Working Remotely in the Time of Coronavirus

May 28, 2020

COVID-19 has thrown millions of Americans into the world of remote work.

To adjust to working in this new environment, we need to understand who we are and how the environment affects us.  Once we know that, we can select tools that will maximize our success.  

Types of Remote Employees

The Seasoned Pro: This person has worked at home before or does so now.  They know the routine and how to get stuff done. In the current environment, even the Seasoned Pro will benefit from dusting off the Remote Working toolkit.

The First Timer: The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted thousands of people into remote work with little preparation with tools to transition to this new way of working.  This environment without a co-located team can be isolating.  Technology challenges are stressful. Mental and emotional reserves are taxed.

The Caregiver: Schools are closed and students have moved to remote learning.  With children at home 100% of the time, parents have been thrust into the roles of employee, teacher and parent at the same time.  Some people are also caring for loved ones in the same home. These competing priorities are difficult to balance.

Remote Working Toolkit

Here are some tried and true tips to help you make your new office environment work for you.

  1. Move: Not having a commute is nice.  It saves on gas and reduces stress.  But, it’s easy to forget to move during the day now that you’re not walking from the parking lot, to lunch, to the printer, etc.  Add a reminder to your calendar to stretch.  Take a walk and soak in some sun. Have lunch outside.  Don’t have to be at the computer for a call?  Take your phone on a walk!  Play with your kids or dogs.  Do something that gets the blood flowing.  Can’t get away from the desk? Try deskercises!
  2. Structure the Day: When you’re in the office you have work hours even if you don’t punch a clock.  Set a routine and stick to it. Keep an alarm set to wake you up.  Take breaks.  Make sure to take time away from the computer.  It’s easy to sit in the chair and not walk away from the computer for 8 hours.  This can lead to burnout and decreased productivity.     
  3. Separate Work from Home: It’s easy to let work and home overlap when working at home.  Dedicate your work space separate from home environment to the extent possible.  This is especially true as we are self-isolating during COVID-19.  Children, partners, pets, are all looking for attention.  
  4. Create a space dedicated to work, like a corner of the living room.  Try not to work at the kitchen table or the bedroom.  Studies show that using the bedroom for non-sleeping activities increases insomnia.   Also establish expectations and boundaries with others in the home for interactions during the work day.  Have a visual indicator like a sign indicating you cannot be disturbed.  
  5. Set Up Your Workstation: Good ergonomics help you work at a desk for 8 hours and be able to walk away without muscle strain and pain.  Setting up an ergonomic workspace makes all the difference.  On a lot of conference calls?  Invest in a good headset.  Being comfortable and pain-free can make a huge difference in your health and productivity.
  6. Prioritize Interaction with Colleagues: Working remotely can feel isolating.  That’s especially true right now when we’re not able to be social outside the home.  When you’re in the office you see faces and talk to people all day.  Human beings are social creatures and interacting with others is important to our mental and emotional health.  Find opportunities to talk on the phone instead of sending an email or instant message.  Even better, use video conference calls!  Reading body language and seeing active listening goes a long way to making the remote working experience better for everyone.  Leave time in meetings for casual conversation.  Knowing there are people on the other end of the line gives perspective. It may surprise you how much it adds to your productivity.
  7. Get a Web Cam: Selectively turn on your video in a conference call. It’s not the same as actually meeting in person but meeting virtually “face to face,” helps you connect with colleagues much better than audio-only. Calls are often more productive when participants can see their colleagues engaged. Virtual eye contact goes a long way! As a bonus, if you’re someone that has trouble focusing while working remotely, a web cam may provide the extra accountability that you need to avoid multi-tasking on your next call!

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking is when a person deals with more than one task at the same time. According to a 2014  Psychology Today article, people do not multi-task. They task switch.  Each time we switch tasks, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.  That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy. Structuring your day, separating work from home, and setting up the ideal workstation goes a long way to preventing the need to multi-task.

The speed at which coronavirus has changed the world has added tremendous complexity to working remotely.  We have the tools for success to achieve healthy work/life balance and maintain emotional and mental health.  Together we will successfully shift this paradigm.

McAfee MPOWER Intro

May 20, 2020

Industry conferences are a great way for you to network with other professionals, improve relationships with vendors, and learn about new products and trends in your field. While these are all good reasons to make the trek, there’s another less tangible side effect that is even more valuable. Attending a conference provides a necessary interruption to your routine. The break-out sessions, trainings, presentations, and keynotes cultivate inspiration, offer new perspectives, and renew excitement for subject matter that can become stale in the context of the daily grind.

This past November I attended the McAfee MPOWER conference in Las Vegas and it was just what I needed to reinforce and stimulate my interest in all things cybersecurity! I was invited to MPOWER by McAfee, based on my 18+ month role delivering the McAfee MVISION Cloud CASB at a client. As the primary Solution Architect responsible for the project, I have been responsible for everything from the design of the supporting infrastructure to the creation of enterprise patterns that describe the integration of the CASB with eligible applications. My experiences highlighted some key concepts that I often overlook in my daily role as a Security Solution Architect:

Cybersecurity impacts EVERY industry

My primary clients at Systems Flow have been in the Financial Services space which was very well represented across the 1,000+ conference attendees. However, I was quickly struck by the diverse set of industries represented – public sector, private sector, insurance, and manufacturing among others. It became clear very quickly that Cybersecurity is ubiquitous. Bursting out of my Financial Services bubble gave me a different perspective on the challenges that we face on a daily basis.

Migration to the Cloud is causing major waves in the Cybersecurity space

Okay, so this shouldn’t have been much of a surprise – the rapid emergence of AWS, Azure, GPC, and other Cloud technologies has been a major disruptor across the IT landscape. Cybersecurity is at the heart of all things IT so it would make sense that it would be impacted as much as anything else. All that said, it was a bit jarring that every presentation and discussion turned to the Cloud before too long.  The security implications of PaaS, IaaS, and SaaS intersected with every conversation, as expected.  The migration of various security tools and devices to the Cloud was less expected, considering that these are typically tightly controlled in isolated on-premise networks.  The bottom line is that you can no longer talk security without talking Cloud.

Integrating Cybersecurity tools and managing data are a top priority

I’ve always disliked the phrase “Single Pane of Glass.” It’s one of those buzz-terms that is often misused or misplaced in marketing materials to set unrealistic expectations with unsuspecting business stakeholders. Over the course of the MPOWER conference I realized that, while the phrase may fail in most specific situations, it is an admirable goal and one that is becoming more and more necessary for Cybersecurity professionals. The set of security tools that are moving from “nice to have” to “must have” is ever-expanding, and those tools all produce data…lots and lots of data! User activity logs, web traffic, security alerts, configurations/policies… mountains of data are gathered and processed on a daily basis and it is quickly overwhelming Security Operations Centers’ ability to adequately respond. Integrating tools and implementing intelligent methods to find meaning in the noise are quickly becoming hard requirements for an effective Cybersecurity practice.

Systems Flow

Systems Flow provides security architecture services and helps organizations eliminate risk. Ready now? To achieve visible value and sustainable results?

Systems Flow can help.

Strategic thinking. Put into action.

The New Business Continuity in the Age of Pandemics

April 22, 2020
Business Continuity

Traditional Business Continuity

Business Continuity (BC) ensures you understand how your organization normally functions, and includes a plan for managing and successfully getting through planned and unplanned adverse conditions, and transitioning to/from normal and non normal.

Traditionally BC has focused on Disaster Recovery and Resiliency scenarios that address outages, loss of facilities, planned changes, recovery objectives, or reduced service levels. Many organizations and resources provide BC capabilities with extensive processes and systems to handle many possible adverse scenarios.

Pandemics are Not Traditional

Most recently, BC has become of primary importance — due to a pandemic such as COVID-19. The traditional ideas of BC processes, assumptions, and best practices have been largely unhelpful as the pandemic involves no loss of facilities, physical infrastructure or processing capabilities. Indeed, as of this writing, most existing BC businesses barely even mention Pandemic, if at all (Wikipedia only had a footnote until 3/19/20). Yet operations at many organizations around the world have ground to a halt or been severely impacted.

It is no longer sufficient to assume that organizations can continue operations based on traditional BC practices and simply relocate employees to work from their homes in isolation. There are many unanticipated challenges, including:

  • Continued operations/services with smaller workforce or fewer customers
  • Ability to provide timely and accurate communications
  • Establishing remote working logistics
  • Accessing resources remotely
  • Infrastructure limitations
  • Maintaining — and even ramping up — security
  • Policy assumptions
  • Employee/Family privacy and confidentiality

It remains to be seen how businesses will determine how to return to “normal operations”, if such a thing is even possible after such an event. 

The New Business Continuity

To be effective, the New BC must:

  • Identify any scenario that can adversely impact an organization, not just the traditional ones
  • Define how to respond to these scenarios
  • Determine how and when ‘normal operations’ will resume if/after the adverse scenario has abated

BC may not always be able to handle all risks and issues. But, with advance planning, an organization is in a better position to address them. For each threat scenario, the New BC must also focus on:

  • Identification of threats, risks, and impact/changes to workforce and customers
  • Definition of target operational models, response policies, protocols, and communication plans
  • Organizational agility to respond/adapt to rapidly changing conditions
  • Ongoing management during/after each scenario
  • Measurement of response effectiveness
  • Methods for returning to normal-mode

Why Worry After Getting Through COVID-19?

Many organizations may believe that they have recently adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, and wonder why they need to do anything else. It’s even more important now, to understand, reevaluate, and build business continuity in your organization.

  1. How do you return to normal? What is the new normal state? When can that happen? How do I bring our remote workforce back to their normal workplaces? Should I consider implications of work done at home? What may be different during or after the return to normal?
  2. What recent changes need to be fixed or removed? Tactical changes for COVID-19 were largely done in-haste, without adequate preparation, may have to be undone, and could be improved with better strategic planning.
  3. Were our communications clear, accurate, and helpful? Many organizations lacked any kind of communication plan, and were unable to provide timely, helpful or accurate information to their users or customers, resulting in misinformation on response activity, expectations, and, in some cases, impacted physical well-being.
  4. Can this happen again? Looking ahead, there could be other catastrophic situations — new pandemics, COVID-19 mutations/resurgences, bioterrorism, germ warfare — any of which could occur with short notice, rapid transmission, unanticipated side effects, or higher mortality rates. Organizations that adapt to the New BC will be better situated to achieve true continuity before, during, and after these scenarios. 

Systems Flow Can Help

We help organizations plan for the New BC. We identify needs, strengths and gaps, define solutions, and reduce risk. We can help you improve competitive advantage through practical, effective application of best practices in enterprise architecture, vision and strategy.

Hybrid Identity Options

March 11, 2019

Today, many corporations are using SaaS applications. Leveraging the cloud can be a better option from both a cost and maintenance standpoint. This post is not about the pros and cons of SaaS, but rather about hybrid identity. Maintaining a common user for on-premise and cloud-based application access is known as hybrid identity.

Using a hybrid identity is beneficial in multiple ways:

  • Allows access — with the same credentials — to both on-premise and cloud-based applications
  • Syncs up joiner/leaver/mover changes between on-premise applications and cloud applications
  • Simplifies use of personal devices to access cloud applications outside the office (if approved and required)

A Common Hybrid Identity Scenario

An organization wants its employees to use the same credentials when accessing both on-premise and cloud-based applications. With Active Directory (AD) as their standard authentication method for those applications, its IT team choses Microsoft Azure as their cloud vendor. To use the same credentials across applications, the on-premise AD must sync up with the Azure AD. This is done with Azure AD Connect.

With an Azure subscription and Azure AD configured, Azure AD Connect is installed on-premise and connects to both the on-premise AD and the Azure AD. It is configured to sync one way (on-premise to Azure) or two-way.

Here is a logical representation:

Hybrid Identity logical diagram

The AD Sync Service in AD Connect will keep Azure AD in sync with the on-premise AD. A built-in scheduler controls the frequency of these syncs.

Two Simple Hybrid Identity Implementation Options

Azure AD Password Hash Synchronization In this option, AD domain data and the on-premise password hash are uploaded to Azure AD. Cloud-based applications can then authenticate with Azure AD, and on-premise applications can continue to be authenticated using the local AD.

Azure Active Directory Passthrough Authentication In this option, passwords are not synced to Azure. When a user attempts to sign into a cloud-based application, Azure encrypts the entered password with a public key, and places the username and encrypted password in an Azure queue. The on-premise Authentication Agent listens to the queue and receives the queued credentials. It decrypts the password with a private key and validates the credentials against the on-premise AD. It then responds to Azure AD with the results. This option is best when there are security rules or concerns with storing the password off-premise.

There are several advantages to these two methods:

  • They have a small on-premise footprint
  • No new servers are needed
  • The only required components are the Azure AD Connect application and the passthrough agent that connects to the queue
  • All connections are outbound to the Azure subscription, so the connection is less of a security concern

Upcoming: I’ll discuss more complex methods to implement hybrid identity — federation and seamless single-sign-on using Azure AD and on-premise AD.

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