Your boss might tell you the office is more secure, but it isn’t

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For the past 18 months, employees have enjoyed increased flexibility, and ultimately a better work-life balance, as a result of the mass shift to remote working necessitated by the pandemic. Most don’t want this arrangement, which brought an end to extensive commutes and superfluous meetings, to end: Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work report shows over 97% of employees would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time.

Companies, including some of the biggest names in tech, appear to have a different outlook and are beginning to demand that staff start to return to the workplace.

While most of the reasoning around this shift back to the office centers around the need for collaboration and socialization, another reason your employer might say is that the office is more secure. After all, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in cybersecurity threats during the pandemic, from phishing attacks using Covid as bait to ransomware attacks that have crippled entire organizations.

Tessian research shared with TechCrunch shows that while none of the attacks have been linked to staff working remotely, 56% of IT leaders believe their employees have picked up bad cybersecurity behaviors since working from home. Similarly, 70% of IT leaders believe staff will be more likely to follow company security policies around data protection and data privacy while working in the office.

“Despite the fact that this was an emerging issue prior to the pandemic I do believe many organizations will use security as an excuse to get people back into the office, and in doing so actually ignore the cyber risks they are already exposed to,” Matthew Gribben, a cybersecurity expert, and former GCHQ consultant, told TechCrunch.

“As we’ve just seen with the Colonial Pipeline attack, all it takes is one user account without MFA enabled to bring down your business, regardless of where the user is sat.”

Will Emmerson, CIO at Claromentis, has already witnessed some companies using cybersecurity as a ploy to accelerate the shift to in-person working. “Some organizations are already using cybersecurity as an excuse to get team members to get back into the office,” he says. “Often it’s large firms with legacy infrastructure that relies on a secure perimeter and that haven’t adopted a cloud-first approach.”

“All it takes is one user account without MFA enabled to bring down your business, regardless of where the user is sat.”
Matthew Gribben, former GCHQ consultant

The bigger companies can try to argue for a return to the traditional 9-to-5, but we’ve already seen a bunch of smaller startups embrace remote working as a permanent arrangement. Rather, it will be larger and more risk-averse companies, says Craig Hattersley, CTO of cybersecurity startup SOC.OC, a BAE Systems spin-off, tells TechCrunch, who “begrudgingly let their staff work at home throughout the pandemic, so will seize any opportunity to reverse their new policies.”

“Although I agree that some companies will use the increase of cybersecurity threats to demand their employees go back to the office, I think the size and type of organization will determine their approach,” he says. “A lack of direct visibility of individuals by senior management could lead to a fear that staff are not fully managed.”

While some organizations will use cybersecurity as an excuse to get employees back into the workplace, many believe the traditional office is no longer the most secure option. After all, not only have businesses overhauled cybersecurity measures to cater to dispersed workforces over the past year, but we’ve already seen hackers start to refocus their attention on those returning to the post-COVID office.

“There is no guarantee that where a person is physically located will change the trajectory of increasingly complex cybersecurity attacks, or that employees will show a reduction in mistakes because they are sitting within the walls of an office building,” says Dr. Margaret Cunningham, principal research scientist at Forcepoint.

Some businesses will attempt to get all staff back into the workplace, but this is simply no longer viable: as a result of 18 months of home-working, many employees have moved away from their employer, while others, having found themselves more productive and less distracted, will push back against five days of commutes every week. In fact, a recent study shows that almost 40% of U.S. workers would consider quitting if their bosses made them return to the office full time.

That means most employers will have to, whether they like it or not, embrace a hybrid approach going forward, whereby employees work from the office three days a week and spend two days at home, or vice versa.

This, in itself, makes the cybersecurity argument far less viable. Sam Curry, chief security officer at Cybereason, tells TechCrunch: “The new hybrid phase getting underway is unlike the other risks companies encountered.

“We went from working in the office to working from home and now it will be work-from-anywhere. Assume that all networks are compromised and take a least-trust perspective, constantly reducing inherent trust and incrementally improving. To paraphrase Voltaire, perfection is the enemy of good.”

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