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Firms Put Worker User Experience Ahead of Security: Report

The longstanding IT balance between usability and security was tipped in favor of the former during the pandemic-driven remote work wave in many organizations, new research indicates.

Moreover, with overarching cybersecurity concerns dominating the IT space these days, a new report on digital workspaces finds that some organizations are rather prioritizing a smooth user experience for employees.

That alarming finding is a key takeaway from the new "State of the Digital Workspace 2023" survey-based report from the Digital Workspace Ecosystem Alliance (DWEA), a nonprofit consortium that provides vendor-neutral education and resources to help organizations develop digital workspace strategies.

Digital workspace concerns rose with the 2020 work-from-home movement, but rather than referring to an employee with a laptop and internet connection, the term is often described as an integrated "technology framework" concerned with centrally delivering and managing applications, data and endpoints like virtual desktops.

"Security and simplicity are often treated like polar opposites," the DWEA report said. "It's not uncommon for companies to view cybersecurity as an unfortunate but inevitable tradeoff as they work to provide their end users with the smoothest experience possible. During the pandemic, when organizations made a sudden and seismic shift to remote work, this was often the rule rather than the exception in order to ensure business continuity."

The report did note that as the pandemic subsides, organizations are showing signs of correcting themselves in that regard.

The DWEA in September conducted a survey of 2,660 global digital workspace professionals to gauge the current state of digital workspace adoption, benefits and challenges. That survey revealed the above finding about finding a balance between security and efficient work.

"In a stark departure from recommended best practices, companies are increasingly putting their end users' experience ahead of cybersecurity concerns," the report said. In fact, the biggest roadblocks to the adoption of digital workspaces are concerns about impacting the end-user experience, along with perceived complexity of implementing digital workspace initiatives, it said.

Complexity and Concern
[Click on image for larger view.] Complexity and Concern (source: DWEA).

"First and foremost, organizations are concerned about the impact the implementation will have on end users' productivity," the report said. "A full 38.5 percent of respondents said that this was the case. And it's not hard to see why. In the pursuit of greater agility and efficiency, organizations don't want to risk impeding both, even if only temporarily. The fact that 'business as usual' has been disrupted by the pandemic also makes it that much harder to introduce changes because it magnifies the consequences of minor setbacks and adjustments."

That aforementioned complexity, meanwhile, was mentioned by about one third of respondents as the biggest roadblock to digital workspace adoption.

The DWEA said those UX concerns stem from several trends that were gleaned from survey results:

  • Continued uncertainty over future workforce evolution. One-quarter of respondents predicted that their people would never go back to the traditional in-office environment. At the same time, 41 percent said they believe employees will eventually go back full-time. With so little consensus on such an important issue, organizations are still in "wait and see" mode.
  • Negative perception of familiar DW solutions. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is reported as the primary cloud desktop solution, yet 48 percent of organizations cited VDI's performance as their number-one challenge, followed by 41.7 percent of respondents lamenting its high cost. This leads to the mistaken assumption that digital workspace solutions are inherently challenging.
  • Software management and maintenance headaches. Nearly 37 percent of respondents said that keeping applications up to date -- and therefore fully functional and secure -- is their biggest app management challenge. A further 21.4 percent reported being hamstrung by too many legacy applications. As we'll see below, legacy software is a primary driver behind digital workspace migration but also influences which DW solutions are ultimately adopted.

The DWEA did note that these concerns and trends aren't new, nor are they IT-specific considerations, having existed as long as commerce itself.

Indeed, the organizational struggle between providing workers with the tools and systems for productive, effective work while balancing security concerns is a well-worn topic, recently discussed in a Virtualization & Cloud Review online tech summit on "Top Cloud Backup & Recovery Best Practices." In that event, presenter Dave Kawula, managing principal consultant at TriCon Elite Consulting, related a memorable quote from a friend: "'Dave, security was never meant to be convenient. It's not a matter of convenience.'"

"Security is supposed to be tough, because if it's not tough, it's going to be easy for the bad guys," Kawula said. He and partner John O'Neill Sr., chief technologist at AWS Solutions, discussed the old adage often associated with IT and software development stating that, for a new app or project, tech pros can choose two of three options presented in what has been called an iron triangle: good, fast or cheap. One has to settle for just two of those three characteristics, the adage states, because no project can come in with all three. For more on that, see the article, "For Cloud Cybersecurity, You Can Pick 2 of 3: Easy, Cheap or Secure."

In it's new report, the DWEA opined further about the usability/security struggle.

"There's a noticeable disconnect between the known benefits of a strong digital workspace strategy and the perceived impact that its implementation will have," the organization said. "While most respondents signaled that they're fully aware of the need for an actionable DW strategy, they have valid concerns about a winding up with diminished user experience and being overwhelmed by too many moving parts. These concerns aren't particularly surprising in light of a typical VDI experience.

"This disconnect highlights that there's still a significant need for both market education and practical tools to help organizations evaluate potential solutions and ultimately complete their digital workspace journey. This means equipping them with a suite of resources to define the optimal DW strategy for their organization and then identify exactly what they need to execute that strategy properly."

One factor holding back a proper security/usability balance are organizational polices allowing for employees to use their own digital devices in corporate IT systems, such as smartphones: the familiar Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy problem.

Focus on Customer Experience
[Click on image for larger view.] Focus on Customer Experience (source: DWEA).

"And with more than 87 percent of organizations allowing their users to utilize BYOD devices, the number of potential vulnerabilities increases exponentially -- especially when those devices are granted access to corporate networks and data through VDI, virtual private networks (VPNs) or both," the report said.

And, one related factor in addressing concerns such as BYOD is the adoption of Zero Trust architectures, the DWEA report said. That BYOD/ZT relationship is explored further in the article, "Cybersecurity Study Sees Zero Trust Replacing VPNs."

Other key findings of the new DWEA report as presented by the organization include:

  • Hybrid & remote work are here to stay for a majority (58 percent) of organizations, and for the 42 percent that plan to bring people back in the office full-time, the lack of a clear path back to the office highlights the need for a digital workspace strategy that can adapt over time.
  • Organizations realize that developing a strong digital workspace strategy is paramount -- but only 6 percent have executed their strategies.
  • The biggest roadblocks to digital workspace adoption are 1) concern for the impact on the end-user experience (38.5 percent of respondents) and 2) complexity (32.3 percent of respondents).
  • Issues caused by legacy technologies -- specifically VDI and the need to support legacy apps -- are the primary source of both complexity and end-user experience concerns.
  • As BYOD skyrockets, so have cost & security concerns. 50.8 percent of respondents are concerned about the cost of endpoint management, and a staggering 86.5 percent cite increased security concerns.
  • The commitment to long-term hybrid work has accelerated the need to move print management to the cloud, a migration that features heavily in organizations' overall cloud strategy.

"This report provides some eye-opening stats, like the fact that many organizations are prioritizing convenience & productivity at the expense of security -- even as the frequency and cost of data breaches rise," said Robb Henshaw, co-founder and CMO at Cameyo and the founder and president of the DWEA. "Thankfully, it also shows that orgs are aware of and concerned about these past security compromises, and are adopting the digital workspace technologies needed to optimize security while ensuring a seamless, productive experience for their people." Cameyo offers an application virtualization product working with any digital workspace.

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.

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