Offices around the world are going through a change. The 9-5pm, 40-hour a week practice has been replaced with a more flexible format, embracing the need for remote working and collaboration to suit the requirements of the employer and workforce. How are companies preparing for the return of their employees and rethinking their organisation around hybrid home/office work?
What is certain is that during these months of confinement, many have complained about a lack of fluidity in their video conferences, blaming poor connections or software without necessarily thinking about the sound configuration.
Meetings that are hampered by audio issues can have a detrimental effect on a business, from basic problems such as employees being unable to carry out tasks, poor communication between departments and loss of company time rescheduling meetings that have broken down.
Poor audio can also have a direct and damaging effect on our emotional wellbeing; participants in a meeting who have to strain to understand a bad video conferencing call or presentation will grow frustrated and tired and will lose interest in the subject matter more quickly than the same participants in an environment where the audio is clear and concise.
Screen breaks are commonplace within many organisations, with some offering training and advice to reduce the stress and fatigue caused by staring at a screen. But what about organisational training on good sound? This aspect of our emotional wellbeing is left ignored in many organisations.
A recent study published in the Science Communication journal led by Eryn Newman from the University of Southern California and Norbert Schwarz from the Australian National University has provided interesting results, suggesting that good and bad audio can have even greater effects on the emotional wellbeing and reactions of the listener. The report revealed that high quality audio in presentations can actually make the participants perceive you as being more intelligent and makes them believe that the subject matter you’re communicating is more important than exactly the same presentation given by the same presenter only this time hampered by poor quality audio.
The results show a clear pattern – great sounding audio increases productivity, creates better engagement and has a positive effect on our emotional wellbeing.
“The report revealed that high quality audio in presentations can actually make the participants perceive you as being more intelligent and makes them believe that the subject matter you’re communicating is more important…”
Back to the ‘new’ workspace
As we come to terms with hybrid working post pandemic, many companies have taken the lead in presenting their new post-confinement work policy, employees will likely have to work from the office a few, if not several days a month. When they go to their workplace, it will no longer be for the sole purpose of reading their e-mails or carrying out their assignments, but rather to meet and collaborate with their co-workers and teams.
The space ratio will be in favour of medium size meeting rooms where colleagues can meet in a in person while adhering to social distancing guidelines. But of all the employees, how do you know how many will remain teleworking and how many will be face-to-face? Will everyone be in the office on the same day, and will those who work from home be able to socialise remotely with their colleagues on site?
For some organisations, especially those with international offices and a global client base, this ‘new’ way of collaboration was already part of the daily work process, with meeting rooms designed accordingly, providing acoustically treated spaces and AV systems that met the requirements needed to conduct business comfortably and effectively.
But for other, smaller organisations and those that focussed on the physical work environment and positive vibe of the workspace, the hybrid working model raises more questions than answers. Many quickly realised that investment was needed for flexible, user friendly AV systems that could meet the requirements of remote collaboration and internal discussions.
Organisations also had to give consideration to the office workspace plan to guarantee social distancing between desks, with small meeting spaces and the relatively recent trend for huddle rooms replaced with meetings conducted in bigger meeting rooms, between fewer employees, with more emphasis on remote collaboration.
From the employee’s perspective, simply turning on the laptop or desktop machine at home to collaborate was met with frustration as it quickly transpired that most, if not all, in-built microphones and camera technology was simply not professional nor adequate enough to cope with serious discussion and collaboration.
The prospect of deconfinement raises even more questions. There was no indication of such a situation, and the subject goes beyond the simple question of revising land-use plans. It is not so much a question of investing in meeting room equipment as of questioning the very vocation of the workspace and redefining collaborative modes, so as not to see the spread of frustrating meetings, which, in addition to being unpleasant for users, could lead to distorted decisions by giving the floor to some people more than others.
With the spread of teleworking, companies are moving towards a mixed telework/presence format. This model is problematic because it poses real challenges in terms of voice and collective intelligence.
In telework, you have to mute yourself to avoid parasitic noises, while your colleagues in the meeting room exchange, interact, joke, debate… So many emotions that need to be decoded, so many messages that need to be passed on without being distorted, so many frustrations that create inequalities between those who, on the screen, make a tapestry in the literal sense, and those who are present on site. Telework has changed relations between employees, but the divide should not be allowed to widen with the development of hybrid work. CIOs can no longer ignore audio, as the question is no longer whether their videoconferencing system is compatible with other systems, but whether their meeting room is compatible with systems used by employees, customers and suppliers.
Telework has changed relations between employees, but the divide should not be allowed to widen with the development of hybrid work.
Hybrid work: making the format right
Employees, in general, want to be able to use the systems they have at home to make their videoconferencing calls to the office, hence the success of the Teams, Zoom or BlueJeans platforms, allowing them to connect as easily as if they were at home.
However, the fact that video conferencing has become more practical by no longer being the exclusive preserve of boardrooms does not mean that it has gained in quality and productivity. And the Huddle Room trend, which has been popular, is no longer suited to the current situation, which has been turned upside down by the current distancing measures.
Pre-pandemic, there has always been a need within companies to conduct face-to-face meetings. It is not for nothing that most of them have allowed their employees to come back on site, two or three days a week, while maintaining teleworking. In this context, the logic of Bring-Your-Own-Meeting (BYOM) is very attractive: everyone can connect with their own PC without having to resort to traditional hardware systems. Gone are the 36,000 cables for audio, video, power, control, piloting, parameter setting, and de facto the technical interventions required due to untimely connection and disconnection problems.
All of these systems work perfectly, except when you have to meet up to 20 people, need a large space because of health restrictions, and can’t count on the boardroom occupied by the CEO.
Employees can still video conference using the camera and microphone of their PC, but in a room with 20 people, with 10 people spread out around the table with the required distances, it’s more complicated, because the only people the remote site will be able to hear will be those around the PC, not to mention the acoustic problems that will arise.
“However, the fact that video conferencing has become more practical by no longer being the exclusive preserve of boardrooms does not mean that it has gained in quality and productivity.”
Back to audio basics
Even before the health crisis, an Illuminas study conducted in the United States among 400 IT decision-makers highlighted that four out of five frustrations were related to audio, with background noise (51 percent) at the top of the list of concerns of the employees surveyed, ahead of technical difficulties (45 percent), sound echoes (43 percent), and hearing only part of the conversation (40 percent). Among them, senior managers reported spending significantly more time in videoconferencing, with 68 percent reporting problems encountered in the meeting room to the IT department at least once a week.
The first confinement survey then revealed disparities between colleagues who were isolated from the surrounding noise because they were equipped with a headset and a video conferencing microphone, on the one hand, and those who could only rely on their PC’s microphone at the cost of reverberation problems, on the other. This situation was all the more penalising since the meetings considered the most crucial for the activity remained those that were held most regularly by video, namely the collaborative work sessions and staff meetings.
The CIOs are already very much in demand with the upcoming reorganisation. They shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the explosion in the number of meetings requiring live or remote technical support; the return to the office must be smooth for everyone.
The most important thing is not to have studio quality, but for everyone to be able to understand each other – intelligibility comes first – and this requires a precise evaluation of the needs of the room, a thorough analysis of the sound system and a mastery of the audio system, which cannot be adjusted by ear. Contrary to the myth perpetuated in the world of audio-visual integration, audio is not an art, but a science.
No intelligibility without DSP
A microphone on its own is not enough to manage sound processing, you need intelligence and electronics behind it. Only DSP (Digital Signal Processing) can reduce unwanted noise and isolate the voices of those present, in order to improve intelligibility and rendering. In the end, whether it is integrated into a ceiling microphone, software or dedicated hardware, the DSP is an integral part of the room’s audio system, allowing this connection between the microphone and the codec. This is why today, one cannot certify a microphone for a Teams room without a DSP. Whatever the configuration of the room, the DSP will always save the investment of the DSI who, thanks to it, will be able to manage more and more diversity in the environment.
Employees have requested the need for a video conferencing system that works as simply as at home, however CIOs still need to prepare for this. With the migration of multimedia services to the IT department, CIOs must succeed in making the two networks – audio-visual and IT – cohabit within the company, taking into account a user experience that is evolving towards greater fluidity. The Holy Grail of AV lies in AV/IT convergence, and the DSP remains the last gateway enabling this connection, for a seamless and successful audio experience.
“Only DSP (Digital Signal Processing) can reduce unwanted noise and isolate the voices of those present, in order to improve intelligibility and rendering.”
As an audio manufacturer with a rich heritage in microphone technology spanning nearly 100 years, Shure has been leading the way forward by developing new AV systems to meet the fast-moving pace of change within the modern workspace, providing solutions that meet the requirements of the smart office environment. The Shure Audio Ecosystem includes the complete audio signal chain and provides integrators with a complete portfolio of award-winning product to complete installations, from microphone, DSP through to loudspeakers, certified and compatible with the most popular codecs and encrypted for assured security across networks.
Shure’s recent collaboration with leading camera manufacture Huddly has also seen us deliver a new set of networked system product bundles geared around simple deployment, intuitive operation and seamless compatibility with leading collaboration platforms.
However the modern workspace continues to evolve, Shure are committed to providing innovative and elegant AV solutions that continue to connect organisations efficiently and effectively.