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How to prepare networks for the return to office

Network teams should evaluate their UC strategies, VPN capacity and even air conditioning requirements as employees start to return to office environments.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside, companies are strategizing their return to the office. For some, it will be a complete return, while others may maintain a hybrid work environment between on-site and work from home, or WFH. Realistically, the standard and hybrid models shouldn't differ, but organizations must accept that identical models may not be 100% possible because of differences in difficulty, licensing or security.

Physical spacing

One of the largest changes to office environments will be tied to physical spacing. Cubicle spacing and density may change, and the trend toward open workspaces could quickly grind to a halt amid new health concerns. Reconfiguration will necessitate either expensive re-cabling or shifting more of the client load to Wi-Fi, which also requires changes in most cases. In fact, many companies will argue that Wi-Fi 6 bandwidth and capability make Wi-Fi a better choice than continuing with Ethernet cabling because it offers similar bandwidth but more flexibility.

Unified communications

The pandemic accelerated the need for many organizations to investigate unified communications (UC) strategies. UC merges chat, voice, video meetings and mobility into a single platform. Whether in an office or hybrid workplace, UC helps simplify the deployment and management of these services across an enterprise. UC also helps in the event of another exodus from the office to a WFH model.

Security

The shift to WFH put tremendous stress on security models for many companies. Most network administrators' planning scenarios didn't envision contending with a majority of users outside the firewall. Security measures were rapidly adjusted to this new reality. As workers return to the office, it is imperative that administrators assess any security changes made for expediency over the past 12 months and determine the risks for continuing those changes versus rolling back them back.

VPN and SD-WAN

The rapid shift to WFH also tested the VPN limits for most companies. As remote workers begin filtering back into the office, administrators should assess VPN licensing plans as the number of concurrent users returns to previous levels.

For companies that will remain in a hybrid model, some critical knowledge workers may need to access complex or high-bandwidth applications. In those cases, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) might make sense. SD-WAN brings an always-on connection with better security and management. The cost of a dedicated SD-WAN endpoint may be offset by the productivity gains for certain segments of workers in a hybrid or WFH environment.

Air conditioning

A final consideration for the return to office is the air conditioning system. While AC doesn't have a direct effect on networking, cable placement in dropped ceilings may need to be moved to accommodate new AC requirements.

Overall, the return to the office should be seen not as a return to the old ways, but instead a movement to a "new normal," where businesses need to either operate in a more hybrid work model or at least be better prepared for the next seismic change.

This was last published in May 2021

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