For our back-end service team, mobile phones with data and voice have been provided so that any services request can be handled efficiently,” informs Jignesh Mehta, Chief Digital & Information Officer, Croma. Further, in order to address need of concurrent usage, Croma has installed a 254 IP address allocation capacity on the VPN server supporting 130 concurrent sessions at a time. They intend to build this further by adding an additional 254 IP subnet to increase the capacity. Croma has also initiated building an additional VPN gateway on Microsoft Azure primarily for its development teams to direct access to the development environment instead of routing through TCL data centre.

Foreseeing this requirement approaching, real estate company, Mahindra Lifespaces took several steps to ensure digital empowerment and a seamless WFH experience. It moved over a majority of its business-critical applications to the cloud. This included its Customer Relationship Management, Document Management and Project Lifecycle Management applications; Customer Portals; Partner Portals; and Employee Portals. These apps did not need Login SOPs and hence the employees, customers and partners have been able to access the applications from home over the internet.

“In the week prior to the WFH protocols kicking in, we installed secure Remote Access applications on all SAP user laptops (FortiClient). Once WFH kicked in, employees were able to securely access SAP using their windows credentials through the Remote Access application,” says Abhinav Aggarwal, Head of IT at Mahindra Lifespaces.

Video conferencing facilities, call conferencing facilities (Tata Teleservices, DSNL) has been facilitated by the Mahindra Group since long, however, Cisco WebEx has now been offered seamlessly across all locations. IT helpdesks for all our locations have been assisting end-users over screen sharing using M-Teams and other tools.

Ravi Chhabria, MD, NetApp India says, “Our secure Virtual Private Network, NVD (remote desktop) and other collaboration tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack – are all being remotely monitored to maximise organisational productivity. NAC (Network Access Control) enhance network security at every end point. A Multi Factor Authentication approach has become the rule of the day in ensuring secure connectivity to the corporate infrastructure. We are constantly monitoring internet bandwidth and VPN tunnel utilisation. In such environs, pre-empting spikes or performance issues using Network and Application monitoring tools come in handy.”

Financial services company, Edelweiss Group started implementing various tools and partnering with companies like Microsoft, Zscaler and AWS for better productivity and a better experience for its customers, even in these unprecedented times.

Currently, more than 90 per cent of Edelweiss Group employees i.e 9000 people have been enabled and are working seamlessly from home, while ensuring that client information and data are protected at all times.

“Employees are using digital tools for Online Video Meetings and Secure Instant messaging through Microsoft Teams. They are accessing internal applications hosted on our ‘On Premises Datacenter’ as well as AWS/ Azure Cloud, using the zero trust security platforms of Zscaler and Microsoft. Our digital engagement internally has gone up 30 times in the last week. We currently have over 1500 online video meetings/ per day (up from just 30 last week). Our colleagues are exchanging over 50,000 instant messages daily (up from 2000 messages per day),’’ says Nitin Agarwal, CTO, Edelweiss Group.

There are also companies like Siemens Healthineers which has rolled out an alternate to traditional VPNs, which ensures faster connection and consumes lesser bandwidth on the network. This alternate method provides application-centric access while maintaining zero-trust policy on security. Unlike traditional VPN where users first connect to global VPN servers, the connectors (virtual machines) are placed in the local data centre. “We are monitoring on a 24/7 basis to balance the system load and adding new connectors and gateways to further enhance the overall WFH experience,” claims Manoj Prasad, Senior Vice President, Finance, Siemens Healthineers India. “Also all remote access is still secured and would follow corporate security protocols and dual factor authorisation. We have intensified the use of virtual platforms like Microsoft Yammer and Teams, which we had rolled out in the last year or so.  Microsoft Teams has become our go to conferencing tool in the current situation.”

Consumer durable company Voltas has enabled VPN connectivity to all employees that are working from home, to ensure they are able to focus on their tasks without any technical interruptions.

Fintech company, Kinara Capital with a cloud-based technology system has made work data accessible to all its employees and its customer data is being stored in a highly secured cloud-based end-to-end system.

“We made a seamless transition to remote work for a 1300+ employee base with only a few minor adjustments. For example, some of our younger employees live in a PG and required extra SIM cards or internet dongles to be able to access our applications from home. We were prepared to fulfill such requirements urgently,” informs Jijy Oommen, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Kinara Capital. “A conference call line option set up for certain teams that need a secure phone connection line.”

To facilitate secured access to internal application for WFM Kinara Capital is doing things a little differently. “Our internal applications run behind multiple levels of security protocols such as web application firewall, perimeter security, two factor authentication so VPN is not required. In some cases, VPN is provided to System Administrators and technical teams who need to access servers, databases, and backend services,” informs Oommen.

Croma is providing ‘Insta-Safe’ with 2FA (2 factor authentication) to the employees across the organisation to enable easy access to systems and applications. For access to critical servers, drives, routers, firewalls, etc., it is  using Privilege Identity Management (PIM) solution with MFA (Multi Factor Authentication) enabled over VPN. “We are ensuring there is no compromise on safety or security while we operate from home,” stresses Mehta.

Dell Technologies has a strong infrastructure for ‘Work from Home’ policy including managing the properties, securing the workspace, seamless connectivity, to enable all its team members to be productive from any location. “However, this has become very useful, given the current situation. We had to scale our infrastructure and bandwidth to meet the additional needs, but the teams came together very quickly to get this done for all our colleagues across the globe,” expresses Hemal Shah, Senior Vice President & Regional CIO, Asia Pacific, Dell Technologies.

Beyond software delivery, digital technology consulting and solutions company Brillio is also delivering client workshops, product design sessions and other high-touch services completely virtually.

“We are over-communicating with our people. We have had multiple all-hands meeting globally, daily stand-up routines that cover the entire firm, and digital channels like WhatsApp groups, Teams and Slack channels to make sure that everyone is hearing directly from the leaders and the leaders are able to rapidly change policies and support for our people as we all adjust to this new normal,” says Aftab Ullah, Chief Operating & Delivery Officer, Brillio.

While there has been rounds of discussions around the need to enable remote working, now there have more people working remotely than at any other point in time. The situation also means that employees are being asked to do things outside of their usual role.

“Companies need to reassess what data and credentials are required to perform these new tasks that they may not have needed previously. They need to ensure that the access employees have via VPN is secured through strong authentication. They also need network visibility to close gaps as a result of an influx of new threats, which is common when there is business disruption. RSA Security has adopted a strong digital risk management strategy that fully considers the use of personal devices accessing our company systems and data from different locations. Our policies also help establish the identities of our employees and partners to minimise the endpoints against cyberattacks,” points out Rajnish Gupta, Regional Director – India & SAARC, RSA Security.

As organisations of every type turn to remote work to keep their operations running and keep the overall economy flowing, a world of challenges is emerging to threaten their initiatives. “Productivity and data security are the two top priorities for every enterprise, so a key challenge is to securely manage different types of devices, running different OSs, from different locations. Securing the endpoints is the first step to secure the data on it,” says Mathivanan Venkatachalam, Vice President at ManageEngine, division of Zoho Corp.

Another key security step addresses data traffic according to Venkatachalam. “Most enterprises prefer to route all the traffic from their corporate devices through a global proxy, which can be enforced on the devices. When there is a huge load on the corporate VPN, it is always recommended to limit the VPN access only to specific apps. Enterprises also use features like conditional exchange to ensure that only the authenticated devices can access the corporate email app,”

“Other security steps include setting policies like restricting unproductive applications on the corporate network, which not only increase productivity but also enhance security on corporate devices. Web browsers also need to be secured, including their add-ons and plug-in. Security can be further enhanced with browser isolation as well as with containerisation on BYOD, KIOSK mode, and other modern management techniques that limit access to data based on users’ business needs,” adds Venkatachalam.

Pidilite Industries enabled access to critical applications using virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) supported by secured VPN. All data stays within the virtual desktop. Other cloud-based applications continue to be accessed as before, so all risks there have been previously assessed and mitigated.

Challenges in enabling WFH

According to Netapp unstable home internet connections, occasional broadband bottlenecks, power fluctuations and outages and hardware failures have been major challenges in in implementing WFH.

“Voltas paused all new configuration changes to servers  or network (like addition of storage space, deployment of a new server into our cluster) that require people to be physically present in the data centre / locations,” says a Voltas spokesperson. “Also SLA from the network provider is impacted when a link goes down as remediation is taking longer time due to constrain of availability of technicians on site” he adds.

On the other hand companies like Mahindra have also faced slow-down in IT application development due to their IT partners trying to establish a WFH delivery model.

At Pidilite, “The biggest challenge was to enable users who operate from office using desktop computers. They had to be provided with laptop computers, and enabled with Virtual Desktops. All of this had to be done within 48 hrs, which brought in a huge strain on the backend support teams,” informs Mayur Danait, CIO, Pidilite Industries Ltd.

Vendor partner liaison

Coronavirus has triggered the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. Employers look forward to opt for this option to stave off a crisis while keeping employees safe. However, not all jobs or roles are aligned to work-from-home. Especially it seems difficult for jobs like call centres to switch to work-from-home model.

“Countries in China and South East Asia have been forced to experiment with work from home models. While this model may be difficult to implement for all job functions, there is no reason that customer support, sales, customer communications and call centres of any kind cannot continue to function as usual. We promptly assisted Acko General Insurance to move their agents to a work from home mode to help with business continuity plan. We can smoothly transfer forward calls from the call centre to the agent’s softphones or mobile handsets,” says CSN Murthy, Chief Executive Officer, Ozonetel Communications.

 Conclusion

“While in the short-term, remaining focused, calm and human-centric should guide most organisations through the new normal, in the long-term, the lessons learned from this temporary crisis may present an opportunity for organisations to create a more resilient workforce, with a focus on employee health and well-being enabled through a new perspective on the digital workplace,” says Ullah.


If you have an interesting article / experience / case study to share, please get in touch with us at [email protected]

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