The challenges of working from home have caused organizations to reevaluate how they look at networks for enterprise workloads and hybrid workplaces. The range of at-home networks and devices now engaged in critical business operations has grown by an order of magnitude. With more diverse and dispersed operations, IT decision-making processes—and IT teams, themselves— will need to evolve to meet new technical challenges, new attitudes towards privacy, and fundamentally new ways of working.
With this in mind, here are four actions organizations must take to support the future of work:
1. Invest in deeper structural changes
Up to this point, businesses have been learning as they go when it comes to optimizing the ability of their teams to work remotely. No one expected the massive disruption that COVID-19 caused, so there was never any detailed plan regarding how to optimize existing IT infrastructure for work-from-home environments. With no definitive end to the pandemic or the WFH experiment, many organizations opted for a patching approach—making small fixes as the need for them became obvious. This may have been acceptable at first, but as continual data breaches and security mishaps have taught us, a patching approach won’t cut it as a viable, long-term IT strategy.
Instead, organizations need to take a deeper look at their core operating models and invest in structural changes that will prepare them for the future of work. We’re at a point where the scales are finally tipping, and decision makers recognize that the ROI for making these changes are far greater than continuing to make small fixes in the hopes that the old ways of working will return. This is an important moment in the story that began in March 2020 and we’ll look back at it as a time when the ‘winners’ laid the groundwork necessary to emerge from the pandemic as truly evolved, resilient enterprises.
2. Move enterprise networks and workplace policy ‘closer to home’
What does this look like in practice? One fundamental change organizations will make is to offer WFH-conducive alternatives to in-office enterprise networks. While the concept of BYOD has been around for some time, its definition has changed with COVID-19. Working from home has created scenarios where individuals using two different devices may be regularly tapping into the same home network to access proprietary or otherwise sensitive information from two different organizations. Employees are also often using the same device and network for both personal and work-related tasks.
How do you ensure the security of proprietary data and separation of personal digital identities from professional digital identities? The answer may lie in dedicated 5G networks that remote employees can access from their personal devices. This gives companies a single dedicated network to focus their security efforts and may help keep personal data flows separate from enterprise-specific activity, while also addressing at-home bandwidth issues. With dedicated 5G networks or other solutions, hard boundaries (both for the network and for workplace policy) will need to be established between personal and professional digital identities. This will require new kinds of digital workplace norms, organization-wide understanding of security, and intelligent IT policy working together to ensure that employees are both protected and empowered in hybrid work environments.
3. Establish privacy as its own business category
Privacy has long been placed under the broader security umbrella when it comes to corporate policy, team responsibilities, and investment strategy. With the growing impact of GDPR and new conversations started by the shared experience of working from home, privacy considerations are branching out into their own category and sometimes even find themselves at odds with security interests. Going forward, these distinctions will become even clearer as organizations settle on the extent of visibility they can and will impose on employees working remotely.
Stronger consumer privacy rights, highlighted on the political stage by the Big Tech Senate hearings, may push employees to advocate for similar protections within their companies. This will create the need for more Chief Privacy Officers and privacy-focused teams down the chain of command that understand local regulations and the distinct challenges and sensitivities around privacy. These challenges will reinforce the need for the kind of distinct digital identities discussed earlier and how organizations choose to articulate their privacy posture can have an impact on the company culture writ large.
4. Evaluate SD-WAN in the context of hybrid work environments
With changing employee expectations and many organizations now realizing that they can stay productive while working remotely, a shift to hybrid, mobile-first environments in many industries is inevitable. We’ll see scenarios where employees go into the office once or twice a week, causing enterprises to want to rent, rather than own, much of their IT infrastructure. This will create a new demand for multi-tenant SD-WAN environments. Two primary capacities of SD-WAN—connecting branches with the data centers and onboarding to the internet—will need to be more deeply explored from the context of hybrid work environments. Whether SD-WAN deployments will slow remains to be seen. What is clear is that the relationships between IT teams, SD-WAN vendors, and other solution providers will need to evolve to meet the new needs of a hybrid workforce.
Looking back to look ahead
The changes and challenges of 2020 hit the enterprise at breakneck speed. While organizations have adapted quickly and admirably, many are still taking a thorough look at their performance. Rather than a sign of what’s to come, the past year is an indication of what’s already here, and here to stay. Decision makers will need to reflect quickly, develop clear strategies around privacy, BYOD, SD-WAN, and network performance management, and then make investments to support their workforce as it continues to evolve.