The pandemic put a temporary dampener on sales at brick-and-mortar stores, but they’re back with a bang as countries start to open and economic activities start to pick up. However, that’s not the only change that’s happening there. Retail executives are looking for ways to enable hybrid work where possible.

Given the nature of their operations, ‘hybrid work’ in this industry leans more towards enabling seamless IT solutions, fostering communications, and providing access, at least as far as the retail footprint expands. The corporate team, however, needs the flexibility to work from home, on-the-road when visiting stores, or at the office when collaborating.

The dynamic nature of hybrid work does come with its own set of challenges, including logistics and security, and even encompasses the user experience delivered to staff across the corporate office and the retail network.

With leaders keen to embrace hybrid work, let’s see how one of our customers in the retail space, a leading chain of drug stores with about 2,000 outlets, tackled the challenges to win with hybrid. To their credit, they lunged into this new model of work in the middle of the pandemic to ensure customers always had access to the medical supplies they needed while also protecting staff across their network.

The success that the chain of drug stores we work with was able to achieve is commendable, especially on the part of the leadership. They were thoughtful and empathetic, acted swiftly when they saw an opportunity, and not only factored in the needs of the organization but also the behaviors of staff – all of which pushed the transformation project across the finish line.

The technology behind the scenes was commendable too. Cisco’s team did a great job assessing the client’s operations, their needs and workflows, and their challenges.

The leaders invested in our solutions because we not only offered cutting-edge solutions but also ensured interoperability among our portfolio, allowing their IT teams to focus on critical tasks rather than patching new solutions into their ecosystem.

SASE is all about connectivity and security – for users and administrators

With retail operations running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, pharmacists and other front-line staff at each drug store needed to access the corporate network to report on inventory, place new orders, lookup alternative drugs with similar compositions, and more. They also needed to access a suite of collaboration and productivity tools to manage their daily workflows.

As a result, if the workstation device at any of the 2,000 drug stores was left unattended, misused in any, infected by malicious code, phished, or hacked, the business could face catastrophic damages, starting small (and undetectable) and spreading across the retail and corporate network, and possibly even to the partner ecosystem.

The customer chose to use our AnyConnect VPN, Umbrella, and Meraki MX devices with built-in Wi-Fi, making it easy to secure each endpoint at any retail location, while also simplifying the work that the IT team needed to put in. For the latter, this was a matter of putting in place a policy once and having it propagate to each and every location.

IT can now deliver a unified experience, in a scalable manner, without any management or administrative hassles. It’s no longer 2,000+ locations, it’s just one.

As part of a wider scope, the suite of solutions chosen by the customer actually enabled them to implement Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), protecting the organization from all kinds of threats in the digital world, irrespective of which app, solution, or workflow was accessed. To learn more about SASE, check out my recent blogpost here.

SASE has been a boon for the retail network, but it has also made life easy for corporate executives who hit on the road often and need mobile access to critical applications and workflows as they visited different regions to provide guidance, support, and training to individual drug stores in their network. SASE, by default, enables hybrid work.

The power of SASE cannot be emphasized enough. While it has several ‘selling points’, it sells itself as soon as a leader sees SASE in action.

At the chain of drug stores, for example, the notorious ransomware REvil infected one location last year. Thanks to our solutions, the admin got a notification in real-time, was able to pinpoint the site of infection. They were able to leverage Meraki to remotely and quickly segment the network, quarantine the device, and ring-fence it, with just a few clicks, instead of waiting hours for a technician to arrive on site.

Not only did this protect the network and the ecosystem but it prevented further damage to the individual terminal as well. For the IT team to be able to do this so quickly without sending anyone to the drug store with the infected device was commendable.

Cisco’s solutions enabled IT teams to define policies that follows users and their location, and shows an awareness of their device, identity, and network. Using this micro-segmentation, organization can see who is using which application, from where, and exactly how. Ultimately, policy, location, and identity work hand in hand to ensure a secure experience for the entire organization.

Thus, the success defending against REvil is repeatable, no matter the size of the organization, thanks to SASE – and is incredibly valuable in the hybrid work era.

Winning in the hybrid work era

In the hybrid work era, organizations have realized that the degree of flexibility it can offer to staff will determine its future, be it attracting or retaining talent, fostering collaboration and culture, expanding horizons to access the best skills anywhere in the world, and more.

IT is an enabler of hybrid work, and SASE is critical to helping organizations gain confidence on their journey to this new work mode. In the retail space, there’s an inherent dependence on physically present front-line staff in most cases, but they too are increasingly using technology to manage the store, access the corporate network, and ultimately, work more effectively.

Hybrid work needs strong leadership. It needs a great IT fabric that spans the organization weaves security into everything, and delivers the best experiences to everyone, everywhere. This is more true in retail than anywhere else.