Following the rapid spread of the pandemic around the world, perhaps the most surprising response has been the almost universal response among vendors of hybrid working as a solution and the deployment of a narrow set of tools for new ways of working. In this ‘workplace special’, AV News and a panel of experts consider the ways in which technologists have addressed the challenges presented by hybrid working, the potential solutions and the questions that remain unanswered.
Simon Hayes is the Meeting Space and Collaboration Specialist at Sharp NEC Display Solutions. Looking back to the origins of the current crisis he is genuinely astonished at the rate of change. “When businesses were thrust into the unknown, the agile workflows of the future that we all talked about so longingly suddenly came into view. 10 years of transformation happened in a matter of months, yet despite the disruption, businesses found they continued to function.”
“Technology can take enormous credit in this success, enabling the workforce to operate remotely whilst IT/AV teams worked miracles managing the complex issues around security and infrastructure. Against the odds, it worked, and now for many, there is no going back, the world has changed.”
Whilst the 2020 work-from-home scenario was forced upon us, the post-covid re-emergence is offering exciting opportunities to reimagine the world of work. How companies will shape this new world remains to be seen and will hinge upon how their culture has, and will continue to, evolve. Allowing the workforce to work from home was for many companies an uncomfortable scenario – empowering employees requires a level of trust and empathy.
Only by rethinking the meaning of productivity, and understanding that it is inextricably linked to well-being, can businesses truly evolve and embrace new opportunities for success. Investing to provide the tools and means to support the human workforce becomes a simple ROI calculation – the compassionate employer will maximise yield.
While some young, dynamic companies may have already adopted a flexible work pattern, fully aware of what today’s new talent are seeking. More established, traditional companies will find the transition more challenging, yet most are accepting of the inevitability. There is no one size fits all, in working toward redefining their corporate culture, each organisation must set out their expectations within an entirely transparent framework enabling both employer and employee to fully understand their responsibilities and what they should expect from one another.
In an attempt to gain solace from familiar KPIs, some employers are attempting to measure productivity by counting the number of zoom calls undertaken. This is no more than a simple extension of counting the number of hours spent in the office and can be equally misleading. To attract and retain the best people it is necessary to show them trust and empathy, empowering staff to best manage their own work patterns. Showing trust is an excellent measure a manager’s capabilities.
If you employed someone because you believed in their capacity to fulfil the remit you defined, now you need to let them get on with the job. As organisations redefine productivity to fit an evolving corporate culture, this must permeate the entire organisation from senior management to line mangers and beyond.
The period of enforced home working allowed more time to attend to focused tasks and respond quickly to emails, phone calls and video meeting invites – your clients and co-workers knew where you were. This has raised expectations to a level which is now unsustainable as people gain the freedom to travel and visit clients. It can, once again. take several days before workers can catch up with emails and those tasks that need focused time will have to wait.
Empowering employees must not be interpreted as abandoning them; when working outside of the traditional office space, organisations remain responsible for the well-being of their workforce and should provide all the support and the tools they need to maintain a working style in rhythm with their personal circumstances.
Intrusion on family life
There is no doubt however that the lockdown period was a great cause of stress, especially for those who had to juggle work and home schooling or caring for very young children. Whilst home schooling will, hopefully, be consigned to the past, home working will continue to intrude on family life, potentially taking up some of the family space.
Everyone’s situation is different, some may be able to dedicate a spare room or have potential for a garden office; but organisations need to be aware that junior workers are unlikely to have this luxury. A small studio flat is not conducive, especially when shared with a similarly home-working partner.
Flexible workflows will enable workers to coordinate their home-based work time around other family members, making use of local serviced office space or community work hubs as needed, or travelling to client premises or the office as and when it suits.
Dealing with isolation
Even for those for whom it whom it is successful, homeworking can be very isolating. Workers could potentially go all day without interacting with anyone. There could be a temptation to spend longer ‘at work’, to the detriment of their physical and mental well-being. The social element is vital, yet it need not be at the office. A half day working in the local coffee shop, or a community work hub, will provide a refreshing change of scene and essential human interaction.
Travel time between the office and home is time for mindful reflection, or ‘me-time’; an opportunity to transition between work-mode and home-mode. Without this defining boundary, it becomes hard to switch off from work, or give enough of yourself to the family, or make time for relaxation. Many workers wish to return to the office to reinstate this boundary which is important for a harmonious work/life balance.
There is no one size fits all. Every organisation is different, every employee is different, and every scenario is different. Knowing what each scenario requires, and what tools are needed, demands a bespoke approach, and one which involves all parties. Working to identify the perfect-fit solution is a journey and it is vital that the user is closely involved.
Workplace solutions: getting the right mix!
(2) Hardware solutions
Stijn Ooms is the director of product strategy AV & digital workplace. at Crestron. and understandably advocates Crestron Flex as the heart of a collaboration solution. With Crestron Flex, users can walk into any meeting space confident they’ll have the best audio/video experience with access to video conferencing, wireless presentation and smart room control from any device.
“Crestron Flex is flexible in every way. Not just in solutions for every size of room, but for every platform as it offers native functionality for Microsoft Teams, Zoom and supports BYOC (bring your own codec) for all other platforms using the audio and video infrastructure of the room.”
“Video conferencing, content sharing, scheduling, management, support integrated into one platform with one singular goal. Crestron Flex truly helps collaborating at its best, giving the same user experience and reliability wherever the user is.”
COVID-19 has forced everyone to embrace change, changing the adoption rate for video collaboration solutions from a slow ramp to a hockey stick. Up until recently, in the western world approximately 20% of the companies invested in video collaboration platforms. The crisis has changed that. In the last year and a half, the adoption rate has gone through the roof. All of us are gaining experience with, and a growing appreciation for, the tools that allow a new way of working.
There is also a lot of focus on safety when returning to the office. From people counting and alerts when there are too many people in the room, over occupancy sensors and touchless meetings, to remote support and remote control of virtual conferencing systems, are things that already existed, but we see that the adoption rate is picking up tremendously amongst all generations.
Internet of Things
“At Crestron, we have extensive experience with remote control and management through XiO Cloud, an Internet of Things (IoT) based platform that enables you to remotely provision, monitor, and manage devices across an enterprise or an entire client base. XiO Cloud services facilitate daily management and monitoring of every device through a single dashboard with comprehensive reporting and logging, live status viewing and alerts, performance metrics and analytics, scheduled actions and updates, people counting, and more.”
“As requirements grow and evolve, new features and functionality can be added easily to one or many devices at any time without ever going on-site. The addition of remote desktop capability empowers technology managers to provide better and faster support via the timesaving IoT-based provisioning service. If a company for instance supplies their colleagues with a Crestron Flex Phone or Crestron UC-MM30R for their home office, they automatically reach out to XiO Cloud, so IT can monitor, update and patch without the need to pay every hybrid or remote worker a home visit”.
People who are working from home should always be reminded that they are not on the corporate network. Home network security often doesn’t meet the more stringent policies of companies. There will be other non-corporate devices on the network. “Home workers should make sure that their home router is up to date and their network connection (more typically Wi-Fi at home) is properly secured.”
Besides that, our Internet of Things (IoT) based platform XiO Cloud enables the IT team to patch and update connected technology used in the (home) office, so vulnerabilities are closed as soon as possible without the need to go on site.
Research by Microsoft, and others. on the new future of work, shows that audio is king, but video conveys social presence. That can only be done when the network quality is reliable and robust. “Let’s take healthcare as an example. We’ve all seen the robot surgeries, and the remote consultations. If you remain in the same building, working on the standard 1Gb network infrastructure with a reliable connection, it’s entirely possible to perform a medical operation from a computer stationed in a different room, or consult with a specialist in another part of the hospital.”
“But if you want to perform a remote operation from another side of the country or globe, stabile 5G adoption is a must, everywhere around the globe. You need a 100% guarantee that your network is reliable and stable, because latency could literally mean the difference between life and death in these cases. And in reality, that is often not the case. Remote parts of the country have no decent coverage, or buildings are made out of too much concrete and steel to allow for a reliable wireless connection.”
“We see an increasing demand for and use of productivity and workplace apps, that help with, for instance, desk booking, room booking, adhering to social distancing guidelines or showing floor plans. Employees use them to book a desk or room when they have a meeting planned. Because of the rise of flex desk, but also because the rise of hybrid work means that meeting rooms with video conferencing technologies are in demand.
“Companies often combine those tools with smart room management, based on sensors. Hybrid workforce means that you don’t know in advance where people will be (remote, in the office, traveling?), so you need a very intelligent way to manage the rooms in your office, so you can release rooms when nobody enters as real estate takes a good chunk out of the companies’ budgets.”
“We are expecting some exciting technology in the meeting space that Crestron will support to better mimic what we were able to get when we were at home. By providing individual and/or specific video framing for all participants, whether at home or one of six people in a conference room, we can provide everyone the same first-class experience as we got from our home offices and our kitchens”.
“Remote people are no longer second-class participants in the meeting. When you get cropped by an intelligent camera that zooms in on your face, you are more present than the six other people that are physically in the meeting room. Your body language is more visible instead of less, and usually the display showing the remote participant(s) is in the centre of the room. Soon, we will be able to streamline the experience and your presence, no matter where you are.”
Designing the hybrid workflow
According to a recent survey from McKinsey & Company, nine out of ten executives envision a hybrid model going forward. The notion that all employees must be in the office is now a thing of the past. If an employee can effectively perform his or her job responsibilities at home and are equipped with the right WFH solutions, companies are allowing them to work in a hybrid or fully remote capacity.
Gauging both the comfort level and performance of workers helps companies determine the best workplace strategy and arrangement moving forward. The office and the technology they implement must drive purpose for employees to come into the office and be able to support them wherever they may be. The solutions need to create a unified and desirable workplace experience, as well as help executives make intelligent workplace decisions down the road.
“Covid-19 has accelerated a change that was already ongoing – the one towards activity-based work, where people decide where they work based on the type of work they have to do. But the office did not become irrelevant. Face-to-face contact with colleagues increases our effectiveness and is essential for our mental health. The workplace is also critical to innovation. Being together physically is so much more effective to stimulate thinking. That said, offices have to offer added value in order to convince employees to come back and it is interesting to see the different approaches companies are taking.”
Pandemic technology has become not just parallel to our working lives, but fully integrated. Pre-pandemic, technology lived very parallel to our working lives. We had a separate, dedicated phone that we would use to call colleagues and partners, had a conference room for meetings, and a desk to work from. Now, the modern workplace lets you do all of that wherever you want. It has blended everything and integrated technology everywhere so you can work from anywhere.
With Crestron Flex, users can walk into any meeting space confident they’ll have the best audio/video experience with access to video conferencing, wireless presentation and smart room control from any device.
(3) Software solutions
Nicole Corbin is director of product and user experience at Utelogy Global. She is tasked with providing clients with solutions that are both reliable and easy to use – particularly by user groups that are not universally expert in their use of technology.
“Solutions that put user experience in the forefront and make everybody feel like a “first-class participant” are those that are the easiest to use. They have a straightforward or customisable UI, robust features, comprehensive user guides, and exceptional support teams to help answer any questions that may arise.”
“Microsoft and Zoom have done a great job of enhancing engagement, particularly with their user interfaces. Both have also expanded their technology ecosystems with Microsoft developing its Office 365 suite and the Zoom H.323 protocol-based Room Connector solution allowing integrated cloud-based meeting control for larger audiences and across multiple devices.”
Advancements like these will be key drivers for merging the in-office and hybrid/remote collaboration experiences. People now just want to connect from any location, and the seamless transition from handheld devices to the meeting room is critical.
While some degree of certainty can now be factored into an employer’s planning and execution, the ROI remains a significant factor. “Hybrid workspaces with larger collaboration areas will be the new norm. AV/IT managers will need to replace old, outdated hardware and equip these newly designed spaces with collaboration systems that are cost-effective, user friendly and easy to control. A new system must also offer features that make collaboration simple whether it’s at the office or from the home.”
“Choosing a new system is greatly dependent on which UC platform their workplace has settled on and their employees’ needs. Standardising across all locations and choosing a system that has a robust API and security features will make it easy to maintain, easy to adopt, and will give management platforms greater business insights through meaningful analytics. Above all, standardisation helps AV/IT managers keep operations running smoothly and greatly reduce meeting downtime.”
Based on recent workplace surveys conducted by Gensler, there is a high degree of confidence that remote/hybrid work practices are productive, but not for everything. Across the board employees prefer, and have more productivity doing tasks such as reading, writing, and individual projects from the comfort of their own home. However, when it comes to doing large group projects, training, or professional development, these same individuals do not have the same success at home as they do face-to-face.
“There is still a need for that interaction and in-person feedback that anybody who is fully remote isn’t getting. With a hybrid model employees can get the best of both worlds by remaining productive while working on the individual tasks and getting valuable feedback, mentoring, and coaching when they go into the office to meet with their team and managers.”
ROI is heavily dependent on the extent to which the intended users of a piece of technology actually buy-in. This is, in turn, dependent on support and training. “Organisations should continue providing regular training on technologies and collaborative platforms for remote workers. Virtual training including webinars and videos ensure that remote workers feel supported and part of a collaborative culture. Live video conferencing and using communication tools like Skype, Zoom and Teams emulates effective, regular communication and the closest feeling to office environments such as 1:1 and huddle room meetings.”
“To have these support methods be effective, managers should reach out to all their employees to make sure they are feeling valued and heard if they are remote and unable to physically be with their team members. This is typically easier if everybody in a team is remote because employees don’t feel like they are missing out on work activities, lunches, and coffee break chats.”
Security has become a real bugbear for employers forced to give their workers a much greater degree of independence of late. “Security challenges such as data leaks, malware, unsecured networks, etc. are nothing new to an enterprise, however, they may have become more prominent during this shift of remote working. The IT department should already be well versed in the importance of implementing MFA, SSO, VPNs, and MDM, keeping device software up-to-date, and setting stringent password protocols.”
“If these were not already enforced, now is the time to do so. With people coming and going from the office or permanently working from home, home networks – or even Wi-Fi from your local coffee shop – are not nearly as secure as the office.”
“With remote work being the “new norm” it will be important to add some additional protocols to your business’s security policies as well. These are things that were never considered by most companies before having a hybrid and remote working environment. A few recommendations would be to make sure all employees lock their screens before leaving their work area (this should also be done within an office setting), use headphones on calls if they are not alone, keep a tidy workspace, dress appropriately if on video and ensure they have access to adequate Wi-Fi. These recommendations not only help with security threats but will also mitigate threats on a company’s image and brand reputation.”
“A work-life balance is an important aspect of a healthy work environment and happy employees. Companies can establish and implement specific work-life practices within their organisation to increase staff retention, productivity, and morale.”
“The integration of UC and AV solutions in the workspace means that staff can perform their tasks productively and collaborate with their team members without the need to be in the office full-time. A good starting point is for organisations to conduct a survey to gather insights into what factors are important to staff to improve their work-life balance and experience. Common practices can include managers focusing on productivity rather than hours, maintaining flexible and remote working and investing in the right UC and AV tools.”
Return to the office
Organisations are navigating their way back to “business as usual” and staff returning to the workplace after lockdown are expecting their companies to help them get back to work safely and maintain best practises. “There will however be things we’ve become accustomed to as a society since the pandemic that will morph into the new “business as usual”; including the desire for hybrid and flexible schedules, proper sanitisation and safety procedures, as well as the implementation of the latest conferencing and collaboration platforms.”
“Workspaces moving forward should be designed with the hybrid work model in place. If the company will allow for a more flexible environment, they should poll their employees to gain a better understanding of who would want to return full time or who would want to be partially remote post-pandemic. This will ensure any design that takes place before it is Covid-safe will account for the future as well.”
Designing the new workplace
“Even though collaborative technology has been around for over 20 years, it hasn’t been needed in the same way since COVID hit. Remote working certainly was not the norm pre-2020 meaning most people collaborated together in a conference room talking face-to-face. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until all of this was taken away from us that we were able to realise the true benefits of collaborative technology.”
“If it wasn’t for video conferencing platforms, digital whiteboards, or a variety of other chat tools, companies or employees never would have been able to be productive during the pandemic. The current limiting factors in any workspace are making sure measurements for social distancing are in effect as well as proper sanitation protocols and making sure everybody has access to the proper technology for work productivity and learning equality.”
While studies show over 70% of people are excited to have office buildings open back up, they expect to be able to have a hybrid work schedule where they can work from their home office at least two days a week if not more. “IT, MSPs, and support staff must stay vigilant in seeking out technology that enables their workers to have a first-class inclusive experience, regardless if they are on-site five days a week or have a hybrid schedule.”
“Video conferencing has allowed people to communicate from anywhere in the world, regardless of whether you are in a work environment or if it’s to talk with distant family and friends. Video conferencing solutions such as Zoom, Teams, and Meet were the only way a lot of us got through the pandemic, otherwise, we would have been stranded in our homes feeling completely isolated from others. Face-to-face communication and collaboration is how we thrive as a society, whether it be physical or virtual.”
“With that said, I can only see the future of the video conferencing industry improving year after year with more features, refined user experience, an affordable price point, and quality video and audio streaming. With the ability to integrate the APIs from these UC software solutions and the AV hardware they use in-office with remote management tools and ITSM platforms, there is no limit to where these systems are deployed.”
“The ability to remotely manage video conferencing technology allows companies to employ people from all around the globe to help support their AV and UC estate virtually. Out with the old way of spending tens of thousands of pounds to outfit a conferencing room solution that limits innovations and in with the new technology that supports virtual and in-person collaboration to boost productivity and employee satisfaction.”
“It’s important for businesses to have a cohesive collaboration suite and process based on the tools needed for their employees to be successful. There is nothing worse than having a broken process for communication and collaboration. Not all tools will be able to seamlessly integrate with one another and not all companies can afford the top-of-the-line solutions, however, they can work with their employees, so everybody is on the same page.”
“If the preferred method to writing documents is through Microsoft Word, everybody who needs one should be equipped with the license and understand how to properly use it. If the preferred method to create spreadsheets at a company is with Google sheets to make it easier to collaborate, everybody should be informed of the process and held to that standard. This ensures having a cohesive collaborative workflow, regardless of whether the employee is remote or on-site.”