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Three approaches to remote collaboration for home workers

The coronavirus has led to working from home being the ‘new norm’. We look at how collaboration technologies could work in the long term

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Businesses have accepted that the workplace will never be the same again. In November 2020, McKinsey assessed the state of remote working and reported that hybrid models of remote work are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic, mostly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce.

According to the authors of the McKinsey paper, more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if they were working from an office. And the UK appears to be leading the way. McKinsey reported that in the UK, between 33% and 46% of work time could be spent working remotely.

The challenge that industry leaders see is: how can employees collaborate effectively and engage with their employer if they are only spending a proportion of their time in the office environment? When they are at home, how do they collaborate with people in the office or front-line staff?

Although video conferencing has taken off since the pandemic began, the people Computer Weekly spoke to felt that live video conferencing was also becoming tedious. There is also strong evidence that people are not fully focused on the discussion when participating in conference calls.

1. Capturing the watercooler moment

There are a number of software platforms that offer a way for employees to collaborate and share knowledge. One of these is Workplace from Facebook.

Discussing what he has seen over the past 10 months during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ujjwal Singh, head of product at Workplace from Facebook, says: “We have constantly heard that instead of Workplace being a place where you talk about work, it’s a place where you get work done, particularly when you have to collaborate with someone else.”

“We have constantly heard that instead of Workplace being a place where you talk about work, it’s a place where you get work done, particularly when you have to collaborate with someone else”
Ujjwal Singh, Workplace from Facebook

One of the key features of a real office that Workplace from Facebook attempts to emulate is the so-called watercooler moment – the informal exchanges of knowledge and knowhow that occur in spaces such as communal kitchens, coffee machines and watercoolers.

“It’s not just about desk workers and those with email,” says Singh. “It’s also about front-line workers who may just be on a mobile phone.”

For instance, Singh says the platform makes it easier for shift workers to swap their shifts. One of Workplace from Facebook’s customers, Honest Burgers, built chatbots to support its furloughed staff and provided information via the platform to help them reskill.

Speaking about his own experiences of remote working, Singh admits that video conferencing takes its toll on concentration. “I had a day with 18 meetings, all on video. I don’t remember the meetings,” he says.

One of the areas Workplace from Facebook is looking to address is how to reduce video fatigue and enable presence and connection without making people feel it is a drain. “We are exploring how to balance asynchronous and synchronous communications and leverage modalities other than the webcam, to avoid people feeling like they are constantly presenting,” says Singh.

2. Augmented reality for the front line

Zaid Laftah is a vice-president for risk engineering at Marsh & McLennan, based at the company’s engineering hub in Dubai. Working with oil and gas companies, he says the role of risk engineers is to conduct an on-site risk assessment at a site such as an oil refinery, to produce a risk profile report.

“A risk engineer visits a site and spends a week there, to provide an overview of the hardware, management systems and emergency response,” he says. “We then provide a report to the insurance industry.”

Along with Marsh & McLennan’s team, insurers have their own team of engineers for risk assessments. A large facility will often be insured by several firms, but usually, just the lead insurer’s team and the risk engineer from Marsh & McLennan would be given access to the site. 

The Dubai hub employs 20 risk engineers to cover 200 sites a year. Because of Covid-19 travel restrictions in March 2020, Marsh & McLennan needed to reassess how it conducted site visits. “We started to use Zoom, [Microsoft] Teams, [Cisco] Webex and designed virtual surveys utilising video conferencing and document sharing,” says Laftah. “To date, we have done 450 virtual surveys.”

The virtual survey also involves a series of discussions with site employees covering various on-site teams. “Previously, these were conducted in a meeting room on-site, but we also toured the facility,” adds Laftah.

The missing piece of the virtual survey is that the risk engineer is not physically on-site. “You use five senses when you do a survey, but to reduce the risk of infection, the sites have not opened their doors to visitors unless it is essential,” says Laftah.

The approach Marsh & McLennan has taken to provide real site visits is by using an augmented reality (AR) headset to live stream video and audio from an on-site engineer. The engineer is shipped the headset and receives training on how to use it and is then asked to walk around the facility to enable the remote risk engineering team at Marsh & McLennan, along with risk assessment engineers from insurance companies, to watch a live video stream, seeing what the on-site engineer sees.

There are a number of headsets on the market, but Marsh & McLennan required one that was intrinsically safe so it could be deployed in locations such as oil refineries.

Explaining the company’s choice of headset, Laftah says: “From a health and safety point of view, we recognised that the AR headset we required would need to be hands-free and meet industry safety requirements. After reviewing a number of devices, we decided on the voice-enabled RealWear HMT-1Z1 headset.”

This device requires a network connection, so the Ecom Smart-Ex 02 DV1 intrinsically safe rugged smartphone is used to provide internet access.

From a software perspective, Laftah describes the headset as being rather like an Android tablet, in that it offers Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex video-conferencing support. The headset has three microphones and noise cancellation to filter out background noise.

To meet the intrinsically safe requirement, the battery on the HMT-1Z1 cannot swap out. Laftah says it provides enough power for four hours. 

Asked whether the headset will continue to be used after the pandemic, he says: “I am not rushing to spend 200 days on the road.”

When run virtually, a site survey is no longer restricted to the on-site risk engineers. There are also opportunities to enhance virtual surveys with the AR headset in areas of the world where there are travel restrictions, such as Yemen, parts of Pakistan, and Iraq.

3. Using virtual reality to improve participation

Oliver Lingwood-Craddock, CEO at The Supper Club, recently ran the organisation’s first event based on using virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“VR is not a gimmick. I was blown away by its incredible effectiveness for collaboration”
Oliver Lingwood-Craddock, The Supper Club

The event, hosted on the Gemba VR platform by Nathan Robinson, CEO of VR learning company The Leadership Network, was used to showcase how virtual world environments can be used to communicate and collaborate in the post-Covid, post-Brexit world. 

Discussing his experience of using the Oculus virtual reality headset, Lingwood-Craddock says: “VR is not a gimmick. I was blown away by its incredible effectiveness for collaboration.”

In the virtual world, people are represented as avatars. “They are pixels, but they are humanised,” he adds. “It is surprising how you engage with them.”

The Gemba virtual platform hosts an auditorium. It has breakout rooms and whiteboards, which enable people to work in three dimensions and a social space. Lingwood-Craddock believes such virtual worlds have the potential to enable genuine collaboration, where people are 100% engaged in the discussion. 

Remote working in the long term

There are many people who believe Covid-19 has changed the world forever. The pandemic forced many businesses to make their workforce instantly remote, says Alan Warr, chair of the consultancy specialist group at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. “Global organisations are not expecting to go back to normal now that the remote working genie has been let out of the bottle,” he says.

Over the past few years, there has been underlying pressure to allow staff to work remotely maybe one day a week. “But it was inconceivable we could have achieved that level of transformation,” says Carr.

“Global organisations are not expecting to go back to normal now that the remote working genie has been let out of the bottle”
Alan Warr, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

One of the unexpected outcomes to arise from the coronavirus is that it has led to a dramatic shift in expectations. What will post-pandemic work patterns look like? According to McKinsey, more employers are seeing somewhat better productivity from their remote workers.

Now that people have experienced almost a year of flexible working, if they are indeed more productive, then remote working should not be seen merely as a stopgap until offices reopen. For Carr, it offers businesses the potential to do things that were far more difficult to achieve before the pandemic. “Globally, remote working has interesting dimensions as it enables businesses to bring in experts from different parts of the world very quickly,” he says.

The technology is getting better and people will need reliable home broadband connectivity. But for Carr, the biggest challenge is in changing how line managers and supervisors manage their teams.

Read more about remote collaboration

  • As workplaces increasingly pivot to virtual presence and digital collaboration, how can we stay connected?
  • Dutch bank ABN Amro is selling its head office and redesigning another facility to facilitate increased home working.

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