Nov 25 2020

In 2021, IT Leaders Will Contend With Back-to-Work Tech, AI and Zero-Trust

As the lights go out on the strangest year in memory, businesses turn to the next 12 months with excitement.

Editor's note: After an unprecedented year, BizTech is looking at the tech trends that will shape industries in 2021. You can also find our trends to watch in retailsmall businessnonprofit and financial services.

As the world ushers out one of the weirdest and most challenging years in memory, many tech leaders are saying “good riddance.” What will 2021 bring?

Let’s explore the most important technology trends businesses will face next year. Three tech categories seem likely to stand above the others in terms of how ­profoundly they will affect organizational operations, according to experts and bu­siness leaders.

Back-to-work technology: No one knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, but more businesses were reopening their doors to employees and customers in the fall of 2020, and that’s set to accelerate next year. Staggered schedules to ensure social distancing will mean collaboration technology will remain critical, and new safety solutions such as digital signage and cleaning technologies will help keep people healthy. 

Zero-trust security: Perimeter-based security that relies principally on firewalls is no longer the gold standard. While that has been true for several years, the all-remote workforce of 2020 has exposed the perimeter itself as something of a fantasy. The rise of mobile and cloud computing requires a new security approach: a zero-trust architecture in which nothing is trusted inside or outside the network.

Artificial intelligence: AI continues to be an emerging technology that businesses can deploy to improve customer service, employee engagement and management of IT operations. Although hardly new, AI is now coming of age as technology companies begin baking it into every solution and businesses begin deploying it to advance automation and reshape customer experiences.

We spoke with IT and business leaders from several cutting-edge companies about how they’ve effectively adopted and benefited from these technologies.

Back-to-Work Technology Will Make Reopening Possible

As companies reopen workspaces in 2021, they must reassess their workplace strategies, because employees will continue to worry about safety for some time. As a result, collaboration and safety technology play important roles as businesses transition back to the office. 

For example, Bergmeyer, a 70-employee architecture firm with locations in Boston and Los Angeles, reopened its offices in June with staggered schedules and a hybrid work environment in which employees can split their time working from home and in the office.

Returning to the office is not mandatory, but some employees prefer going there because it has more space and faster Wi-Fi and they miss face-to-face collaboration. Besides, working at the office is just easier for many Bergmeyer employees, says company Vice President Rachel Zsembery.

“Interior designers work with large materials. Without access to our library, they were ordering materials and having them delivered to their homes, and it was taking over their lives,” she says.

No more than 25 percent of the staff is in the office on any given day, and as a result, Bergmeyer continues to rely on videoconferencing and other cloud-based applications to support the distributed workforce and allow staff to collaborate, regardless of their location, says Ken Hogan, Bergmeyer’s IT director.

WATCH: Lessons learned from adapting to the new workplace.

When the pandemic struck, Bergmeyer was fully prepared to allow employees to work from home because Hogan had previously equipped everyone with Dell notebook computers and access to a remote desktop, Zoom videoconferencing and Microsoft Office 365, which includes Teams collaboration software.

“We were already a mobile workforce,” he says.

Rachel Zsembery
After our first week back, we asked for honest feedback, and everyone said they felt much safer than they expected.”

Rachel Zsembery Vice President, Bergmeyer

When employees returned to the office this summer, Bergmeyer created three vi­deoconferencing rooms so in-office employees could meet remotely with clients and colleagues working from home. The company mounted Logitech cameras on top of 27-inch monitors and purchased podcast-quality microphones and 8-inch studio ring lights. 

To ensure employee safety, Bergmeyer placed hand sanitizing stations around the office, limited capacity in meeting rooms and common areas, and installed new signs throughout the space reminding people to socially distance and wear masks when they leave their desks. Hogan also developed a cloud-based app that combines employee health checks, office scheduling and a seat mapping tool that ensures everyone is healthy and far enough apart.

Bergmeyer’s efforts have brought peace of mind for employees who have returned to the office, Zsembery says. “After our first week back, we asked for honest feedback, and everyone said they felt much safer than they expected.”

Businesses can deploy a raft of technologies to improve safety, including temperature screening kiosks, proximity devices that ensure workers are 6 feet apart, occupancy tracking solutions that count how many people are in a building and UVC wands or drones that use ultraviolet light to sanitize spaces.

Perimeter Defense Will Give Way to Zero-Trust Security

Zero trust requires strict access c­ontrols, user authentication and continuous monitoring of networks and systems.

To successfully implement zero trust, companies need a suite of solutions, including identity and access management, software-defined perimeters and endpoint security, says Chase Cunningham, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

“The one thing that comes up most often is people continue to look for the one solution — the ‘easy’ button — and there’s not one,” he says.

Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund manager, has successfully implemented zero-trust security by adopting Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft cloud-based security technologies.

Bridgewater — which manages about $140 billion in assets, including pension funds, university endowments and charitable foundations — began implementing zero trust during the summer of 2019 and completed it six months later. 

It was part of a broader digital transformation project to enable its 1,600 employees to work from anywhere and provide secure, remote access to applications, files and other corporate resources through cloud-based Microsoft 365 applications, says Bridgewater CTO Igor Tsyganskiy.

That was an important capability when COVID-19 forced everyone to work from home. “Once we implemented zero trust, it meant we could work from anywhere — and that was not the case before,” he says.

Previously, the company kept ­sensitive data locked down behind traditional corporate firewalls. That prevented employees from remotely accessing documents on corporate servers while traveling or working from home.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Five steps to combat endpoint threats with a distributed workforce.

With zero trust, the company is always authenticating and authorizing each user’s requests and continually assessing risk and monitoring for threats. With more granular security controls in place, the IT staff feels ­confident corporate data is safe, Tsyganskiy says.

Microsoft’s zero-trust security tools are integrated and work hand in hand with its solutions, Tsyganskiy explains. For example, Bridgewater deployed Azure Active Directory for single sign-on into Microsoft’s cloud applications and services.

Two Azure AD tools, Identity Protection and Conditional Access, analyze sign-in attempts and assess risk through real-time threat intelligence from Microsoft’s Intelligent Security Graph. They then grant users full access or limit or deny access, Tsyganskiy says.

Bridgewater also uses Azure Information Protection to classify documents so the company can enforce data access policies, as well as Cloud App Security, a cloud access security broker that stops the use of unauthorized apps and prevents data leaks.

“If you try to cut and paste a document to a personal Gmail account, it stops it,” Tsyganskiy says. 

The company, which standardized on Surface laptops and Apple iPad and iPhone devices, uses several endpoint security tools to ensure device health, including Microsoft anti-virus software and Microsoft Intune, a cloud-based mobile device management application that ensures devices have the latest security patches and are free of malware before they are allowed access.

Tsyganskiy advises companies of all sizes to adopt zero trust to strengthen their security postures. “The era of trusting your network is over,” he says. “It’s in the best interest of small, medium and large businesses to move to zero trust sooner or later.”

Artificial Intelligence Will Finally Have its Moment

In 2021, companies are expected to accelerate adoption of AI to improve customer and employee experiences and to use analytics and machine learning to automate IT operations and processes, says Ritu Jyoti, IDC’s program vice president of AI research.

Liberty Mutual Insurance is one of those companies investing in AI to improve the employee and customer experience.

Among the insurance company’s first forays into AI is a chatbot that answers FAQs from employees and helps them with simple IT help desk tasks, such as resetting passwords, says Gillian Armstrong, a solutions engineer with Liberty’s IT department.

“It’s not only a time savings, but it’s much less frustrating for employees,” she says.

In late 2017, Armstrong and her team built the chatbot on top of Amazon Lex, an Amazon Web Services AI service that enables natural language understanding and automatic speech recognition. The IT team integrated enterprise systems, such as HR and finance, with the chatbot, allowing employees to make queries, such as how many vacation days they have left or what the maternity leave policy is, she says.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: More businesses are using AI to drive user experiences.

The Boston-based company, which has more than 49,000 employees in 29 countries, has different HR policies based on location and employee rank. The chatbot is smart enough to personalize answers for individual employees.

The IT department also uses Amazon Lex to power virtual agents that can converse with customers who contact the company’s call center. If the questions are complex, the virtual agent will route the call to a real agent, Armstrong says.

“They do actually understand to some degree when you ask for different things, and it’s not just going through a menu,” she says.

Liberty is also using AI for fraud detection and is developing more complex AI-driven tech to process and pay out claims faster and provide recommendations for customers shopping for policies on its website. Liberty envisions eventually being able to use AI to predict and mitigate auto collisions, wildfires and other disasters, she says.

Armstrong’s latest project is to speed the underwriting process by using AI to improve workflow. When underwriters receive emails, there could be 10 to 15 documents attached. AI can automatically analyze the documents and pull out the key pieces of information underwriters need, she says.

“We want to make it easier for people to do the reviews, and through that, get policies written or claims met much quicker,” she says. 

Illustration by Harry Campbell