Managing Cybersecurity in a Hybrid Work model

Publication date: Sep 30, 2021

Last Published: Dec 13, 2022

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Read Time : 7 minutes

The world of work has been deeply transformed by the pandemic. When the novel coronavirus first hit, it forced many knowledge workers to leave the office and start working from home. It didn’t take a long time for employees and employers alike to discover that the new way of working doesn’t come only with challenges—it also comes with numerous benefits.

Fast forward to today, and more than 55 percent of people in the United States are fully vaccinated, making another forced exodus from the office less likely. But instead of choosing between going back to the old way of working and continuing to work remotely, 90 percent of global organizations have chosen something else: to combine remote and on-site working.

By operating in hybrid work environments, organizations can get the best of both worlds, providing their employees with more flexibility and better work-life balance without giving up in-person collaboration and water-cooler moments.

The only problem is that the hybrid work model isn’t compatible with old-fashioned cybersecurity strategies. Organizations that don’t upgrade their defenses for the era of hybrid work risk experiencing a data breach and suffering its costly consequences.  

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All Hybrid Work Environments Create the Same Cybersecurity Risks

Any work arrangement that combines remote and on-site working is a hybrid work environment. Generally, such arrangements can be categorized into the following three broad groups based on the specific ratio of remote and on-site work:

  • Remote-first: In a remote-first hybrid work environment, employees spend most of their time working from various remote locations, but organizations still maintain physical offices where employees can gather when needed. This work arrangement makes it much easier to attract employees who wouldn’t be willing to commute to the office on a regular basis because of the large distance between their place of living. Downsides include fewer opportunities for face-to-face human interaction, as well as potential collaboration struggles.
  • Office-occasional: Office-occasional hybrid work environments represent the middle option, with the pendulum not swinging too much in either direction. Typically, employees are required to spend some time working from the office, but they can freely choose between remote and on-site work the rest of the time. Attracting job candidates who live farther away from the office is more difficult—but not impossible. When implemented correctly, employees and employers alike get to experience most benefits of the hybrid work model without too many downsides.
  • Office-first: An office-first hybrid work environment has been our personal choice at OSIbeyond for a while now. Our employees work remotely on Fridays and spend the rest of the week working from the office. We’ve found this way of working to be the best for productivity and in-person collaboration, which is enough to justify its downsides, such as more time spent commuting each week.  

Despite their differences, these three distinct types of hybrid work environments create the same cybersecurity risks because they lead to the dissolution of the network perimeter, the main point of focus of old-fashioned cybersecurity strategies.

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Understanding the Threats Created by Hybrid Working 

In the past, cybersecurity strategies, especially those used by small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), have relied primarily on firewalls monitoring incoming and outgoing network traffic and other perimeter defenses.

This castle-and-moat network security model had served organizations quite well for a long time because it was easy to conceptualize, implement, and maintain. Then, the pandemic hit and forced everyone to leave their cozy castles.

To remain productive despite being unable to meet in the office and discuss important topics face to face, organizations and individual employees have turned their attention to the cloud, implementing all kinds of cloud collaboration solutions, further expanding the already shattered network perimeter and creating more entry points for attackers to target.

All this change was happening so quickly that decision-makers had only a limited amount of time to raise cybersecurity awareness among employees by educating them about the threats they may encounter when working remotely.

Before long, cybercriminals had realized just how vulnerable businesses had become, and they didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation. Cyberattacks jumped 238 percent globally between February and April 2020, and 68 percent of organizations the same year experienced one or more endpoint attacks that successfully compromised their IT infrastructure, with ransomware and COVID-themed phishing emails being the most common cyber threats.

In addition to becoming more common, cyberattacks also became more expensive. The average ransomware payment reached $570,000 in the first half of 2021, an increase of 82 percent since 2020. A sum like that is guaranteed to leave a dent in any company’s budget, but it can have disastrous consequences for SMBs, whose financial resources have been drained by the pandemic.

Maintaining Security in a Hybrid Work Environment

Knowing that perimeter defenses alone are no longer enough, organizations must shift their focus to individual endpoint devices and their users in order to maintain security in a hybrid work environment.

To start with, it’s necessary to know which endpoints are being used by employees for work-related purposes. This seemingly daunting task can be accomplished simply by avoiding the implementation of any bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, requiring all employees to use only work-issued devices.

The next step is to ensure that work devices are actually used only by the employees they were issued to and only for doing work—not for wasting time on social media, downloading stuff from the internet, or editing YouTube videos. That’s where acceptable use policies come in to define what constitutes proper and improper use.

Employees should also be trained on how to use their work devices in a safe manner because there are many threats that await them outside the office. Extra attention should be given to phishing emails, physical security, password hygiene, and the risks associated with public Wi-Fi networks.

While cybersecurity awareness training can go a long way in preventing employees from being the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain, it won’t turn them into cybersecurity experts. For example, they should understand the importance of software updates, but they can’t be reasonably expected to keep their work devices updated at all times.

That’s why it’s a good idea to invest in an endpoint protection solution capable of deploying patches to all relevant endpoints from a centralized console. Leading endpoint protection solutions are designed to protect against advanced threats, such as polymorphic attacks, fileless malware, and zero-day attacks using machine-learning classification, and they have a host of other features that make them far more useful than legacy antivirus solutions.

Recently, a number of large tech enterprises, including Google and Microsoft, have started preaching the benefits of Zero Trust security, a network security model that centers around the idea of never trusting anyone by default. Instead, data is identified and categorized based on how sensitive it is so that it can be effectively segmented and protected using robust access controls, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA).  

When all the above-described elements are combined, maintaining security in a hybrid work environment becomes not only possible but relatively easy—or at least not much more difficult than what it takes to maintain security in a purely remote or purely office environment.  

Conclusion on Hybrid Work Model Cybersecurity

The way we work has been forever transformed by the pandemic. The transformation has been so sudden and unexpected that many organizations have yet to upgrade their cybersecurity to protect employees who combine remote and on-site work.

By continuing to rely on traditional perimeter defenses, they risk experiencing a costly data breach that could jeopardize their ability to operate.

To avoid this grim scenario, organizations of all sizes must learn how to maintain security in a hybrid work environment, requiring them to shift their focus from the network perimeter to individual endpoints.

Contact us to discuss your best options for managing a hybrid work model’s security.

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