Network Fabric Design to Support a Safe Return to Smart Workplaces

BrandPost By NTT
Aug 02, 2021

An intelligent and secure network fabric is vital to support and manage software-defined, high-performance evolving work environments.

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Credit: fizkes

by Alex Bennett

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 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.

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 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 this is exactly 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.

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, video tools, and intelligent edge devices – all of which impact network bandwidth. Organizations must ensure they have the capacity for those devices to function correctly, including efficient location services to understand where those devices and people are…and how to locate them. Office or branch connectivity is critical to ensure these systems are connected easily and efficiently. With the challenges of COVID-19, healthcare frontline workers are best supported by smart hospitals with a network fabric robust enough to ensure the efficient exchange of information as needed. 

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. This will need to work cohesively with Wi-Fi for seamless end-to-end coverage.

Hybrid workers are those that have access to a formal office location as well as the ability to work from home or third-party flexible workspaces and have become accustomed to quality digital applications and easy, frictionless connections that allow them to collaborate and be productive from anywhere. They will expect the 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, design thinking – but also to ensure that those connecting remotely still feel engaged and collaborative. The campus network and the WAN will need to cater to 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 expand 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 quickly 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.

Working towards wellbeing

The social view of how we support 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.

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