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Returning to the Office Requires the Right IT Strategy


A woman typing on a laptop, planning her enterprise's IT strategy
Image: denisismagilov -
The impact of COVID-19 and work from home has clearly transformed our industry, changing the adoption cycle for both communications and collaboration technology. And as we plan for the future, these changes will stay with us even as we return to the office.
Looking at the trends that will drive the return-from-home process, a few stand out. First, not everyone will want to return to the office. Based on surveys and analysis, the current workforce will fit into one of three categories post-pandemic. If you assume that 25% of all your employees will be back full-time in the office, 25% never at the office, and 50% in a hybrid style, then you can calculate the amount of space needed post-pandemic. Clearly, the number of people at the office after it opens will be significantly less, unless the company mandates physical attendance. Given that many companies are offering flexible working into 2021, many people expect remote working options. Enterprises that mandate physical attendance might put themselves at a disadvantage when it comes time to filling open positions.
Additionally, the tools we have learned to use over the last year will not simply fade away after the pandemic’s clutch loosens. With a distributed workforce and new work processes, the use of IP-based video, text, collaboration, and teaming solutions to facilitate business workflows will continue. Together these changes and new expectations will influence how we return to the office. Organizations have a myriad of obstacles, and below, we look at three crucial ones.
1. Office Space and Equipment
If most of the workforce would prefer to work at least some or all the time away from the office, upper management will soon, or have already begun to, question whether they’ll need all the office space post-pandemic. This is a management cost and budgeting exercise that requires significant planning and communications. With up to 50% of the employees in hybrid roles and only in the office 50% of the time, organizations might find a physical office for employees is no longer needed to accomplish strategic and business goals. Many organizations and finance groups will suggest shared spaces or hoteling, which will require technology, management, and training to be successful.
This requires a clear corporate strategy and plan for space reduction. While the planning for space may be a facilities issue, planning for the equipment is a telecom/IT challenge. Enterprises that move from a dedicated to a shared space may require new equipment like monitors, devices, dedicated UC gear, etc., to ensure a robust multimedia UC experience. As many organizations will be going through the same process and using similar market resources, getting started as soon as possible is the best way to meet organizational demands.
2. Shared Spaces and Devices
While vaccines and high-infection rates are moving us towards herd immunity, the reality is that we do not know how long restrictions and other actions will remain in place. In fact, some argue it may never be the same. During this time, organizations will have two issues to consider in these shared spaces: whether it is a shared office or a conference room.
First, enterprises will need to know how to clean devices and surfaces to assure minimal infection potential for subsequent users. In this area, enterprises have some new tools. For example, Poly has introduced a news Rave portable IP phone device, built with feature built-in Microban antimicrobial product protection. Microban is a global leader in antimicrobial technology, and when combined with Poly's new wireless phone system, enables a shared device that minimizes infectious transmission. As product/solution options are considered for the office spaces post-pandemic, health and safety features like this will become important in the decision-making process.
Another area that will need consideration is space occupancy. Until the pandemic is fully behind us and we get back to 100% occupancy, limiting the number of employees in a space will be a major challenge. For shared office spaces, partitions and locations can be used, but conference rooms are more difficult.
Also, how does an organization manage keeping rooms at a 50% occupancy level? Cisco has technology that recognizes a face (not necessarily to identify the person) and counts the number of people in a space. This technology can then be used to notify people when a meeting room has reached the maximum occupancy and change digital signage to reflect this. At a recent event, Cisco demonstrated its integration with MazeMap, an interior mapping application. With MazeMap, when a conference room fills up to the allowed capacity, a map will provide an alternative room for the overload. Yet another reason to get to the meeting early, or at least on time. Microsoft has tools for managing spaces as well. Organizations should be actively defining their usage process and the tools to administer to avoid confusion on the return.
3. The Network
It is easy to forget that when everybody went home and started using video, they did it with their own bandwidth. Fortunately, COVID-19 came after most homes have sufficient bandwidth to handle a high-quality video experience. Delivering good video requires bandwidth. For example, Zoom requires 2.6Mbps up and 1.8 Mbps down to participate in a multi-party HD (720) meeting. After the return, anyone in a UC video session at a company site will require the same bandwidth. If we assume that 70% of previous telephony moves to video, this will create a massive increase in bandwidth demands at almost all locations where offices and conference rooms exist. For remote offices that had a local telephone system and low-speed Internet, employees returning will need a significant increase in the service bandwidth to continue using their UC in the office. If bandwidth is low, it will become a contributor to employees not returning.
Internet access and the associated corporate WAN will need to be changed to meet this demand. In the past, internal communications were headquartered at a branch office over the company intranet. Now video meetings or a video call typically are cloud-based, requiring Internet access bandwidth both at the headquarters and remote sites. For many organizations, the need for significantly more bandwidth will push enterprises towards an SD-WAN option that allows increased and variable bandwidth and easy management. Many branches in the past were only connected to headquarters and thus dependent on its security services. The introduction of direct cloud access will also drive a security examination and may lead many enterprises to consider security as a service or security services combined into the SD-WAN option.
While the return to the office may still be months away, and the return to normal may not be until next year, now is the time to begin planning for those events. The return to the office is much more than a technology event, and how the return to office is managed will impact employees, management, and workplace culture. Now is the perfect time to have serious discussions between users and technology management to create the right working environment for employees as they return to the office.