Virtual Meltdown?

A month after remote working took over, new problems are popping up as networks become more taxed. How smart firms are responding.

For many organizations, letting people work remotely was seen as a nice-to-have perk, a way to attract and keep employees.

But the COVID-19 outbreak turned that perk into a requirement just to keep the business running. Instead of weeks or months to troubleshoot, firms had days. Now, hacked video calls, crashing servers, and a variety of other flaws are showing. “The last month has been a stress test in terms of tech infrastructure and security,” says Aileen Alexander, coleader of Korn Ferry’s Global Cybersecurity practice and a member of the firm’s Global Technology Officers practice.

Indeed, the sheer volume of people now working remotely is taxing the system, causing problems that many companies didn’t anticipate. For instance, Zoom, the video-conferencing service, reported that it had as many as 200 million call participants per day in March; as recently as December it never went above 10 million per day. The firm admits that the surge of people “working, studying, and socializing from home” has been creating numerous challenges, including concerns over data exposure to third parties. Over the past two weeks, Zoom has enacted a series of changes and announced it will spend three months dedicating more resources to identifying and fixing issues proactively.

Similar challenges are showing up at firms that are considerably less digitally enabled. Some banks asked employees to start conference calls at odd times to avoid crashing computer systems at the top and bottom of each hour. Other firms didn’t have the correct licenses for their staff to use work software from home. And virtual private networks from Boston to Bangkok have slowed to a crawl. Pre-pandemic, company VPNs would’ve handled about a quarter of the workforce, which is around 40% to 60% utilization. Now many are expected to be at 90% utilization all the time. Some organizations that don’t normally support a remote staff may become overwhelmed by basic training on remote work, says Craig Stephenson, managing director of Korn Ferry’s North America CIO/CTO practice.

Experts say the organizations that are successfully dealing with the outbreak are the ones where the chief technology and chief security officers have stepped up and addressed everything from business continuity to employee safety. “This is a real opportunity for them to rise to the occasion and show their worth, not just now but in the long term,” says Jamey Cummings, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology Officers practice and coleader of the firm’s Global Cybersecurity practice.

For others, the problems highlight what can be done to ensure that the current situation, and any future times when the majority of employees work remotely, can be handled. Experts say corporate leaders will need to develop contingency plans, like scaling up their servers and upgrading their organization’s collaboration tools, cloud-based networks, and video-conferencing applications. They should also invest in more hardware for now and in the future, so when a phone or laptop breaks, there isn’t a scramble to fix the problem because companies will already have what they need.

Importantly, experts say tech leaders can’t overlook the people issue. Corporate leaders should be in regular communication with their employees, addressing concerns, offering support and virtual working tips, and reminding people about security and privacy policies already on the books. “It may not be ideal, but there is enough technology, tools, and capabilities to help people stay connected, engaged, and involved,” Stephenson says.

With the weak links that the outbreak has exposed, leaders have an opportunity to “recalibrate on what success looks like for their digital transformation,” says Melissa Swift, leader of Korn Ferry’s North America Digital Advisory practice. Indeed, research from the Korn Ferry Institute shows that digital transformation is a long-term process, not just the result of one or two software or hardware upgrades.