Smart Buildings Magazine vox pop is back, asking one topical question to the industry.

The latest question is: Has the UK got the infrastructure in place to cope with mass remote working?

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Not yet. The UK is moving in the right direction with 5G coming in to ease the flow of traffic over broadband coupled with improved download speed over the internet.

However broadband is still under pressure for download speeds and as a number of companies use a VPN, the waiting times can become unbearable as you wait 4 minutes to open a single excel file.

Samuel Lawrence, business development director, CBRE

Yes, the UK has the infrastructure to cope with mass remote working for office-based workers and even field engineers. However, more must be done if we are to maximise efficiency for the workforce as a whole.

Entire businesses and sectors working from home productively, requires connectivity, internet bandwidth, as well as digital platforms that work effectively.

Digital systems within smart buildings also play a vital part in enabling remote working for engineering staff. They provide safe and secure remote access to building system information, while carrying out continuous analysis and optimisation of mechanical and electrical plant without a site visit being needed.

While we were in times of uncertainty, mass remote working can be as productive as working on-site. New technology has enabled real-time collaboration, with studies pointing toward a boost in productivity from working from home.

Crucially, we must also consider whether our infrastructure is sustainable. As bandwidth and demand changes through the day, our infrastructure needs to be connected to intelligent systems which drive efficiency and utilise clean and sustainable energy.

Now is the time for the government, businesses and individuals to invest in a data-driven and sustainable way of working. Only by doing so can we remain productive in times of instability.

Kas Mohammed, VP of digital energy at Schneider Electric

If UK based employees have to work at home, as we are seeing with the current mass remote working implementations, the core internet is unlikely to collapse as total traffic will be much the same as the majority of office-based internet traffic is external and still crosses the core internet.

However, there may still be a requirement for individual corporates to increase the amount of bandwidth between their internal networks and the internet, in order to handle the increase in remote workers. Ultimately, connectivity will be better when everybody has fibre and the apps that can exploit 100Mbps+ are ubiquitous.

With all the hype around 5G wireless, we tend to forget that wireline networks make 5G possible, as well as delivering broadband services to customers. Residential customers, business customers, and 5G base stations and small cells all rely primarily on fibre-based connectivity. Broadband access to residential areas may get congested, particularly if children are off school alongside parents who are trying to access online services, such as video calling. As more and more children will be confined to home, their use of online gaming and video could create extra demand that impacts corporate/business traffic, and may therefore require traffic prioritisation during office hours.

As the home is becoming increasingly connected, so are our digital experiences. With multi-Gigabit services, app platforms and HomeAssure – which optimises Wi-Fi coverage and performance - it makes it easy for the consumer to use and reduces cost for the service provider. What’s more, the UK’s rollout of next generation broadband technology, known as DOCSIS 3.1, is providing millions of homes with access to gigabit broadband speeds by the end of 2021.

With more and more people working remotely, it’s also important to focus on addressing the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural non-spots. As we upgrade our connectivity as a nation, we must ensure these areas are not left behind and have the necessary fibre and wireless technology to enable greater growth and the ability to work remotely throughout the UK.

Phil Sorksy, VP of international service providers at CommScope

Although we have the technology to do this, it is mainly unproven in such a large scale. For many years now, we have been using laptops, tablets and mobile phones to enable us to work away from the office.

There are some roles where this is a necessity, but it is unusual for operational and service departments. At Sontay, we have previously operated our service and support desks from employees’ homes with success in adverse weather situations so are confident that we can manage this side of the business to a high level. Over recent times we have moved the majority of our internal staff to working from laptops to enable remote working if needed, which prepares us for the eventuality if it is needed.

We are currently trialling and working out processes for using tools such as video meetings to keep all teams communicating and up to date. This does take time, practice and knowledge to make sure we get it right for us and our customers.

The bigger issues are around broadband, can our infrastructure cope with the massive growth in demand, as well as changing people’s mind set to get used to the unusual setting of working from home including the discipline needed to do this effectively. Sontay has made major investments in the broadband infrastructure serving the building in recent years and are confident it is the best it can be. We are, however, at the mercy of our employees’ locations when they are working from home and the limitations of broadband in remote areas. Sontay is proactively working on supporting the teams with keeping focussed and managing their workload at home. There are many helpful articles published on social media on this topic, which we are fully embracing.

Our core message is to keep up the communication and keep supporting each other so that we can continue to service our customers.

The health and wellbeing of all of all of our staff, customers and suppliers is our first priority so in these extenuating circumstances, our key message is to keep well, stay safe and look after your loved ones.

Stacey Lucas, commercial & marketing director at Sontay

The Covid-19 global health crisis demonstrates the need to have infrastructure in place that enables effective remote and home working. The concept is accepted, if not fully embraced in the UK, in theory, although it has never been truly put to the test in the way it will be now.

There are two key issues; access and capacity. We have all experienced poor cellular phone coverage and there are still those with only low data rate broadband availability (access).

We have all also experienced our broadband or cellular slowing down or buffering at peak times (capacity). In a digital age remote working should be possible and buildings should be able to enable this. Today, since the launch of Ofcom’s license-exemption, businesses and individuals can enhance cellular coverage in homes to enable voice to their mobile devices and have improved data rates to support the increased load on the countries broadband infrastructure. An acceleration in 5G rollout would further help the situation.

Colin Abrey, VP of international sales EMEA, at Nextivity

A sudden spike in mass remote working is undoubtedly proving to be a significant stress test for UK broadband networks, but our infrastructure is up to the challenge so let’s stay positive.

Firstly, we must remember that typical work activities, such as emails or conference calls, are not that data intensive. However, networks may need to take steps to manage data-hungry activities such as video streaming or online gaming. Modern networks are smart in terms of analysing/prioritising traffic and automatically reduce the quality of videos in order to adapt to congestion periods, which puts us in a great position. However, in these extraordinary times, we will need to go further. We’ve already seen Netflix reducing the video quality on its service in Europe for the next 30 days, to help reduce the strain on internet service providers. Moving forward we could see the government, telcos and service providers work together more holistically to prioritise bandwidth to support business continuity and critical services such as the NHS.

Home-workers can also help to manage the situation by making backup plans across multiple infrastructure sets. Should the wifi stop working they can use a mobile 4G connection to hotspot.

Finally, let’s remember that the UK’s telecom networks are diverse and robust. We have a mix of electrical, optical and radio connections, and even if a power outage were to occur, many of them can still be fed by on-site battery backup (remote power) and stay up and running.

Needless to say, there is no doubt that the outbreak of COVID-19 has placed unprecedented levels of demand on networks. In order to ensure networks have the capacity to support mass remote working communication equipment always needs to be properly powered and cooled.

We call this part the Critical Infrastructure, and we should always get the basics right. We obviously need continuous improvement when it comes to our infrastructure, in particular an acceleration in the migration from copper to fibre, an increase in fibre to the home, mobile coverage & capacity expansion, new edge sites to keep up with ever-growing demand.

Perhaps this pandemic will even provide an opportunity for the UK government and operators to review, reinforce and accelerate those plans to come out of this pandemic stronger.

Gabriel Bonilha, EMEA professional services manager at Vertiv

No schools have closed, we will have a new mix of massive home working combined with the country’s population of schoolchildren gaming and streaming content at the same time.

This is going to put unprecedented demand on broadband and mobile networks. There have already been question marks raised about how providers will cope – only this week (Tuesday 17th March) we saw customers from EE, O2, Vodafone and Three all reporting issues.

Nearly all personal and home communication networks work on a contended basis and we all share the available capacity. Think of it like motorway traffic during rush hour – lots of people all going in the same direction at the same time creates bottlenecks. That is what is what is going to happen if much of the population work from their home internet and mobile networks, combined with a high use of gaming and streaming services. Speed and quality of service will become compromised.

The challenge is that now we are really relying on these networks. Organisations are already in trying circumstances doing their best to maintain operations with staff working from home. All the work that has been done securing access, providing devices and collaboration apps is immaterial if staff can’t connect. The key will be to remain flexible and look for alternatives wherever possible to reduce the strain. An example we’re hearing is organisations advising staff to use landlines (so long as it’s safe to do so without exposing your number externally) and covering those costs.

Ultimately, the problem many businesses will face is that while some employees do regularly work from home, the vast majority are office-based and therefore don’t. It’s going to be a testing time, but now we need to think about continuity from the point of view of home working. Our offices have diverse comms to make sure we can keep operating if there is an issue with one connection or provider. We can apply those principals to home working too. We don’t have the central control that we would have in an office, so organisations need to work with staff to outline the options available to them and empower them to make those decisions.

Mike Osborne, non-executive chairman at business continuity firm Databarracks

Home-working will undoubtedly prove pivotal in limiting the impact of the coronavirus crisis. But the data suggests that many employers and employees may be out of their depth should British businesses be forced into lockdown. Leesman has surveyed more than 700,000 employees worldwide.

Of the 139,778 UK workers in its index, 55% have little or no experience working from home, compared with 52% of respondents globally. Our research suggests that the UK is one of the least prepared countries to weather a mass home-working strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the main risks associated with home-working include a notable reduction in sense of community, social interaction, learning from others and informal collaboration. But more critical perhaps is a predicted 15% drop in the ability to share ideas and knowledge, directly impacting both productivity and innovation. We know how and why corporate offices impact employee sentiment but have significantly less understanding of even the short-term impact of dispersing teams into environments designed for living, not working.

Our advice is for organisations to quantify where their main obstacles will be and seek support quickly.

Tim Oldman, CEO, Leesman

Adrian McClenaghan, MBA managing consultant, UK & Ireland at Humanscale

Humanscale has an online ergonomic tool for home workers to establish the suitability of their space.

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