The rise, fall, and rise of the branch office
Feb 07, 2022
"Everything fails all of the time," according to Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon Web Services.
The remote nature of the branch office often means that operations in far-flung places, often without local IT resources, can be some of the most challenging to manage. When something goes wrong (and it will), the resolution is unlikely to be swift and invariably is complex, expensive, or both.
Since the fall from grace for the mainframe and the emergence of a lower-cost distributed computing model, infrastructure managers everywhere rushed to improve the user experience by placing services, hardware, and virtualized infrastructure as close to the user as physically possible. Thus the branch office was born, and the first distributed computing architecture, such as Distributed File System (DFS).
If the past several years have taught us anything, it's that mass-scale remote working is possible. Not only is it possible, but for many, it has become the norm. Some workers have vowed never to return to the branch office as the primary workplace. An entirely new generation of workers entering the market may have yet to step foot into a corporate building. The emergence of the digital workplace was a certainty; it simply took a pandemic to accelerate what would have arguably happened in 5-10 years organically anyway. Regardless of the driver behind the change, organic or pandemically accelerated, the fall of the branch office was inevitable, but is it terminal?
I've moderated several events these past few months and explored what the future of hybrid working might look like with CIOs and CTOs at some of the world's top companies. One thing is sure–there is not a one-size-fits-all. Some believe that better digital tooling is how to retain a cohesive workforce. Others believe it is a more structured approach to a hybrid physical working environment. Self-organising teams, a concept well-understood in the agile community, could hold the key to where we've been headed all along with or without a global pandemic.
In my experience, I have found that teams can be highly effective when working remotely or when working physically together. But effectiveness drops when some members work remotely while the rest work in person. Other IT leaders echo this observation. In true agile style, my own teams' self-organising nature meant they quickly concluded that they had to act as a single entity, choosing to all attend physically or all attend remotely. Doing so meant they ensured equality for all participants. They determined that agile ceremonies such as planning, refinement, and retrospectives were best in the office, whereas stand-ups and tasks could be virtual.
Now apply these adaptations to the broader workforce. As the pandemic recedes to an endemic, teams that work effectively remotely will act as a single organism when deciding on dominant new working practices. It is improbable that these teams will choose to return to a full-time office presence and instead embrace a hybrid work practice designed at filling the human presence gap only where required. There is no substitute for physical presence to build trust through social cues and subtext through body language.
A new modern office environment will have to accommodate new social norms. The days of a battery hen workforce packed tightly amongst rows of uniform desks or work cubicles, pre-loaded with phones, screens, keyboards, and mouses are likely to become a thing of the past. Instead, cubes and closed spaces will give way to more breathable and open environments better suited for team-oriented, loftier, creative pursuits.
As the workforce adopts a permanent hybrid model where most work remotely, what does it mean to branch office infrastructure? Branch proximity to the user population is nullified when typical VPN architecture is rooted in a datacentre, backhauling traffic over vast distances. The performance is worse under this model, and the returns on investment continue to decline. Combining new remote ways of working and ageing infrastructure is a perfect storm that threatens technology failure.
Organisations must tackle the change on two fronts to retain a competitive and productive workforce. The first is to equip a technology landscape that offers comparable performance, features, and security to any well-equipped office environment irrespective of workforce geography. If this sounds familiar, it is essentially café-style working, which will become the norm increasingly for many. Second, adapt to rapidly changing social norms for collaborative work in physical spaces using wire-free connectivity, whiteboard walls, projectors, digital presence communications, and perhaps telepresence robots.
That brings us to the second rise of the branch office: What is its technology foundation if geared for the collaborative team worker? It simply means a lighter and less complex environment unencumbered by wires, desks, and traditional communication infrastructure. Organisations will need fewer routers, switches, and cabling and embrace more WiFi or 5G connectivity. It has proven unsustainable to retain the office infrastructure to host applications and data in this new world, so organisations will need to double down on the cloud transformation initiatives. That means migrating not only datacentre infrastructure but also server rooms and remote infrastructure. The only way to meet the performance needs of the more mobile workforce and café-style working practices is to move the data out of the office and synergize it alongside a more inclusive cloud adoption strategy. Organisations who make this leap can expect a reduction in office infrastructure by as much as 60%. That reduction can increase further with zero trust and the Internet as the new corporate network. And with this reduced complexity, so too diminishes the operational management overheads.
The rise of the new modern branch office is as inevitable as the last significant shift almost 30 years ago. As technologists, we are beginning to recognize the need to adapt to a new working paradigm and include performance and security at its architectural core. Remote independent working is here to stay, but so is the need for human contact and in-person collaboration. Combining a digital and in-person workforce will help organisations retain their competitive edge in attracting and retaining top talent in an increasingly diverse working environment.
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