The future of work beyond COVID-19

Can we achieve seamless networking both in and out of the office as part of our 'new normal'? Jean-Marc Guignier, executive vice president of EMEA, Zyxel Networks believes so

So much has changed for everyone since the beginning of 2020. Companies around the world had to shift all office-based workforces to remote working.

Beforehand, it was more common for businesses to accommodate home working from time to time for specific ad hoc tasks: avoiding the noise of the office and lengthy commutes amongst many other reasons. Now, however, businesses have realised that while employees are working remotely, they are maintaining working practices to a high standard and have realised remote working could be a reality for their business beyond Covid-19. For example, companies such as Siemens and Twitter have confirmed their staff will be able to work from home either full time or two-three days a week as we phase into a new way of working with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

The main concern for businesses, when Governments enforced remote working, was whether they could trust their workforce to maintain the required level of productivity - but it seems this fear was unfounded. In fact, employee working habits have improved considerably since working from home, compared to when they were in the office. One reason for this is that employees have had more productive days, and no longer dread the inevitable stress of traffic to get to and from work.

In light of these new ways of working, it has become evident that businesses now need to consider a blended approach. It no longer makes sense to force all workers back to the office full time. While employees have proven they can be trusted, and business leaders have seen that flexible working practices can benefit the company, businesses need to get the balance right to maintain an engaged and united workforce.

Moving forwards, if companies find they no longer need the entire space they currently use, there is undoubtedly room to reduce real estate and cut costs. However, the main focus around remote working should not revolve around money. It is more important to acknowledge the productivity benefits where employees are no longer spending an hour travelling to the office to do something they could easily do at home.

The next stage for businesses is to recognise and assess the added value of different working policies - for example; the office should be there to support meetings and the business' community culture. For many, commuting can become a significant part of their day and can often be at the expense of personal health and wellbeing, but also their families and general private life. By reducing the time lost to travel at the start and end of the day, employees feel far more motivated and less stressed, and will therefore deliver more exceptional results.

Furthermore, the corporate network is no longer limited to the office; it now travels home with the employee. Consequently, the focus should not be Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), but rather Bring Your Own Network (BYON). To support this new way of working, both businesses and employees need to consider the necessary elements that will help streamline the new way of working with the corporate network.

The primary considerations should be around strengthening the connectivity and ensuring all connection points are secure. It is therefore essential for businesses to deploy improved networking tools to cope with the latest demands and changes in working practises.

Secure remote access is imperative to business success, both now and in the future. Flexible Virtual Private Network (VPN) solutions provide distributed users with secure, fast and reliable remote access to corporate resources, no matter where they are working. VPNs also work with security appliances using deep packet inspection technology to scan VPN traffic for malicious threats, worms, trojans and spyware from remote employees.

I also recommend businesses utilise integrated firewall solutions that support VPNs with advanced anti-malware and cloud query mode. This combination verifies the file hash within seconds and leverages a multi-source database to increase malware coverage and threat detection accuracy. Such firewalls are designed with multi-layer protection against many types of threats by using URL threat filters, as well as anti-malware and intrusion prevention. Internal protection features can also include application patrol and web filtering which restrict users' access to inappropriate content.

Businesses can also now benefit from the latest networking standard, 802.11ax, better known as WiFi 6, with their cloud-enabled access points. This combination allows managed service providers (MSPs) and IT teams to remotely set-up access points in the cloud, before installation on-site. It also improves the time IT teams need to spend on-site, improving both social distancing and ease of use with plug-and-play models. What's more, WiFi 6 access points can also provide fast and reliable connections for people working from home and in the office.

As a back-up, Long-Term Evolution (LTE) routers are a great failover solution to provide employees with enhanced network speed, particularly for those struggling with home broadband issues. Thanks to the evolution in recent years, LTE significantly improves data rates for ultra-low latency, scalable bandwidth capacity and backward compatibility.

Now you have a new network structure in place to manage the new demands; there are three key considerations IT managers must weigh up when managing a corporate network with disbursed workforces to ensure employees have the necessary bandwidth:

1. Capacity - Suddenly businesses need to facilitate a higher volume of people working remotely, so the network has to be able to cover these external connections

2. Capability - Once workers are connected to the company network, they need to be able to access the same tools and platforms that were available to them in the office in order to work efficiently and effectively

3. Reliability - Employees need to be able to connect to the network as soon as they start the working day, and then remain connected without the risk of dropping out

Employees have equivalent responsibilities at home. They need the necessary WiFi bandwidth at home to support the necessary platforms needed for work, whilst also ensuring the capability and reliability of the network. The connection needs to be seamless between the office and home. Otherwise, the process will fail.

Businesses are far more likely to invest in employees' home networks, compared to before lockdown, to guarantee a seamless connection between the office and home. It is down to the individual company as to whether they choose to support the cost of each broadband connection, or just part of it. It is also vital that businesses provide employees with the necessary equipment to ensure a seamless transition from office working to home working - this includes, laptops, phones, webcam, headsets, and monitors.

Now that businesses have witnessed first-hand the benefits and capabilities of mass remote working, perceptions are beginning to change. Whilst there is no question that the pandemic brought about pain and tragedy, it is important to recognise the beneficial opportunities arising from the chaos - and continued remote working is a policy worth considering. NC