Working from home for the foreseeable?

07 December 2021

Working from home is no longer the ‘new normal’ – it’s firmly established. However, that means investing in the best technology, say the experts

Working from home was considered the “new normal” this time last year. The world was plunged into chaos when businesses were forced to close their offices and tell staff to work from home as the coronavirus pandemic gripped countries around the globe. Working from home, once a privilege, was suddenly the immediate future.

Of course, we connected to our company networks using routers, extenders and other technology previously used solely for leisure and entertainment. However, now that the UK faces a future of working from home and/or hybrid working, we though it a good idea to speak to some industry luminaries to find and find out what sort of technology network managers will require so it’s a case of “business as usual”.

Let’s get the catalyst out of the way. “More of us are working from home than ever,” says Melanie Charles channel marketing manager for DrayTek. “Earlier this year, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 25.9% of the working population, or 8.4 million people, had worked from home for at least part of their week in 2020, up from 12.4% in 2019. Yet finding space to work isn’t always easy, particularly when more than one of you is working, or once the school holidays roll around. It’s no wonder, then, that so many people are now setting up an outside workspace, transforming an existing shed or garden room into an office, or adding a new purpose-built outbuilding.

For Charles, setting up a ‘shoffice’ involves a range of practical considerations, from staying within planning regulations to heating, light and power. “However, one challenge many of us overlook is how to connect the office to the home network and, from there, the wider internet,” she adds. “After all, the home working revolution has been built on cloud-based tools and the ability to communicate with a team and use corporate resources. Having a reliable internet connection in place allows you to focus on getting stuff done rather than trying to troubleshoot your Wi-Fi.”

Now we have the background to this new approach to working life in the UK, it’s time to go through the tech options. Let’s start with the obvious ones.

“The ideal solution is a simple wired ethernet connection,” Charles says. “Most home routers now deliver gigabit ethernet connectivity and there’s no significant degradation of speed with distance. Run an ethernet line from your home network to your shed office underground – you can lay the cable when you tackle your mains power cabling – and you should have reliable, high-speed connectivity. Unfortunately, this isn’t always practical. You might not have a wired network spread throughout your home, and what do you do if your master phone socket or fibre connection and your router are on the other side of the house?”

Charles says going wireless is the next most obvious option, but this one has its pitfalls too. “Thick exterior walls can hamper Wi-Fi connectivity, while your new shed office might lie outside your router’s range,” she continues. “Even new Wi-Fi 6 technology might struggle to reach your outside workspace without help. If your home office is just outside the home and close to your router you could be lucky, but you don’t want to become reliant on patchy Wi-Fi – or a signal that struggles with interference or drops out when your neighbour starts their lawnmower.”

Reliability is crucial
“The need for faster, more reliable home internet connections become evident after the first week of remote working,” says Rachel Rothwell, regional director, western Europe at Zyxel. “It was especially challenging for households with several family members taking work video calls, while their children were learning remotely, stretching bandwidths past their capacity. It became clear that the standard everyday domestic networking setup (often WiFi 5-based) is not suitable for everyday corporate needs.”

Rothwell points to the many simple fixes to consider. “The performance of internet routers and access points can be severely impacted by the presence of thick walls, glass or competing microwave frequencies,” she adds. “So if your Wi-Fi is set up in the kitchen next to your microwave or in the corner of your room, then it’s time to reposition it. Wi-fi routers benefit from long, clear lines of sight, and although it’s not always possible domestically, best performance can be found when it’s mounted on the wall or ceiling and out of the way of large obstacles.”

The cellular option
Enough network speed is something that goes alongside reliability and Tom Mueller, vice president of product enterprise networking at Sierra Wireless, points out that wireless router speeds can vary significantly between models and so it’s time to think of all options.

“Cellular routers are rated for theoretical maximum throughput, while rarely seen on live networks, it does help compare routers against each other,” he says. “4G LTE routers should be capable of 150 Mbps downlink and 50 Mbps uplink for light use and between 600–2000 Mbps downlink and 150-200 Mbps uplink for heavier use. For the ultimate in performance, 5G routers are now available, with downlink rated at over 4 Gbps and uplink over 600 Mbps.”

Mueller adds that cellular routers also deliver connectivity beyond the home office environment. “For example, first responders, including fire, law enforcement and EMS, use high-performance cellular routers in their vehicles to connect with each other, depots/fire stations and hospitals,” he continues. “Pop-up health care facilities such as those for Covid testing use wireless routers to securely access patient records (staying HIPAA compliant) and connect laptops/computers to printers. Enterprises use wireless routers to connect new buildings and achieve last-mile connectivity, and retail corporations use wireless routers to connect branches, kiosks, and point-of-sale locations securely.”

Now we know about the wired, wireless and cellular options. However, what if your home doesn’t allow for any of these to operate to the required standard? Charles says that “if ethernet’s not an option, 4G is too restrictive and Powerline doesn’t work for you, then your best bet is to find a way to extend your wireless network and bridge the gap between your shed office and your home”. She suggests a simple Wi-Fi extender but “a better option is to setup a mesh network”. She continues: “This is practical if the shed is likely to receive a good signal strength from the Access points in the main building.”

Melanie Charles, DrayTek

Melanie Charles, DrayTek

Of course, it’s always best to chat to someone relatively neutral and Kevin Robinson, senior vice president, Wi-Fi Alliance says Wi-Fi 6 provides the capacity, efficiency, coverage, and performance required by users today in congested home environments. “Wi-Fi Certified 6 networks support features like OFDMA and MU-MIMO to help ensure each connected device performs at an optimum level and provides significant benefits for employees using high bandwidth video conferencing or photo sharing applications,” he adds. “Wi-Fi 6E makes use of the 6 GHz band, which is made available in the UK and becoming available around the world. Wi-Fi 6E makes use of more contiguous spectrum, wider channels, and less interference in 6 GHz to deliver gigabit speeds, low latency and high capacity.

All Wi-Fi certified devices support the strongest, WPA3 security. This means users and sensitive data will be better protected, and certification also provides assurances of interoperability so Wi-Fi devices from various vendors can work seamlessly in the home. Users should look for the Wi-Fi Certified logo when purchasing a new router.”

So, there you have it. Working from your house or shed is no longer a novelty; it’s the now and the future. As Charles puts it, “everyone’s home is different, so finding the right networking solution for your outdoor office isn’t always straightforward”. Reading this is a good start. Time to invest in the best kit.