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Network fabric design to support a safe return to smart workplaces

Alex Bennett,
Global Senior Vice President for Workplace & Employee Experience Practice at NTT Ltd.

The shift to new ways of working has highlighted the need to reassess network design. The smart workplace is now pervasive – no longer a fixed location, but a connection between the digital and physical worlds where people work. In the same vein, the network fabric is about more than the underlying technology constituents – rather, it’s an enabler of change and business outcomes. We look at what this implies for organizations in two key areas: the employee experience (EX) and employee wellbeing.
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From business continuity to business outcomes

Technology has been at the center of accelerated workplace transformation over the last 12 months. The rapid introduction of collaboration platforms to ensure business continuity, the ability to support high-performing applications wherever they reside, and a focus on identity-based security have both impacted the network and forced us to reassess how it’s designed.

We’re now looking at how to optimize the network within, to and across hybrid IT environments, how to connect edge to multicloud platforms through transformed WAN and connectivity that delivers agility, and how to build campus networks that connect edge devices and things (smart workplaces, smart hospitals, smart manufacturing).

Central to all this is how the network fabric will enable different devices, systems and people to operate in support of business outcomes, and help organizations ingest and understand the data they generate to give insight into those outcomes.

The shift to new ways of working over the last year has highlighted the need to reassess network design. The focus is now on an intelligent, secure network fabric that moves and grows with the organization, enabling improved performance, smart collaboration and a frictionless experience from anywhere, on any device.
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Strategies to support different workstyles

Technology has given employees greater flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere. Organizational policies have adapted – or are adapting – to accommodate a more distributed way of working.

In devising a network strategy across wired, wireless and cellular technology, organizations will need to determine whether the network can deliver effectively for different workstyles and tasks to be performed.

We can look at this at a high level from the perspective of three employee personas: frontline, hybrid and remote workers.

The way frontline workers carry out their tasks has changed as business processes have adapted to accommodate physical distancing and promote a safer working environment. There’s been a move to connecting people on the frontline to back-office subject-matter experts through integrated voice and video tools and intelligent edge devices – all of which impact on network bandwidth.

Organizations need to ensure they have the capacity for those devices to function correctly, and efficient location services to understand where those devices and people are, and how to way-find to them. Office or branch connectivity is critical to making sure these systems are connected easily and efficiently.

It may be more efficient to consider private 5G for certain industries, such as manufacturing, or in cases where connectivity is needed over a large area (for example, an open case mine or airport) to meet a particular outcome, and this will need to work cohesively with WiFi for seamless end-to-end coverage.

Hybrid workers (those that have access to a formal office location as well as an ability to work from home or third-party flexible workspaces) have become accustomed to quality digital applications and easy, frictionless connections that allow them to collaborate and be productive from anywhere – and they’ll expect this same user experience from the tools they use when returning to the office.

As high-definition video calls have become far more pervasive in the last year, many organizations are revisiting legacy technology as they transition to a more flexible use of space and refresh their hardware with intuitive huddle video devices that natively connect to platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Cisco WebEx.

The experience these devices and applications provide will be key to motivating employees to use the office as a destination for certain types of work – formal meetings, stand-ups, team collaboration and design thinking – but also to ensure that those connecting remotely still feel engaged and part of the meeting. The campus network and the WAN will need to cater for this additional throughput and for more sophisticated requirements like office wayfinding, location-based services, and occupancy and social distance monitoring.

Remote workers need a seamless connection to a high-quality network so they can always have access to people and tools. In many instances, home internet is fine, but as fully remote workstyles widen the pool of talent into new geographies where fiber may not reach the home, we’re also seeing organizations plan for cellular technologies such as 5G to cater for rich real-time experiences.

Organizations responded fast following the onset of the pandemic to enable employees to work remotely, but these were typically emergency solutions where speed of deployment was critical. We’re now at a juncture where we need to consider robust work-from-home and remote working solutions that offer more flexible support and enterprise-grade security to get the most from ongoing remote work scenarios.

Regardless of the method of connection, security remains paramount as companies want to deliver flexibility without placing data or employees at risk. Zero trust and SASE are top of mind as people move to cloud platforms and companies start embarking on a single design for network and security, based on the activities and workstyles of their employees.

The network fabric underpins the way we are engaging employees and ensuring their wellbeing through a connected world – in the cloud, at the edge and at the core.

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Working towards wellbeing

The social view of how we look after employees has also become more prevalent of late. As people return to the office, or work remotely on new digital platforms, there’s an opportunity to look at how they’re collaborating, based on data analytics, and measure employee sentiment across the network. Nudge technology can be used to encourage employees to take care of their work-life balance – for example, suggesting when to take a break.

'Tracking and demonstrating a measurable adherence to wellbeing and sustainability standards will contribute to building a culture that’s based on a clear sense of purpose.' 2020 Intelligent Workplace Report

Employees returning to the office will also want to know that the physical environment is safe for them to do so. The systems and apps that manage access to buildings, health checks, occupancy/social distancing, room bookings and facilities monitoring (such as lighting and air quality) will all be connected through the network fabric – as will the data they generate.

Data from the enterprise network, building network and IoT network are converging to be used to build predictive models and digital twins that can inform strategies for improving various outcomes – EX, health, and wellbeing, building management and sustainability targets, to name a few.

In light of evolving work styles, remote working and safe return-to-office initiatives, EX and employee wellbeing are critical boardroom discussions. The ability to connect people, applications and devices will be key to workplace transformation and achieving business outcomes. Organizations will therefore need to focus on designing an intelligent, secure network fabric that both underpins and enables smart workplace initiatives now and into the future.

Alex Bennet

Alex Bennett

Global Senior Vice President for Workplace & Employee Experience Practice at NTT Ltd.

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