This is the first in a series of blogs exploring how the world has rapidly transitioned to a remote working environment, the technological opportunities which this has created, and the social and psychological issues which need to be addressed. Read the introductory article here.
As a technologist, I am delighted to have witnessed the early dream of the ‘telecommuter’ become the reality for so many people today or doing "remote work" which is defined in the Costwold Co's guide to Working From Home as as any work that doesn't require you to travel to an office.
When I was growing up the nearest most people had to having a connected computer in their house was through Ceefax or Teletext. This system provided a news feed and entertainment service via your television set.
Teletext page from September 11 2001
But like everything with television, Teletext services were a one-way form of communication. You dialled up a page and saw what you were given. The ability to use a computer to talk to another computer was still in its infancy and rarely found outside of the university laboratory or government organisation. Where such systems did exist the ability to work remotely was coined telecommuting, but remained the purview of a highly technically minded few.
Then in 1989 Sir Tim Berners-Lee conceived of the world wide web. After a couple of years the first web page was published, and the web we know today was effectively born. However, for most people in the 1990’s the prospect of a practical home computer connected to a fast and reliable network still seemed a very long way off. Bill Gates’s dream of a computer on the desk of every home running Microsoft was still only being adopted by the most enthusiastic hobbyists (myself included!) as the cost of a desktop PC in 1994 was about £2000, a luxury many people could not understand the need for, and few companies were prepared to buy for their employees.
The first world wide web page
Fast forward a quarter of a century to January 2020 and a large proportion of households around the world have at least one smart phone and in the more economically wealthier countries, many families are fortunate enough to have several devices all of which are connected to reliable high speed broadband. Yet the majority of knowledge based work was still conducted from centralised office buildings along the same lines as they had run for a half century or longer.
Then COVID-19 appeared, and the world was plunged into self-imposed lockdown. The mantra of ‘work from home where possible’ resonated around the world, and organisations needed to react fast.
Whilst for many organisations who operated physical manufacturing processes or supplied in person services it was difficult to send the work home with the workers, for those in the knowledge working sector the prospect of moving work online and into people’s houses was more straight forward. Some companies had already supplied their staff with laptops and secure virtual private networks (VPN) connections over the previous years, and so operating from home was an easy enough option.
However, others found themselves turning to the BYOD (bring your own device) solution, enabling and expecting their workforce to work using their personal home computers. The incredible cyber risks that this created was extraordinary, leading to a massive increase in cyber crime during the first months of the lockdown, which in turn lead to a desperate hunt for a more permanent solution.
The Great Laptop Drought Of 2020
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, the most notable thing to fly off of the shelves was toilet paper and hand sanitiser. Less obvious was the increased demand in middle to high-end specification laptop computers. Parents looking to home school, laid off workers looking to get back to paid income, and relatives of all generations looking to stay connected with loved ones were all looking to get online. Some stores in the UK reported sales of laptops up by 25% from the previous quarter. However slow-moving organisations looking to get their staff online suddenly found that their options for buying hardware were severely limited. Even worse, the demand for secure connections soared as fears over cyber security became a real issue.
In some parts of the world the surge in demand resulted in some VPN networks struggling to cope, with Egypt seeing an increase in demand of 224%. As the summer months progressed, many companies who were unable to move fast enough and adapt to the restrictions, or whose business models did not lend themselves to an online environment, struggled to keep the lights on. Whilst the chaos of the lockdown restrictions make it impossible to know exactly how many companies have closed due to the inability to move online, in August alone 778 companies from the UK, many of whom are household names, had begun the move to either CVL (company voluntary liquidation), administration or compulsory liquidation.
Whenever lots of people adopt a new way of operating, criminals are never far behind. During the first month of the lockdown in the UK the national Action Fraud service reported a 70% increase in cyber incidents compared to the previous month as technically ill-informed individuals and woefully unprepared organisations moved their staff online without adequate control of either their hardware, software or network security. Almost £3 million was reported lost in the first month alone.
In addition to the additional traffic from home working, as more people were sent home on furlough schemes and connected to the internet for entertainement the demand for streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video increased significantly. Additional strain was placed on the network when the video games ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’ was released in March and ‘Fortnite’ saw a significant upgrade. At its height in April, OpenReach recorded traffic on its network peaking at 10 PetaBytes per hour (1 PetaByte is 1000 TeraBytes). The demand on the system caused concern for managers of some essential services who were already struggling to cope with the physical demands that the Covid19 virus was placing on its infrastructure. Fortunately the service was maintained.
Having survived the technical transition to a working from home environment, the next biggest hurdle in sustaining a remote working culture is that of social acceptance. Whilst some people flourished in their domestic arrangements, other have found it much harder to adjust.
In our next blog, we shall look at the human element in the transition to a working from home culture, and how both employees and employers have had to adjust to the new way of working. Read the second blog here.