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Employee Network Connectivity: A Year Into COVID and There's Still Work To Be Done

March 10, 2021 Collaboration and Productivity
By Dom Nicastro

When thousands of World Wide Technology employees went to work-from-home environments, IT practitioners like Jason Kayser focused on easing that transition from a network connectivity standpoint.

Kayser, senior manager of infrastructure engineering of the $13.4 billion, 7,000-employee technology and services provider, said the first big challenge was helping employees self-educate about their new work digs: how to best connect to their workplace applications, collaboration tools and systems.

“Trying to figure out the transition during COVID, that was really interesting to see,” Kayser said in an interview with Reworked. “What's the network responsibility for us as a company vs. what’s the user's responsibility? What’s that line of demarcation? Do people really want their company to get into what they are doing within their homes?”

Network Challenges Persist

Many workers need the support. A year later, network connectivity challenges remain a priority for IT departments. Not every company aces it.

IDC’s “Enterprise Networking: Emergence of The New Normal Survey” found in June that 62% of organizations reported worker performance issues daily or multiple times a week. That increased to 70% when the IDC ran the same survey in December. “The networks just weren't built and designed for that,” said Brandon Butler, senior research analyst for the IDC's Network Infrastructure Group. who co-authored the report. “They were designed to have a certain number of their workers working remotely."

The worker problems ranged from network performance issues, application performance issues and cloud-based performance issues. “The user experience that folks are having from home from a networking perspective has not been great,” Butler said.

What would help the practitioners providing these employee experiences? Most digital workplace practitioners want integrated digital workplace environments and digitization and process improvement, which served as the top two answers in the Reworked State of Digital Workplace report

Related Article: Now Is the Time to Replace VPN With Zero Trust

Problems Fixed With Dough?

Is this a problem organizations should throw money at, paying for employees’ internet and network connectivity? The average cost for internet for Americans is about $50 per month. And that’s even if there is internet access where an employee lives. It’s not exactly like the world has an equal distribution of internet access and usage

Still, some companies are getting into the habit of providing subsidies. Some of the big tech giants like Twitter and Facebook are in fact helping employees pay for internet

IDC found enterprises — the larger they are, the more they shelled out — expected to pay for work-from-home connectivity in 2020:

  • $30,000: 500-999 employees
  • $75,000: 1,000-4,999 employees
  • $300,000: 5,000-plus employees

Butler calls subsidized broadband connectivity a low-hanging fruit for brands helping employees connect. “They’re actually helping to pay for better internet connectivity for workers,” Butler added. “We did a survey in September, and it showed that about 55% of organizations are helping to pay for work-from-home connectivity in 2020."

That said, when asked if they’d continue paying for that broadband connectivity in a post-COVID world, about half of organizations said that would decrease that broadband connectivity supplement while a third said they’d extend support.

Educating Employees About the World of Connectivity

Kayser of World Wide Technology said in terms of connectivity issues for employees, his teams are looking at things like tunneling protocols when employees return to the office and 5G capabilities. For now, they have been able to scale connectivity because pre-COVID-19 IT teams had done most of the legwork with many employees working remotely and traveling.

Their IT team’s big focus for connectivity in the early days of the pandemic? Education. They sent out content to employees to ensure they had solid connections in place for their new setup. Part of the messaging included:

  • Be Strategic About Router Placement: Donʼt try to hide your router from the world. Thatʼs the device that makes or breaks your wireless signalʼs ability to work for you. Try to place your router in an open area near the middle of your home.
  • Be Cognizant of the Number Of Connected Devices: With the growth in "Smart Home Technologies," many homes have significantly more devices connected to their wireless network than they are aware of. Each of those connected devices (Echoʼs, Google Homes, televisions, appliances, home security cameras, mobile devices, etc.) can impact your wireless network.
  • Pick The Right Wi-Fi Band & Channel: Most wireless routers offered today have dual band capabilities. This allows the router to broadcast both 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz bands for their Wi-Fi signal. If you have a large home and need Wi-Fi to transmit across multiple walls or floors, you should use the 2.4 GHz band (this is where router placement is important as well). Otherwise youʼll likely achieve faster speeds using the 5 GHz band.
  • Upgrade Your Broadband: For those who are just starting to work from home, an increase in your ISP (Internet Service Provider) speed may be the fix you need. Reach out to your to your local ISPs and see what speeds they are offering. Many ISPs are constantly upgrading their capabilities and can offer better services very quickly.
  • Security Is Important For Your Home Network; Change Your Default Network Name And Router Password: New routers come with a default Service Set Identifier (SSID) name and password. While you need to use this default information the first time you connect your computer to the router, best practice is that you change it immediately after set up is complete. If you continue to use your routerʼs default SSID and password, hackers can easily gain access to your router with these default credentials.

“Every user’s different,” Kayser said. “I have a network manager who lives about an hour and a half from St Louis, so he's in a fairly remote area, and his network availability is very different then someone who's sitting in Kansas City with Google Fiber available to them. So what can I do responsibly to give those users the same optimal experience?”

Related Article: How to Manage Your Digital Nomads

End User Experience, Visibility Critical

Visibility is the start. One thing Kayser wants as an IT practitioner when it comes to strong networks for employees is a constant focus on end-user experience. Forrester in October released its End User Experience Management Wave, which analyzed technologies that do that.

Forrester report authors found qualitative feedback, root-cause analysis and remediation separate the leading vendors from others because they offer more than telemetry data. They also focus on “understanding human perception of the tech experience" and help organizations view wide range of tech-related issues.

No matter the type of tool, Kayser wants better visibility into employee user experience so that his teams can identify common network challenges and act accordingly.

“That's our biggest challenge,” Kayser said. “That's one of our biggest opportunities, too, because we can measure that and understand where a given user is struggling or why one is successful. How do we look at the deltas of those things? How do we marry those up and improve based off the experiences we see? That is our biggest opportunity right now because we understand we can’t have a solution for everybody. So it really is gaining visibility into what end user experience looks like, using that data to make informed decisions on the next step to making those investments.”

What Does Employee Network Support Look Like Today?

Network support for remote employees has come in many flavors during the pandemic, according to the IDC. Cloud-based platforms for centrally managing enterprise network policies emerged as No. 1 (49.2%) ahead of client-based security access (VPNs) at 48% when researchers asked practitioners for key attributes that supports employees' work-from-home environments. IDC calls these individual employee setups  “Branch of One."

Followed behind were:

  • Centralized security (next-generation firewall, CASB, IPS/IDS, URL filtering, etc.): 46.8%
  • Visibility and analytics tools for monitoring application performance and user experiences: 45.2%
  • Wi-Fi AP with remote management capabilities: 43.6%
  • Providing subsidized broadband or wireless backup connectivity: 42.0%

“It’s not just providing connectivity,” Butler said, “but how do you provide secure connectivity and how do you secure these network connections for ‘Branch of One’ employees?"

VPN is the traditional way that organizations secure their remote and mobile employees, he added, but he's seen some new security solutions come about as well. Businesses have supplied separate Wi-Fi access points within an employee's home: same Wi-Fi network, same SSID for their business office. Encryption is built in and employees can get access to certain business applications.

"In a minority of cases, we’ve seen companies for really high-value employees — think executives of certain healthcare or final institutions — where connectivity failure is not an option, more full-featured appliances," Butler said. "These are really enterprise grade appliances. They provide direct cloud access to certain applications and maybe augment broadband connectivity with some cellular connectivity. Or they may have an integrated firewall appliance built into the system.”

Digging into Equality Issues

Technical capabilities aren’t the only concerns for companies ensuring employees have strong networks.

Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University, wrote in a column in October about inequality issues, saying wealthier people in wealthier areas are more likely to have good broadband and space and can work effectively from home. 

IT departments may want to consider working with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) leaders in their companies about equity in network support. And there is work do to there already. Just 58% of human resources professionals say their workforce reflects the demographics of the current marketplace, and fewer than one-third rate their organization's DEI initiatives as highly effective.

“Only about half of the population can work from home, and they're definitely the wealthier, more educated half," Bloom told Reworked back in October. "Working home in itself is a very valuable perk. It's probably as valuable as healthcare, or a generous pension plan, and we’re only giving it to the better-off.”

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