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Senior Editor

Hybrid workforce demands change from network ops

News Analysis
Aug 15, 20235 mins
Network Management SoftwareNetworking

IT teams are under pressure to update networks and toolsets to deliver secure remote access, reliable network connectivity, and optimized application performance.

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Credit: SeventyFour / Shutterstock

The pandemic forced businesses to send employees home to work, but even in recovery, the workforce trend is going strong. Some remote work measures were considered a temporary fix, and now the hybrid work reality demands IT organizations reassess how they can deliver consistent support, service, and technology to employees wherever they decide to work.

“There have been a lot of conversations about return to work, but it’s not really happening,” said Shamus McGillicuddy, vice president of research at Enterprise Management Associates, during a recent webinar.

In a survey by EMA, 96% of IT organizations said they are supporting hybrid workers. “That is, 30% of all employees who work remotely are hybrid workers,” McGillicuddy said. “They are coming to the office occasionally, which means you need to support them at home and at the office as an IT organization. And that can be a little complex.”

Network operations teams must update their approach to remote and hybrid employees if they want to deliver the same applications and service levels that employees expect in the office. As things stand, only 32% of the IT professionals surveyed said that they felt like they’d been completely successful with enabling and supporting the networking requirements of remote and hybrid workers.

Looking ahead, network teams are planning investments in switching and Wi-Fi, for example, and McGillicuddy recommends that enterprises invest in more secure remote access technology as well as network observability tools to better track performance across disparate locations.

“You need secure remote access solutions that offer integrated network security automation, centralized management, and network optimization or network enhancement of some kind. You should consider endpoint monitoring and synthetic monitoring to enhance your overall observability of remote workers,” he said.

Remote work here to stay

While the pandemic might have been the initial reason for remote work, businesses can’t unring the bell that transformed how many people work today.

According to EMA, 94% of IT organizations observed permanent increases of remote work after the pandemic. Just 17% of employees worked from home pre-pandemic. Now, businesses are reporting that 43% of their workforce works from home today, and respondents expect that by 2025, it will be closer to half (49%) of employees getting their jobs done outside of the office environment.

Supporting remote work for a few employees represents a much different challenge than supporting nearly half of all employees working remotely, many with varying degrees of connectivity. Striking the right balance between security and user experience, for example, is a common struggle.

“IT leadership—CIOs, CTOs, CISOs—they are not providing people lower in the organization with the support or direction they need to do this successfully,” McGillicuddy said. “What’s your priority, security or user experience? Because we’ve got to find a balance, but sometimes we have to sacrifice experience for security. Decisions like that need to be made higher on the chain.”

Security, lack of control challenge IT

EMA asked about the challenges that come with a larger remote workforce. Among the top concerns for 31% of respondents is compliance and security. Employees using multiple applications, from myriad locations, significantly increases the challenge of securing data and providing access.

“Now, with employees doing a lot of their work from home, they are dealing with sensitive data and accessing things without necessarily the protection of the network security devices,” McGillicuddy said. “They are opening up new points of attack, and they are also creating opportunities for data loss.”

Poor IT leadership ranked second among the top concerns, with 27% of respondents citing that as a challenge to remote work. Some 24% of respondents also pointed to a lack of skilled personnel as an obstacle, and 22% of IT pros noted they are challenged by budget constraints and collaboration across IT, respectively.

A lack of control is another significant issue for IT pros charged with supporting a remote workforce. Many home office locations rely upon ISPs for connectivity, and IT pros cannot see into those networks nor control the performance of their services for their employees. “CIOs and CTOs might be thinking that the internet is just reliable and that people at home have good connections. Not necessarily,” McGillicuddy said.

Collaboration is a major issue

The surge in real-time communications applications during the pandemic isn’t lessening either. Employees are more likely to use collaboration tools such as video conferencing and real-time chat to connect with coworkers than pick up a phone.

To that end, 89% of the people in the EMA survey said they have observed an increase in the use of real-time, voice, video, and collaboration applications since the start of the pandemic. The use of these technologies puts additional strain on home networks that could have spotty connectivity.

According to EMA, IT pros who support work-from-home employees encounter many network performance problems, including:

  • Problems with home Wi-Fi (cited by 42%);
  • Distance from apps adds network latency, an issue more prominent in large enterprises (42%)
  • ISP quality (41%)
  • Bandwidth use by family/roommates/etc (35%)
  • Inefficient Internet routing (33%)
  • ISP congestion at peak periods (32%)
  • Contention with shared Wi-Fi in multi-family housing (32%)

In response, network teams providing services to hybrid workers said they have had to update switching, Wi-Fi, mobile, and more network capabilities to support the remote workforce. For instance, 76% of respondents report increased bandwidth demand on-premises, and 90% said they need to update Wi-Fi to handle new mobility requirements. And 83% are exploring location-based technology, such as hot-desking and small conference rooms, according to EMA.

IT organizations will likely need to make new investments or upgrade technologies to support how people work. According to the EMA survey, 87% of organizations have already allocated budgets for these investments. More than half (56%) intend to update existing tools. In addition, 49% plan to acquire tools from new vendors, and 48% said they will acquire new tools from their incumbent vendors.