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The Rise of Remote Workers and the Extended Enterprise

Man with Laptop on Hill Overlooking City

Remote workers are becoming commonplace nowadays. It wasn't always that way though. In 2009, journalist, Tina Brown, noticed a surging phenomenon amongst the global workforce. The Great Recession had narrowed the income potential from traditional full-time jobs so greatly that many people were turning to “free-floating projects, consultancies, and part-time bits.” This new approach, which she donned to be part of the new “gig economy,” caught on not only due to the crisis but because it had introduced new avenues that brought previously unconnected supply and demand together.

Of course, the recession ended and companies began hiring again. While some of those who had relied upon services like Uber and TaskRabbit for work went back to traditional nine-to-five jobs, the gig economy stuck around. The gig economy’s ability to connect supply and demand and the influx of then-new, digitally-native millennial workers had begun creating a new work standard. Companies who embraced remote workforces found themselves better able to attract talent alongside the other, more expected advantages.

Today, many organizations are continuing the trend by implementing their own versions of this approach through "the extended enterprise" or by selecting their employees on criteria other than geographic location. Companies who have applied this technique have multiple advantages over their brick-and-mortar counterparts, ranging from increased productivity to the ability to attract more well-qualified talent. With 50% of the U.S. workforce predicted to be working remotely by 2020, companies who are championing the extended enterprise look to be positioning themselves well for the future.

How can companies become more remote worker-friendly? The key to success isn’t about installing and enforcing certain workforce policies, it’s about revisiting the definition of what a company is. Organizations can no longer define their business by the individuals who work within a set of walls.

In other words, identities, not desks, devices, or private networks, must serve as the identifiers of an organization if it wants to successfully leverage the benefits of the extended enterprise.

First the desk, then the device, then the network.

It might seem rather simple but to understand why thinking in terms of individual identity is such a watershed moment, it’s important to see how organizations have defined their workers up until now.

When networks first became an imperative business function, computers were expensive. Naturally, IT departments defined the identities of the network by the "desk." Employees were not identified by any unique signature other than the internal log in that they needed to unlock the computer at their desk. This struck a nice balance between security and access. It also added another layer of "security." Even if the individual login security was imperfect, terminated employees could not access confidential resources that were stored on the internal network from outside of the office.

This practice remained the default even as more and more employees began to come online. Company networks then continued to sprawl to mobile devices, where IT departments still used the same "desk" philosophy to secure devices. This came in the form of companies issuing pre-secured phones and laptops to employees or having them install software on personal devices that they used for work.

As more people began working remotely as part of the gig economy, networks continued to grow due to workers sharing documents over the cloud. The solution to this was to layer private networks on top of existing networks, which was the logical approach given the prevailing "desk assignment" mentality. This approach has been so widely adopted that the VPN market is estimated to grow from $15.6 billion in 2016 to $35.7 billion by 2022.

Until now, this technique, even though it was created using an antiquated approach, has worked. It allows anyone who has access to the organization’s protected connection to have access to the private network. However, what happens when more and more individuals are working from outside of the office? Private networks, then, become inaccessible. This requires a new definition of what the “private” network entails. It's one that’s based on privileges and permissions, not location.

A company of people, not a company of devices

Parallel to the swift rise of VPNs (and the vendors offering them), public cloud services began establishing credibility as alternatives amongst enterprise IT teams. More and more companies began to see the benefits of using public cloud services, ushering in a rising tide of trust amongst IT professionals who were once convinced that private networks were the only way to guarantee security. Now many companies, particularly extended enterprises, have completely embraced the cloud and are relying on services like G Suite and Office 365 to collaborate (In fact, I’m writing and editing this right now using Google Docs). They might adopt these services for their compatibility with remote workers but the underlying benefit that’s often overlooked are these services' abilities to keep companies' files secure.

Many users may take this for granted but this is somewhat of a turning point. A startup company can get up and running on the public cloud with the expectation that their files and IP will be protected by a team of experts. This feeds the service providers who then use their ironclad security as a tool to attract new customers. Companies like Google have even established entire teams that are focused on creating groundbreaking methods of protecting user identities precisely for this reason. With competition between public cloud providers heating up, security is likely to continue to be an important focus.

The public cloud is not the digital equivalent of the wild west. The extended enterprise has already been established. So, adopting secure collaboration tools running in the public cloud is the only way to fully leverage it. The companies that embrace them earlier than their competitors will have a serious advantage when it comes to recruiting talent, increasing internal collaboration, and improving organizational efficiency.

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