Why a return to the office needs careful consideration

“What’s next?”

In the American TV series the West Wing, President Jed Bartlet often signalled the resolution of an insurmountable or intractable problem with the phrase “What’s next?” The situation wasn’t necessarily resolved, but, a solution was in play and other problems could now be focused on.

Maybe that is the point we have reached with those terrible twins, Brexit and COVID-19. Perhaps for the first time in a year, it feels as though “What’s next” is an appropriate question for a business owner to ask.

And it’s a good question to ask, because the businesses that survived 2020 made a lot of tactical decisions to keep themselves working which might need some evaluation when more normalcy returns to the way that we choose to work.

It has been estimated that COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation, underpinned by a more rapid move to the cloud by up to 5 years (https://www.ey.com/en_gl/tax/how-covid-19-is-accelerating-transformation-and-the-five-year-plan). True or not, at the very least, keeping the lights on in 2020 pushed through changes that would have taken far longer in normal times.

Perhaps you’ve moved to a cloud based finance or trading platform and your teams are on Office 365 (or G-suite). They’ve fully embraced collaboration with their colleagues via digital means. You may even have implemented VoIP telephony as a way to keep in touch because you know that standard PSTN has only 4 years to run & you want working from home to be seamless.

But as we start to think about “what next?” and a potential drift back towards the office for many staff there is an issue looming that could become a real problem for many businesses in 2021.

In normal times it isn’t exciting, or even that interesting, but your business internet connection could become your biggest roadblock to productivity because the way that you consume internet services has fundamentally changed .. and probably you don’t even know it.

The majority of direct internet access services in the UK, for both domestic and business use, are biased towards downloads from the Internet. Why? Essentially because most internet users are more interested in downloading (web pages, streaming content, software) than they are in uploading. As a rule we are mostly consumers, rather than publishers or producers of content so we haven’t had a big need to upload. Over time our service providers have biased our services in that direction rather than making available expensive bandwidth for upload that we won’t use or need.

How can you tell whether your service is configured this way? It’s relatively simple. If you have ADSL or FTTC then your service is definitely asymmetrical. For all other types the following table gives you an indication of what you can expect, with the usual caveats about this being a generalisation not a guarantee etc

Direct Internet Access Service

Download

Upload Maximum

Upload Average

G.Fast

300.0

50.0

45.0

Superfast FTTC (80:20)

80.0

20.0

18.0

FTTC (40:10)

40.0

10.0

8.0

Virgin Media Gig1

1,000.0

54.0

52.0

Virgin Media M500/M350

350.0-500.0

36.0

36.0  

ADSL

8.0

1.5

   0.8

 

Although Microsoft is fairly coy about bandwidth usage for its Office 365 suite, it is no secret that a 1:1 HD Teams video call can use about 1.2-1.5Mbps of upload & download bandwidth, and a group call about 1Mbps (https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/prepare-network) If less is available the image & audio quality will reduce accordingly.

If you’ve moved to customer and supplier relationship management via Teams during the pandemic then with your staff working from home the internet connection burden is evenly shared. However, move those same people back to a single location and the bandwidth requirements become much more significant. Dropped calls, choppy delivery and poor audio will be inevitable once you start to reach the limit of the upload bandwidth you have available in your office.

iphone screen with icons on screen

Microsoft Teams is a big user of bandwidth

And that’s just for Teams.

Let’s assume for the moment that you also have a wireless network in your office to which all your staff can connect when they are at work. They may be beavering away for your interests all the time that they are on site but every single one of them will have at least one device connected to the WiFi and that device will be downloading updates, uploading location information, receiving email, doing backups, saving pictures to cloud storage … all via that same precious upload bandwidth. They won’t even know that it’s happening.

Plus, because you’ve updated your workstation & laptop estate to Windows 10 to maximise your benefit from your Office 365 investment you now have Windows 10 and Office 365 patches and updates being downloaded to all those devices in the background and completely outside your control unless you have put in place some bandwidth management … you have done that, haven’t you?

Then there’s the final impact, the one that nobody thinks about.

Previously all your data was on a shiny (but dusty) file server in the corner of the office. It probably handled your internal email and of course stored all those documents, spreadsheets and presentations that your staff needed access to. An edit triggered some local network activity but that was fine because your local network was fast and the impact was tiny. You had just a few remote workers on a VPN to your office but access was more important than performance so you ignored their complaints about speed. It was only a few of them after all.

Now that has all changed, everything that you do is now “in the cloud” so everyone is a remote worker. When you save, you no longer save locally, you are uploading, to Onedrive or Sharepoint or Box or Dropbox or Google Drive. Every email or teams message you send, even to the people across the office, is now being uploaded to the cloud and then downloaded again to each recipient. Edit a document that someone else (or a group) has marked for offline availability and that file will be uploaded to the cloud and then downloaded again to each subscriber.

Yes you can configure “download on demand” or make files “cloud only”, but sooner or later the number of “make available offline” files across your team will grow to a point where a single edit creates many, many upload and download activities that all consume bandwidth. This is real world experience we’ve seen time and time again across our customer base.

In fact, we estimate that each staff member should have 2-3 Mbps of dedicated internet access in both directions, in order to work unhindered in the digitally transformed new world.

This is fine when everybody is at home, using their personal internet access, but get them all into a single location and it won’t be long before your internet connection is swamped and core activities start to be impacted. Productivity falls and frustrations mount until you realise that there is nothing for it but to overhaul your internet service and install something bigger. It will cost more but at this point the cost is almost secondary because your team needs to work.

So, you call your friendly IT service provider and ask them to recommend a solution .. and they tell you that there are lots of possibilities but many companies are having the same issues that you are and there is a backlog for new internet connections. You ask how long it will take and they estimate 90-120 working days to get new solutions installed if no issues are encountered, more if you happen to be somewhere remote or where a road needs to be dug up.

If they are really good and terribly creative they will suggest some ways to work around the problem like bonding together services that can be quickly installed until something more permanent can be done.

If they are really, really good then they got in touch 6 months ago to make sure that they understood what your plans were so all the preparations have been made and you are very relaxed about the return to the office.

If that isn’t you, then get in touch. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the COVID tunnel, we can help you come out of it fully prepared for a better 2021.

In the meantime, stay safe and well.

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