When your network stops working, your people stop working

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reports that 54% of UK workers now work flexibly or remotely.

People often refer to flexible or remote working as ‘working from home’. But these people aren’t really working from home. The only thing which is physically at home is the individual and their device. Most of their work is taking place in the cloud.

Modern work is collaborative and interactive. For many of us, the majority of time spent ‘at work’ is spent interacting by email, instant messenger or conferencing services with other people. These communications don’t take place at home or in the office, they take place in the virtual space between these places.

Cloud-based working has changed the very definition of work. Work used to be a place. Now it’s something that we do, something which can happen anywhere.

Businesses used to be physical things with the staff, offices, local IT equipment such as servers and usually production or handling of physical goods. These days, the only thing a business needs to make money is one or more people and a device that can connect to the internet.

Looked at in this way, what we think of as a ‘a business’ is just a small network of people and devices. Everything else is optional.

image of two people in office having conversation about the impact of network performance

Physical workspaces and digital workspaces

This notion of ‘the business as a network’ does not downplay the importance of the physical workspace. Offices are still vital, as is face-to-face work. Meetings, in proportion and managed effectively, are a great way to solve complex problems as a team. But your network is just as important as your workspace.

The physical workspace is usually a business’ second-largest outlay after staff. And with good reason. Workspaces have a massive impact on culture and productivity. A great workspace can make our working lives better in almost every way. And for the same reasons, a terrible workspace can make us unhappy.

Decision-makers are comfortable investing in their workspace and see the value in doing so. However, investment in the network – the digital workspace – is sometimes harder to secure. Despite the fact that network performance is more integral to productivity than the physical workspace itself and far easier to get right.

That’s a bold claim, so let me explain.

If an office floods and has to close down, people can still work. They can work from home, they can work from cafes, they can work from other offices. They do this via the network. But if the network is down, everything stops. Even if people are sat side-by-side in the office, most of us are so out of practice working without the internet that we won’t even try.

The Norsk Hydro story

I recently came across a fascinating story that illustrates this point.

A group of hackers knocked 22,000 devices belonging to a Norwegian aluminium producer, Norsk Hydro, offline. The company had to spend an eye-watering £45 million to get its business-critical functions back online. During the downtime, the finance team were forced to ask retired ex-employees if they could come into the office. Because they were the only ones who knew how to process orders without the internet.

The company was forced to return to a pre-internet way of working because of their network performance. And the only people who knew how to handle paperwork were retirees.

Network performance is business performance

A single employee will complete hundreds of small tasks over the internet every day. Many of them will be so second-nature to us we hardly even realise that we’re doing them. We check our inboxes as thoughtlessly and instinctively as we check our phones.

If a single employee completes 100 small tasks using cloud applications every day, then a team of eight might complete 800. And a business made up of ten such teams might complete 8,000.

If the internet connection is fast and able to support all those users, this is not an issue. But if the internet slows by two seconds per task, those two seconds multiplied by the total number of tasks and users becomes a serious time-cost over the course of a year.

When the network performance slows down, even a little bit, the business slows down.

The same goes for other common issues such as network stability and security. If the network goes offline, the business goes offline. If the network is insecure, the business is insecure, because the network houses business-critical data. As we’ve seen with British Airways’ record £183 million GDPR fine, data breaches can have massive repercussions.

There are human factors to consider as well. Unreliable internet connections are frustrating, for all sorts of reasons. Conference or video calls that are hard to hear or keep abruptly ending. Slow download speeds of large files. Cloud services that can’t do what they’re supposed to because the internet connection is too unstable (which is a waste of the license cost).

Wondrous when it works, infuriating when it doesn’t

We take the internet as a given, it’s expected to be available and work reliably. In fact, the internet is increasingly seen as the ‘fourth utility’, as commonplace and easy-to-access as traditional utilities such as clean water and electricity. If either of these things were unavailable, steps would be taken to fix that.

This frustration is amplified ten-fold once clients or customers are introduced. Important conference calls or presentations that are derailed by a poor connection leave a lasting impression, in much the same way as disappointing face-to-face experience. In high stakes situations, we need to be able to rely on our infrastructure. When that infrastructure lets us down, it mars the customer experience. It makes us look bad.

Future-proof your network performance to future-proof your business

As we connect more devices to the IoT – 127 new devices are connected every second – the internet will become inseparable from the physical workspace. Devices will share information directly with one another and huge volumes of data will be collected and analysed to help decision-makers make smarter workplace decisions.

The benefits in terms of productivity and cost-saving have already been discussed at length, here and elsewhere. But there are challenges to consider too. Connecting devices or entire workspaces to the internet leaves them exposed to the negative consequences of network failure and cyberattacks. IT leaders who want to avoid these things need to invest in their network, as it’s only going to become more central to your business and your growth.

It is exactly these sorts of issues which were identified when Ricoh undertook an IT audit on behalf of the Trafford Housing Trust. The audit identified issues relating to business sustainability, information security, operational efficiency and governance. By establishing a Microsoft cloud-based technology platform Ricoh IT Services created a network environment that could enable the addition of innovative digital services to improve governance, increase efficiency, facilitate mobility and improve the customer experience.

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To find out how Ricoh can help you better invest in your business to ensure future network performance, get in touch with me on LinkedIn to carry on the conversation.

Billy Haining

Customer Experience Lead at Ricoh UK & Ireland

Read all articles by Billy Haining