How the hybrid workplace is reshaping enterprise networks

by Amit Dhingra

09 November 2021

Colleagues in a meeting room

How the hybrid workplace is reshaping enterprise networks

Something we should never forget about networks is that people just expect them to work. That was true before the pandemic, throughout it, and will certainly continue after. Our recently published 2021 Global Workplace Report shines the light on a concerning mismatch in perception between C-level stakeholders and operational employees who use digital tools and connect to corporate and personal networks to do their jobs. The former (3 in 4) are generally confident that their digital workplace strategies are solid and on track. The latter (less than half) feel there’s still much work to be done.

If we look at the network journey that businesses have been forced to travel over the last two years, it’s not surprising that we’ve arrived at this juncture. Organizations had to pivot almost overnight to embrace and enable a fully remote workplace – an arrangement that, for most, their existing network architecture was never designed to support. 

As a result, they ended up stitching together a somewhat disjointed set of technology and tools to support productivity and business continuity during a crisis.

The burden of technical debt

Now, as businesses start reopening their offices, they need to reassess the physical, technical and operational aspects of their workplace environments. Meanwhile, many people are expressing a preference to continue to work remotely, at least part of the time. 

Adding further complexity into the mix is that many organizations have accumulated significant ‘technical debt’ in their infrastructure, with the network certainly not exempt. The evidence-based NTT Network Insights Report shows that 47.9% of enterprise network devices are aged or obsolete, and Gartner says that ‘most enterprise networks’ (i.e., more than 90%) carry substantial technical debt.

Essentially, this means that the investments that organizations have made in networking aren’t commensurate with what they're expecting their networks to deliver. While efforts to accommodate people’s preference for remote or hybrid working models are welcome, they’re also adding an unprecedented burden on the network.

If you keep adding more people, connections, devices and applications onto an already strained network platform, as the saying goes, ultimately, ‘something’s going to give’.

To use a construction analogy, if you lay a foundation suitable to support a house but then go and build a 20-story skyscraper on top of it, the foundation won’t be able to support it. The structure will end up cracking and ultimately collapsing.

Steps to success

In recent months, our conversations with clients have given us a well-rounded understanding of the key challenges that these dynamics have introduced. Our advice and recommended steps to them include:

Reimagine wireless

Investment in wireless is at an unprecedented high. That’s because people returning to the office need much higher performance to support evolving ways of working, extensive use of collaboration and communications tools and low latency connectivity to applications in order to fulfill their job functions.

In addition, managing space in the office has become increasingly important given social distancing and facility capacity management requirements. Modern wireless solutions provide location-based services to support these initiatives and enable a more integrated employee experience while helping to maintain health and safety protocols.

This means organizations have to think differently about wireless and reposition many of their access points while still ensuring quality of service and user experience, and layering on location services and analytics tools for deeper insights.

Introduce granular persona mapping

Businesses should invest time and effort in identifying precisely who their networks are serving, where and why. This involves understanding what connections people need to work at peak productivity and then creating hyper-personalized network connections to meet those needs. Uncovering these insights takes a bit of effort as these patterns might not be immediately apparent. 

Importantly, this focus on persona mapping shouldn’t just be reserved for executives – it should also extend to employees at other levels, particularly those in critical roles such as field engineers, operational teams and CX agents.

This effort should also encompass people working in industrial or large-scale outdoor locations where there might be lower network quality. Here, consider cellular connectivity or backup to ensure an additional layer of network resiliency and performance.

Understand the new network traffic typology paradigm

The cumulative result of these changing dynamics is that today, businesses have a completely new network traffic topology. Now, the executive at the airport in between flights and a project manager sitting in an open cast mine both need the same level of connectivity as someone working in the corporate headquarters. And it's no longer just people. Think about sensors out in the field that are doing environmental monitoring or those installed in your smart buildings monitoring the lighting and temperature.

Getting the network ecosystem to interoperate and perform optimally for users and devices irrespective of where they may be across your distributed operation is essential.

Rethink network operations

Traditionally, the way that many IT teams operated the network was somewhat conservative in approach. Many preferred to perform tasks manually or used a command-line interface. 

But that approach simply won’t scale in the world we’re living in. To achieve true network transformation, you also need to execute operational transformation. 

This means moving to platform-delivered automation and using artificial intelligence to aid decision making, reduce manual errors and enhance the speed at which networks can be managed, which is critical given the rapid pace of modern applications, services and business operations.

Equally, deep or predictive analytics can give you granular insights into what's happening in and on the network that would be significantly more difficult to surface using manual tools. 

Add SD-WAN to your toolkit

As we call out in the Global Workplace Report, we believe that the entire network fabric needs to be optimized and secure, from the digital backbone through to secure edge-to-cloud services.

Here, you might consider SD-WAN, which alters the way networks operate. You can combine broadband links like DSL, Ethernet, and cellular for better performance, reliability and cost management rather than relying purely on MPLS.

SD-WAN isn’t a remote access technology, it embeds functionality into the network, enabling you to replace hardware infrastructure in branch locations with minimal equipment. Administrators can configure and upgrade services for these asset-lite branches from a central location.

SD-WAN-enabled branches can connect directly to the cloud rather than routing traffic back through your data center, boosting performance and easing the burden on your network. Because it’s application-aware, it can adapt its quality of service and even its network routes based on the traffic it sees.

Eliminate technology sprawl

As I outlined earlier, one of the most pressing challenges our clients tell us they’re wrestling with is consolidating, streamlining and modernizing disparate and aged parts of their network they’re left with in a post-pandemic era into a cohesive network foundation. 

Here, engaging a partner that can step you through the process of redefining your network infrastructure estate, regaining end-to-end visibility and taking control of an agile and automated operational model is a sensible move.

Bring end-user experience front and center

I believe that businesses that elevate user experience and employee satisfaction to the top of their network strategy agendas will be the ones that emerge as winners.

Today, most employees have high-speed broadband at home, and during the pandemic, they learned what ‘acceptable’ performance is based on their home working experience. If you’re hoping to convince people to return to the office at least some of the time, but when they do come into your workplace, the network performance is worse, what message does that send?

The ability to offer users a consistent experience, irrespective of where they’re doing their job, is paramount. 

Dust off your security armor

Any conversation about the move to hybrid working and a distributed workforce wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about security. One of the things keeping network leaders awake at night is ensuring they can secure distributed data, applications and devices. 

The answer lies in moving away from traditional, perimeter-based security approaches to a zero-trust model for both remote workers and new networking models being deployed in campus and branch locations. Adopting secure access, service edge (SASE) is another approach that’s growing in popularity. Essentially, SASE is a network architecture that brings together software-defined wide-area networking and security into a service that enables secure and fast cloud transformation. 

It brings a cloud-based approach to secure connectivity by brokering secure access between users and devices to the service edge and allows access by approved users to services and applications only. 

Operationalizing the vision

Clearly, operationalizing your hybrid workplace vision calls for a fundamental rethink of your network foundation and how that network is managed in order to deliver it as part of a cohesive whole. 

Without a flexible and resilient platform in place, establishing and maintaining a workplace that delivers the level of connectivity and performance that allows people to work at peak productivity will be out of your reach.

An engagement with NTT specialist teams will take your enterprise network to the next level and deliver true network and operations transformation.

Amit Dhingra

Amit Dhingra

Executive Vice President, Enterprise Network Services