Does this mean that hybrid working is only available to knowledge workers? Perhaps initially, but many of the changes that will be implemented to facilitate hybrid working may well have long-term relevance for people working onsite. By providing appropriate networks, getting collaboration between disparate teams right, ensuring security and connecting both people and things, businesses could not only deliver a hybrid model that meets the needs of both employers and employees but could also allow people currently stuck onsite to work remotely and enjoy the attendant benefits.
Making it a reality will be challenging. There are many factors at play, but one of the starkest is that the employee, or user, has changed. They have spent over a year enjoying home broadband, using devices that suit them (or that they have to hand). This has influenced their expectations of how specific technologies, particularly collaboration tools like videoconferencing, should work. Any shift to hybrid working needs to acknowledge these changes and incorporate them into the user experience.
Preparing for collaboration
A year of video calls from home will have given users an expectation of what good looks like. Businesses now need to deliver that same experience in the office.
They also need to be able to do that outside of the meeting room. With more flexible spaces, businesses need to facilitate multiple collaboration events without any group disturbing others. That means designing locations that can hold videoconferencing, face-to-face catch-ups, and team meetings simultaneously while ensuring that remote workers feel part of the conversation.
It also means removing the tie to the physical cable – businesses will not be able to create flexible collaboration spaces if meeting rooms are built around spider phones and old screens or if hotdesking spaces are tethered to network connections and sockets in specific spaces.
Securing the office
This fluid, flexible working environment does raise security concerns. As well as the implications of adding unknown devices to the network, phishing and social attacks will undoubtedly increase as cyber attackers seek to capitalize on the return to the office. Bad actors could find easy targets in workforces that have been outside the purview of central IT functions for the last year.
Businesses need to tackle this in two ways:
First, they need to run refresher training in basic security principles, both digital (highlighting the increase in return-to-office tactics) and physical.
Second, they need to accelerate their adoption of zero-trust network access for users in the office. It’s a trend that is growing, with Gartner predicting that “by 2024, at least 40% of all remote access usage will be served predominantly by zero-trust network access (ZTNA), up from less than 5% at the end of 2020.” By ensuring access to corporate resources based on user identity, businesses can allow employees to use their own devices while still protecting themselves from cyber-attacks. This does, however, require finding a balance between security and user experience.
Delivering that user experience requires better corporate networks or, more specifically, resilient, high-speed, open, wireless local area networks. The applications used to help a dispersed workforce collaborate are bandwidth intensive. If businesses are serious about delivering a more flexible office environment, then the ability to connect hundreds of devices without compromising performance or security will be critical.
It is not just about the user experience, important as that is. Smart office management requires Internet of Things sensors, which in turn demand more from the networks they run on as they create and share data. That means upgrading networks to be resilient and have the capacity to run multiple collaboration sessions, sensors and everything else a modern office needs, all at once.
This leads to the point that this IoT-enabled, operationally-focused technology is no longer preserving the manufacturing environment – offices are becoming more connected. Yet, when everything from office access to thermostats is on the network and can be controlled remotely, this has significant implications for both bandwidth and security. Hybrid working is going to require the ability to connect people and things while protecting them both from bad actors and ensuring a consistent overall experience.
It is vital that they do because this connection of operational technology with people will lay the groundwork for truly smart buildings. Even more than that, it could accelerate the architecture needed to support those who currently cannot work remotely.
Where do businesses start?
Of course, for companies still wrestling with the impact of the pandemic, the thought of implementing all of this may feel like too much. In that instance, there are three things any business can do to deploy a hybrid model.
- First, get to grips with the network and WiFi – if the home experience cannot be replicated, at least take steps towards it.
- Second, ensure all workers are clear on security policies, retraining where necessary.
- Third, make sure the culture is focused on hybrid workers. Leaders need to model appropriate behaviors towards new working practices and ensure that employees are treated equitably.
- Most importantly, make sure the user is at the front and center of every decision. Businesses that build working practices around employees, rather than forcing employees to bend to fixed approaches, will be much more successful at implementing hybrid working.
Please find out more in our recent hybrid working webinar, which looks at the changing work practices and the impact on technology.
Tom Gavin has been Head of Orange Consulting Europe since 2019. Previously he has held roles in sales and management. Tom lives in London and has three daughters. He spends his spare time as a post graduate student at the Computing Department at the University West London and walking his dogs.