Shaping the Future of Work Through Technology

By Naveen Zutshi

6 min read

When the pandemic sent our employees home more than a year ago, no one knew how long it would last and how it would affect productivity and day-to-day business activities. At Palo Alto Networks, IT has been able to drive workplace transformation in a time frame many of us would have thought impossible, under real-world pressures that were probably more intense than most of us had ever experienced.

We’ve learned a lot about what is possible when you are forced to get something done quickly. We’re still learning as offices are reopening for a hybrid work environment. I want to share some of the technologies we’ve put in place and how they are positioning us to shape the future of work for both our company and industry.

Security First

With everyone working remotely, the attack surface increased exponentially. For a company like ours, securing intellectual property, customer and employee data is paramount.

One way we deal with securing the growing attack surface is through Host Information Profile (HIP) checks, starting in the source code of each device. Before the device can get access to any resources online, we make sure it is in a good state as far as patching levels, antivirus software and the proper certificates.

Another way is zero-trust based authentication and authorization to resources, to ensure that the person or device logging on and accessing resources is checked for anomalous behavior. In addition to multi-factor authentication, we perform a set of analyses including location checks, credential checks against social logins, least privilege access, certificate checks, etc. All these additional checks are conducted to minimize potentially malicious behavior.  

Always-on security is essential. Devices are continuously connected to Prisma Access. Therefore, capabilities such as threat prevention, URL filtering, wildfire, and DNS security are on all the time and users don’t have to turn their VPNs on and off. We have controls for collaboration tools, such as Slack, to mitigate risk of users inadvertently sharing certificates, passwords, tokens, AWS keys and other easy vectors for attackers. 

Improving Productivity 

We used to pride ourselves in our Tech Oasis, where employees could just walk in for real-time tech support. Since the pandemic, we had to figure out how to give the same high level of support despite remote work. We improved online support through machine learning chatbots on Slack and virtual concierge services, while leveraging Cortex automation to proactively resolve VPN issues.

As a result of these and other changes, we have experienced a 30% reduction in IT tickets per employee and supported a 20% increase in the workforce without increasing the IT budget. Our IT Services Net Promoter Score (NPS) has improved and is over 70. It is my belief that a physical help desk is a thing of the past. With virtual service desks, or drop-off lockers, we have an opportunity to reimagine how technology works for us.

The pandemic also gave birth to the idea of FLEXWORK, which is a new way of flexible work that is being pioneered by Palo Alto Networks. We have FLEX Location to help remote employees move, FLEX Assist to help managers support teams in a distributed environment, FLEX Learn to provide personalized and experiential online learning, and many other applications we have built from the ground up. We are now working on FLEX Space to facilitate people coming back to work in a hybrid manner and sharing spaces. We are providing a single platform for employees that centralizes all aspects of FLEXWORK. 

Modernizing Onboarding

With FLEXWORK and other innovations our goal is create a simple, intuitive and world-class experience for all employees at any location. Onboarding new employees is of particular importance because that initial experience can shape an employee’s view of the company and his or her job for a long time.

Pre-pandemic, we would generally set up laptops at work, configure them and ship them. But with IT people not coming into the office, we are doing more provisioning over the air and working with third-party vendors to drop ship the devices to employees. Our shipping costs have gone up, but we have been able to successfully modernize the onboarding experience so that devices are fully provisioned for the employees before they even start. This has helped us to do more zero-trust provisioning and given IT more flexibility in where, when and how people work.

When you don’t meet with the employees face to face, you have to give them a great first-day experience. We configure everything for employees before day one, all ready to go. This was so successful that many new employees, without prompting, have gone on social media to publish personal accounts of their satisfaction with their onboarding experience. 

We even built a Center of Excellence in India during COVID that has been a completely remote experience. We hired all the people remotely and they’ve all been working from home. We set up the entire center with no one on site—and we still haven’t met a single person face to face. This is the future of work. If COVID had not happened, we may have gotten there eventually, but definitely not as quickly.

Looking Ahead

Over the last 15 months we made many discoveries. For example, people have become more involved in events working in a virtual environment. Our sales teams have had more access to potential clients and proven they can be effective virtually. Employees are using flexible hours to be more productive.

There are things we haven’t resolved through technology, like easier ways to brainstorm or the ability to have serendipitous conversations. Whiteboarding is an area of interest, and we are still exploring various tools. As of now, we have not seen whiteboarding tools offering the same level of efficacy as in-person tools. We are looking for free-form capabilities and the kind of iterative teamwork – or cooler talk experience – that you need for better collaboration. These features are still challenging to accomplish vertically, and we are working to find the best solution for our employees. Having a place where employees, customers and partners can meet in person, even occasionally, is not going away any time soon. 

Flexible work is the future. As we face challenges that will be shaped by unpredictable and unknowable factors, we remain laser focused on enabling employee choice and delivering a seamless, personalized user experience. Technology innovation can be a powerful force for workplace transformation. As we look ahead, may that force be with all of us.