WAN Managers Reflect on COVID-19 Challenges, Strategies for Moving to Remote Work

By Elizabeth ThorneDec 4, 2020


It’s no secret that COVID-19 has upended every aspect of life this year, including how we travel, socialize, and work. While some promising vaccine studies look like a light at the end of the tunnel, it may still be months until some semblance of normalcy returns. 

We’ve reported on how global bandwidth and data center demand has surged in 2020, driven by the mass migration of work, school, and play to the home internet. Companies hoping to transition their workforce to remote access found their IT/network departments at the forefront of their response to the crisis.

We’ve kept in touch with WAN managers on how COVID-19 has impacted their network configuration, challenges they've faced, and what they see moving forward. In the next two blog posts, we’ll be exploring their responses. 

Let’s start by looking at how workplaces changed and how WAN professionals adapted to meet those changes. 

Seismic Shifts

Faced with government mandates and health guidelines, companies had the daunting challenge of taking their workforces remote.

According to a report by Global Workplace Analytics, remote workers previously made up only 3.6% (or 5 million) of the United States workforce. And as we can see from our respondents, there was a massive shift across the board to remote work among the companies we surveyed. 

Source: TeleGeography WAN Manager Survey 2020

We asked WAN managers how much their office shifted to working remotely in 2020:

  • 85% of responding companies had the majority of their workforce working remote. 
  • The most common configuration was having approximately 80% of workers remote, with 20% at job sites. These are often essential positions that cannot be done remotely, such as workers on a factory floor or on-premises data center technicians. 
  • 17% reported a split of about 60% working from home and 40% at-site, while 13% reported their entire workforce had shifted to remote work.  

Industries composed largely of knowledge workers likely had an easier time transitioning to fully remote work, while companies with a manufacturing component or large number of essential workers would need to keep some sites running in-person. 

We’ll be diving deeper into those industry breakdowns in the update to our WAN Manager Survey Report, which you can expect in  Q1 2021. 

Adapting to the New Normal

We also asked enterprises how they adapted network management strategy to handle the changes brought on by the pandemic.

Source: TeleGeography WAN Manager Survey 2020

More than 50% of respondents say that they increased data center bandwidth. This makes sense, given the large amount of employees accessing servers from home.

Half of all respondents say they cancelled or delayed a roll-out of technology because of the lockdown. An inability to go into offices to rip and replace routers and other tech impacted rollouts of SD-WAN and other new deployments. Further, there was a shift in priority from network refreshing to stability and preservation of the ability to execute core business functions.

An inability to go into offices to rip and replace routers and other tech impacted rollouts of SD-WAN and other new deployments. Further, there was a shift in priority from network refreshing to stability and preservation of the ability to execute core business functions.

Some delays came from the vendor side, as one WAN manager from a financial services company noted: “A lot of the infrastructure we ordered from the carriers at the end of February/beginning of March [wasn’t] going to be available to be online until sometime in the middle of August. It's pushed a whole bunch of merger and integration projects.”

Interestingly, few people reduced bandwidth or removed backups from their sites as a result of lockdowns. 

Of course, many are in long-term contracts that include penalties for shutting down service. It’s also likely that companies aren't yet making drastic changes to their sourcing, which tracks with the “wait-and-see” attitude many have taken toward long-term planning during the pandemic. 

However, one WAN manager from the business services industry noted that, with the economy in a downturn, getting rid of their MPLS backups was an obvious source of savings. 

While companies may not reduce bandwidth—especially as the general trend has been toward increasing bandwidth through the incorporation of cheaper DIA and broadband—we’ll be interested to see if companies change their real estate strategy in terms of opening offices with less office capacity or opening fewer offices now that remote work is a proven alternative. 

What’s Next for the WAN?

Rather than waiting on a return to normal, I think most WAN teams will take lessons learned from the rapid shift to working from home and continue creating a more flexible, remote-accessible WAN. 

Sure, there will be some industries that will return to the offices in full. But, undoubtedly, others have found that many roles can be partial or full-time remote while remaining effective. 

In my next post, I’ll be looking toward 2021 with these questions in mind:

  • Will we see a reduction in office space leasing as companies adjust their plans to long-term remote workers? And how will that affect total network spend?
  • How important will SD-WAN be with setting up internet-based, cloud-centric WAN that can be accessed anywhere?
  • Beyond remote access solutions, how will WAN managers approach the security requirements of an access-from anywhere, from any-device network? 


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Elizabeth Thorne

Elizabeth Thorne

Elizabeth Thorne is a Senior Research Analyst at TeleGeography. Her work is focused on enterprise network research.