Why Energy Producers Need to Increase Remote Operations Capacity Today, and How to Transition Securely

Why Energy Producers Need to Increase Remote Operations Capacity Today, and How to Transition Securely
Why Energy Producers Need to Increase Remote Operations Capacity Today, and How to Transition Securely

We are all living through a period of rapid transition. Prompted by the widespread and far-reaching implications of the novel Coronavirus, hardly a single facet of our daily lives has been left untouched.
 
For businesses, this reality has placed a renewed emphasis on the once-overused corporate buzzword: “agility,” as today’s organizations are making rapid and radical changes to ensure operational continuity, to adapt to shifting customer demands, and to maximize flexibility.
 
This is most acutely seen in the sudden shift to a hybrid workforce that includes on-site, remote, and distributed teams. Incredibly, what began as an urgent response to a global pandemic has emerged as the de facto organizational structure for many companies.
 
Of course, like every significant transition, it isn’t without its challenges. The vast majority of companies lack the remote infrastructure needed to maintain operational continuity with a hybrid workforce, and cybersecurity risks associated with off-site employees threaten to undermine the benefits of remote work.
 
Several of the most prominent tech companies in the world were able to rapidly pivot without compromise. Commenting on its transition to a hybrid workforce, Twitter notes, “We were uniquely positioned to respond quickly and allow folks to work from home given our emphasis on decentralization and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere.”
 
For manufacturers, utilities, and power producers, which have a deeply ingrained on-site ethos and expansive physical infrastructure, they need the same level of readiness to embrace a hybrid workforce.


Why remote operations capacity matters

To be sure, remote work isn’t a new phenomenon. According to The New York Times, the practice has been in vogue since the mid-1980s when “telecommuting” became a trend. As one overzealous prognosticator predicted in 1989: “commuting to office work is obsolete.”
 
While his prediction is an exercise in hyperbole, millions of people have left the office in the preceding decades, ushering in an era of increasing workplace flexibility.
 
Some companies and employees have flourished, but others have reported decidedly mixed results. For example, major enterprises, including IBM, began curtailing remote work in the past decade citing concerns about employee productivity, loyalty, and cybersecurity.
 
However, in a post-COVID-19 environment, it’s clear that remote work is resurgent, and, for many, represents a prominent component of the future of work. More than half of corporate executives and small and medium-sized businesses plan to incorporate remote work after the pandemic eventually subsides. Consequently, according to research by Gartner, 82% of business leaders plan to embrace a hybrid workforce moving forward.
 
However, a long-term hybrid workforce needs more than just access to Zoom and Slack to be effective. In other words, companies need to move beyond communication and collaboration tools, instead turning their attention to empowering workers to connect to and interact with advanced physical infrastructure and digital systems from anywhere.
 
For the energy and manufacturing sectors, this transition is especially consequential. Falling consumer demand, increasing international conflict, and a litany of other factors mean that the industries will be forced to do more with less in the months and years ahead. Here’s how remote operations capacity will help.
 

#1 Employees want workplace flexibility

Across the board, workplace flexibility is a top priority for employees. A May 2020 Gallup poll found that more than 50% of employees want to continue working remotely after the pandemic. In the energy sector, this number is even higher. An industry survey by the University of Houston found that 70% of respondents want to continue working remotely. What’s more, one-fifth of energy workers surveyed would rather take an unpaid furlough than return to on-site offices during the pandemic.
 
In 2019, nearly half of oil & gas professionals were concerned about a “talent emergency,” as the sector has struggled to recruit and retain the top talent. The industry already boasts one of the highest turnover rates, and an aging workforce is leaving a skills shortage that will only exacerbate existing problems.
 
Perkbox, an employee satisfaction platform, notes that, especially in the energy sector, flexible work arrangements can help with solving both chronic recruitment and retention problems.
 
The energy sector, including power plant operators and other industry professionals, are restricted to working in control rooms with Systems including Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) that were only remotely accessible using cobbled together workarounds without employing proper cybersecurity controls and operational forensics.
 
To bridge the gap between remote work ambitions and operational realities, energy producers need to develop remote operations capacity that empowers employees to safely and effectively work on anything from anywhere.
 

#2 Operational continuity demands adaptability

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stunning reminder that operational realities can quickly change. Simply put, while the pandemic is uniquely devastating, it isn’t particularly surprising, and companies need to develop the capacity to remain operational, regardless of circumstances.
 
For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described the 2020 hurricane season as “the most active in history.” At the same time, catastrophic wildfires on the US West Coast offer a remarkable reminder that disruption can occur at any moment. Of course, many experts expect that COVID-19 cases will continue to rise and fall for the foreseeable future, which places an immediate threat to operational continuity if companies need to limit on-site staff or close their physical facilities altogether.
 
By empowering teams to work from any location under any circumstance, the energy and manufacturing sectors can ensure that they are best positioned to provide critical services, regardless of the on-the-ground situation.
 

#3 Long-term profitability requires greater efficiencies

Maintaining and optimizing energy infrastructure often requires on-site teams to assess problems and provide solutions to physical facilities around the world. Not only are these in-person meetings anathema during a pandemic, but they are incredibly expensive, involving many manual processes that require multiple personnel to manage.
 
Instead, energy producers can increase efficiency by pairing emerging IoT technology with remote operations capacity, allowing remote workers to assess systems, implement solutions, and collaborate with critical teams.
 
For instance, remote users can:

  • Central monitor on-site operations

  • Diagnose and troubleshoot alarms and issues

  • Instruct, guide, and dispatch on-site personnel

  • operate, startup, and shutdown physical infrastructure.

 
In this way, remote operations capacity and long-term efficiency gains are inextricably linked.
 
For example, companies can reduce overhead by requiring less on-site space to accommodate teams, and they can avoid investments in expanded space to account for new social distancing guidelines. Instead, on-site space can be maximized for specific personnel while empowering people to work from anywhere in the world.
 
Collectively, the energy industry is on the cusp of significant digital transformation. In August 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that several of the world’s largest oil producers were shifting on-site tasks to remote engineers. In today’s environment, others are certain to follow.
 
In turn, there is a significant onus on companies to execute this transition effectively, ensuring that security and reliability aren’t compromised in the name of efficiency.


How to transition secure & successfully

Even before the pandemic, cybersecurity was a top concern for the energy industry. Several energy producers and utilities have already been hit with ransomware attacks this year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened other cybersecurity threats.
 
Along the way, companies will combat an increasingly progressive threat landscape specifically targeting remote workers. For example, phishing scams have increased by 350% since the COVID-19 quarantines began in March. Isolated workers are more likely to fall for these scams than on-site employees, and each malicious message threatens to provide bad actors with front door access to accounts of infrastructure.
 
At the same time, brute force and other infrastructure-related cyber attacks have grown by 400% since the pandemic began, and each access point represents a potential vulnerability for bad actors to exploit. As a result, Deloitte’s risk advisors believe that this environment will produce “more infected personal computers and phones.”
 
As the average cost of a cybersecurity incident approaches $4 million, it has become a bottom-line issue for every company as they make the transition to a hybrid workforce. That’s why more than 70% of companies plan to increase their cybersecurity budgets even as they face falling revenues.
 
Making matters worse, many of the cybersecurity tools, like Firewalls and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), are not secure enough on their own to protect critical infrastructure.
 
Therefore, the industry should look to a zero-trust OT platform that manages connections between remote workers and on-site elements. In addition, they should be ready to implement:

  • Multi-factor authentication. With billions of compromised records already available online, protecting account access is more important than ever. Especially with remote operations capacity, which connects off-site workers with physical infrastructure, this security is paramount.

  • Protocol isolation. An intermediary gateway keeps OT protocols isolated on the OT network segment.

  • Mediated secure file transfer. Equipping employees to securely collaborate with coworkers and to distribute digital material is critical to long-term success.

  • Full user logging and recording. Even trusted insiders need a level of accountability and oversight. This feature ensures that companies can provide oversight of remote work activity, ensuring that off-site employees are productive, efficient, and secure.

  • Compliance-ready standardization. Data privacy and industry-specific regulations are increasingly requiring companies to provide comprehensive compliance documentation, especially as it relates to digital activity. With compliance-ready standardization, companies are prepared to meet their unique specifications.

 Improving technological prowess can’t come at the expense of cybersecurity, as any failure in this regard will undermine the benefits of progress. Most companies have limited resources to allocate to this problem, increasing the impetus to get the most benefit from money spent. Therefore, investments in remote operations capacity should maximize cybersecurity functionality as a core component of any initiative.


Conclusion

Energy and manufacturing are fundamental elements of our daily lives, and we need these industries to be at their best, even when circumstances are daunting.
 
Remote operations capacity is a significant step toward achieving that priority. It allows today’s companies to adapt to an increasingly tumultuous landscape that includes a changing workforce, a shifting operational environment, and a challenging economic reality. Moving forward, the future of work will be decentralized, existing in office buildings and home offices.
 
This is excellent news for companies who can cater to a dynamic workforce without forfeiting other business elements.
 
It’s not a simple solution that will cure all of the industry's problems, but it is a critical component of modernization efforts that can keep energy companies as we need them to be: efficient, safe, and productive.

About The Author


Bill Moore is the CEO and Founder, XONA, providers of a unique “zero trust” user access platform especially tailored for remote Operational Technology (OT) sites.  Bill is currently working with global energy and manufacturing customers to reduce their remote operations costs and cyber risks.  Bill brings more than 20 years’ experience in security and the high-tech industry, including positions in sales, marketing, engineering and operations.


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