If employees are to work from home then the office network must move with them

The 'new normal' doesn't mean we can forget traditional infrastructure needs

We need a proper, open discussion about the future of working from home. This has significant impacts for office provision and transportation, let alone the existential changes it will bring to the myriad services that support a working conurbation.

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But that’s not where I’m looking today. Like many, my business has been in “work from home” mode as much as possible these past months. Some clients have essentially moved to the shires. Others are balancing in-office with out-of-office working. The shift from face-to-face meetings to Zoom or Teams has bedded in and we are unlikely to return to normal by late 2021, if ever.

Yet this has brought with it significant issues for a company’s IT provision and infrastructure: Historical ideas about network boundaries are being blown away. Of course, we’ve had VPN tunnelling for years, albeit nothing like the adoption levels we saw in 2020. Some companies have already moved to entirely cloud-based services for their infrastructure, and this makes working outside the perimeter of the traditional business network significantly easier than a more traditional on-premises model.

Or does it? I’m far from convinced, and my doubt has nothing to do with the capabilities of cloud services. Instead, it’s the shockingly poor state of IT services into the home. As people have been spending hours on video calls, it’s become clear who has an adequate infrastructure at home and who doesn’t. Not just wobbly, slow ADSL with constrained inbound network speed, but upstream contention and difficult Wi-Fi installations, often in blocks of flats. 

What might be adequate for streaming and web browsing in a domestic environment, where much of the traffic is inbound, often doesn’t meet the requirements of high-quality connected services for long periods of time. I’ve lost count of the times a user’s video feed has frozen, or the sound has turned into a modern answer to Max Headroom, which will only make sense to those of a certain age. 

As part of the strategic replanning for IT services for 2021 and beyond, consideration must be given to how staff can be appropriately supported when working from home. We have proper legislation and best practices in place for workplace requirements – whether that be correct seating, lighting, screen quality or positioning. If businesses are going to cope, let alone succeed and flourish, in this new homeworking reality, IT needs to be refactored to take the particular challenges of this new world into account, just as if you were supplying chairs and desks to meet the individual needs of staff.

Here’s my suggestion. It’s time to consider rolling out a company-managed ADSL or FTTC service to the homes of your staff. This would be installed separately from the home network. It would be there for work purposes only and would be to a speed, reliability and capability that matches the requirements for Teams, Zoom and other services.

Critically, this has to include the appropriate service-level agreements from the telco for a business service. If a member of staff goes offline then the situation should be considered with the same degree of urgency as the doors jamming at an office. All of this is possible, but it needs to be appropriately specified, ordered, implemented and managed.

Another requirement is dark tunnelling straight back to the main company network, to ensure access to internal services and security policies. This could be a VPN tunnel from the router to the network, but it could be a hardware-level device too. Such a security box would lock down access to the approved MAC addresses of company-provisioned devices, whether they be laptops or phones or printers. Since it would be a wholly business-only service, HMRC couldn’t claim it was a perk for the home user away from work.

Wouldn’t this be expensive? That depends. I’m sure there are deals to be done on what might be called “business-grade ADSL” from suppliers. It requires something more than a toy-town router being delivered to the house – a proper professional solution with centralised management is essential, even for SMEs. This is a big potential marketplace, and it doesn’t need the largest suppliers to own this space. The smaller and mid-sized regional ISPs have a huge opportunity staring them in the face, if they’re ready with an appropriate package of connectivity, management and security.

I’m sure some businesses will baulk at the cost, but what is the price to the business if your employees can’t do their work in an adequate and professional manner?

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