Cloud Infrastructure: Managing Data for the Remote-Work Revolution

Chris Latham
Senior Writer

Even as COVID-19 vaccines proliferate and businesses seek to coax employees back into office buildings, it seems likely that working from home will persist in some form for millions of people who log on remotely almost every day. Pandemic or not, there is a certain convenience to being able to stay home and avoid that daily commute to the office.

Many firms are responding by investing in cloud infrastructure, the internet-based computing technology that functions as the bedrock for the remote-work revolution. Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, reported in its 2020 Gartner Cloud End-User Buying Behavior Survey that by 2023, 40% of all enterprise workloads would be deployed in cloud infrastructure and platform services, up from 20% last year.

It’s worth clarifying what people mean when they say “the cloud,” because there are few commonly used terms that are so poorly defined. In the broadest sense, the cloud is the set of computer services that exist online in a managed environment, independent of any single piece of hardware. It incorporates data storage, processing speed, program execution, and the connection of countless devices from potentially any location, spanning everything from operating systems to smartphone apps.

However, the “type” of cloud differs drastically based on who manages that online environment and who operates within it. Companies can either do it themselves and limit it strictly to their workers (a private cloud), or they can pay a third party serving other clients to manage their cloud environment – meaning it could be public, hybrid, or multicloud.

So where does that technology go from here, how will companies use it in the future, and what challenges will they face along the way? The answers to these questions will shape the remote- work landscape, as well as the products and services that develop around it. Cloud technology for the remote workforce also raises questions about employee privacy and the data a company can collect about employees.

CLOUD QUESTIONNAIRES

The human resources technology provider Quantum Workplace puts cloud technology at the heart of its business model, which includes helping firms manage their hybrid remote/office-based teams. The company stores almost all of the data about the firms it serves on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform as Quantum Workplace assesses employee performance, engagement, and retention as well as equips workplaces with tools to help shape decision-making. Its software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions leverage the insights of industrial-organizational psychologists, a wide assortment of employee surveys, and massive amounts of data.

“The majority of our customers choose to implement confidential employee surveys, meaning companies cannot see individual survey responses for a specific employee,” says Luke Stritt, director of product marketing. “When our clients choose to gather attributed data, they inform employees about the request for attribution. For example, a company might want to survey its teams to see if it should remain remote-work based in the future. That employer might want attribution, to discover how to respond to the specific needs of different employees.”

Gathering this information could help determine whether a department or group needs more cloud-based resources. Quantum Workplace also uses predictive analytics and offers strategic guidance to firms on goals such as talent development, while integrations with the cloud-based apps Slack and Microsoft Teams allow employers to interact with employees through their mobile devices for tasks including scheduling meetings with managers and giving recognition to colleagues.

CYBERSECURITY NEEDS

In addition to Slack and Microsoft Teams, popular cloud-based platforms such as Zoom and Salesforce all have features that facilitate digital collaboration through instant messaging, document sharing, and video-conferencing tools. Firms such as Amazon, Oracle, IBM, and Snowflake provide strong cloud-based data analytics that enable businesses to crunch massive amounts of numbers, compare performance, assess alternate scenarios, and create detailed strategies — without anyone ever stepping foot in an office.

Above all, businesses using these tools must make sure their remote workers protect the firm’s confidential information and act appropriately while using corporate communications channels with colleagues and customers. “As organizations embark on a journey to embrace cloud, it is ultimately their responsibility to have a complete and comprehensive set of security controls and processes in place in order to protect their cloud workloads,” says Anatoly Bodner, associate partner with IBM Cloud Security Services, whose expertise spans enterprise cybersecurity programs, technologies, and processes.

“With significant increase in remote workforce, we are regularly advising our clients to improve their capabilities to identify and validate that the remote users have advanced multi-factor authentication; protect their digital devices and endpoints with intelligent anti-malware, intrusion prevention, detection and response, and behavior analytics technologies; and apply a zero-trust framework across enterprise systems.” In other words, there is no such thing as being too careful.

PRIVACY CONCERNS

But businesses also need to be careful how much personal information they retain about people and how they use that data, especially when many remote workers use their personal devices for business purposes. The convenience of cloud infrastructure must be balanced against individual privacy rights. Workers sacrifice many of those rights by using company hardware, or even company software installed on their personal devices.

Even so, a gray area emerges for home-based workers. Businesses do not necessarily have the right to know that a worker is checking their online bank account, or to see into their workers’ homes, record the appearance and voice of spouses or children living with their workers, track the computer activities of relatives who share the same device as the worker, or monitor workers after they finish for the day and then use their personal devices for personal reasons.

Federal law generally allows organizations to gather surveillance data on workers using company property or personal devices to conduct company business — provided the firm clearly discloses that surveillance. Nevertheless, employees have sued employers for spying. Assuming the firm and its workers abide by all privacy, disclosure, and consent laws, there still always are cybersecurity threats from scammers and hackers. That opens the door to ransomware; data theft, corruption, or destruction; and of course lawsuits.

Storing unnecessary personal information about remote workers or their family members, and even about customers that remote workers interact with, can make a firm liable to those parties if criminals obtain that personal information and use it to conduct identity fraud. A person’s physical appearance and voice, Social Security and bank account numbers, or even health records, may all be accessible. As early as 2017, attorneys have warned companies of potential liabilities regarding worker identity theft. And retrieving stolen data stored on a secret cloud platform could be impossible.

“As unpopular as it might be, anything you do on a business device is fair game for the firm to track,” says John Fletcher, a Washington, D.C.-based information technology consultant serving the cloud-based data collection and analysis needs of government entities. He also has experience with cybersecurity and private-sector IT solutions. “That data isn’t always going to be monitored or used, but the potential exists.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

A 2019 Accenture survey found that 92% of employees are open to their companies collecting data about them, as long as the workers benefit from it. Those results were released more than a year before COVID-19 lockdowns prompted the average office worker to spend almost every business day on a video conference. The near future probably will hold a few more twists to cloud-based data collection amid the remote-work revolution, such as constant exposure to artificial intelligence (AI).

Companies can collect a massive amount of behavioral data about workers and customers they communicate with via cloud-based collaboration tools, then generate potentially profitable AI insights with that data. Surveillance providers like Smarsh hope to develop AI and machine learning capabilities that let companies using their platform review the electronic communications of remote workers and customers to improve their bottom lines. The goal is to pinpoint revelations such as the best sales techniques, new products and services to launch, or more efficient organizational structures.

“Businesses are already using artificial intelligence with cloud-based data analysis to make reliable predictions. Big firms can do this with data sets based on the behaviors of their own workforce,” says Fletcher. “Amazon can track basically every movement of each of their warehouse workers and delivery drivers, which lets them identify significant trends about what maximizes productivity.

“Small firms might not have that ability with their own workforces, but they can purchase data sets from big firms and apply those assumptions about larger groups of people to smaller groups of people,” he says. “Companies even can find trends about specific individuals, but the data sets are generally anonymous.”

AUGMENTED REALITY

Cloud-based augmented reality (AR) is another possible twist coming for remote workers. Apple’s latest iPhones and iPads have AR features. In May 2020, Facebook demonstrated footage of a user wearing an AR headset, which displayed interactive images of computer screens the user manipulated with hand gestures. Vuzix has been making “smart glasses” with AR for years, in use at factories and warehouses nationwide. Vuzix recently released smart glasses to enhance digital collaboration through apps like Zoom.

Earlier this year, Microsoft revealed its cloud operations team was using Hololens 2 AR glasses to conduct remote audits of data centers. It also revealed Microsoft Mesh, built on the Azure cloud platform, which creates 3D holograms that enable workers to hold virtual meetings. Indeed, millions of people may start wearing AR devices to do their jobs as their companies start applying artificial intelligence software to study their movements.

Such a transition would vastly expand the amount and types of remote-work-based data that becomes stored and analyzed through cloud computing. If much of what workers literally see and do with their bodies becomes accessible over the cloud, data-protection policies likely would evolve as firms face pressure to use the technology to add value for their customers and remote workers — while respecting their privacy.