Trends in collaboration technologies

Making predictions for anything in these Covid-defined times can leave even the most switched on feeling foolish

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While it may be strangely comforting that the only certainty at the moment is uncertainty, this doesn’t help businesses with the planning they need to do over the course of 2021. But one thing they can be assured of is that business will go on. It might be undertaken in a way that was not planned for even as recently as this time last year and by people who will be based in and out of office premises, but it will go on.

Yet even though the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has changed the way of work in ways no one could have foreseen, we are and will continue to be very much in the days of the hybrid workforce, with the flexible combination of remote and office-based working.

Remote working now is just working – the networks and the collaboration, conferencing and unified communications tools are here to support it. Now companies need to evolve management plans around them. And there is no turning back on this. With organisations shifting to more flexible working practices, the ability for colleagues to work together effectively and productively, no matter where they are, has made video conferencing and collaboration the bedrock of the modern organisation.

Before looking at the tools designed to enable effectiveness and productivity, it may be worth looking at the needs of the people who will use them and to what end they fit into the big picture of the new normal of work – and, somewhat counter-intuitively, invoke the ancient Greek scholars, specifically Aristotle.

The renowned philosopher might never have found himself being reminded to “unmute”, but his thoughts regarding how people function at their full potential – namely that humans are essentially social creatures and need to be around people and feel a sense of community – are as true now as they were thousands of years ago. It’s tempting to wonder what Aristotle would make of Zoom calls in the new normal of work, where video conferencing is utterly intrinsic to the working lives of people, wherever they are.

Remote working losing its appeal

But “wherever” people maintain that Aristotelian sense of community, it is not just because it is where they want to be, but where they must be.

But where do they want to be? In its Finding a new balance study from late 2020, collaboration technology firm Barco found only 15% of employees want to continue working from home full-time after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

It also seems that the novelty of working from home has worn off, with nearly half of those surveyed saying they enjoy working from home less now than they did at the start of the pandemic. They cite challenges in collaborating with colleagues, struggling to contribute to meetings and missing the social side of office life as their main reasons for wanting to return to the office.

Many people admit to missing office social life and finding it harder to collaborate when working remotely

Nearly two-fifths (37%) miss office social life and find it harder to collaborate when working remotely. Almost three in 10 are finding it hard to contribute to meetings, while 28% admit to being easily distracted at home. Barco found it somewhat surprising that employees are starkly opposed to the idea of spending more time in satellite offices or co-working spaces – a trend that many have predicted will result from the pandemic.

Looking at how people would like to work, the Barco study found that employees envisage a hybrid workplace model, where most of their time is spent in the office but they have the flexibility and freedom to work from home when it works best for them or suits the type of work they need to do. The survey found that the ideal balance, on average globally, is three days in the office, with a maximum of two days a week working remotely.

The investment most desired by employees is for better video-conferencing technologies, which a third of the sample name as an investment priority. There is significant demand from workers for their employers to invest in better facilities, particularly technologies, to enable this hybrid working balance.

Better support for hybrid working

Such thinking was also revealed in a study by Sony Professional Solutions (SPS), which reflects a need for employers to better plan their future workplace as hybrid working becomes standard. Only a fifth of the workers sampled by the technology firm feel that their employers are fully prepared to support this model after the pandemic.

Overall, the SPS survey found that since the first lockdown in March 2020, just over half of office workers feel employers could have done more to support remote working, with just 30% feeling completely supported. Nearly three-quarters of workers expect to work remotely at least one day a week after the pandemic, with almost two-thirds expecting to work from home for at least two days. 

Seeing the compelling evidence that supporting the home office is essential, and while it expects businesses to come pouring in with new ideas around home offices, Sony Professional Solutions observes that remote workplaces have a long way to go to be optimised for productivity, health and the ability to monitor employee work to improve collaboration. Moreover, it says that, already a growing market before the pandemic, collaboration technologies have become critical for businesses. With fewer people being able to interact in person, innovation and productivity will rely on effective collaboration technology.

Yet the report cautions that even though the critical virtual conference platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and others, have earned their established place in the modern work environment, there is a gap between in-person social stimulation and virtual interactions. As a result, says SPS, finding ways to make people feel connected and satisfied socially will be a key focus for businesses. Aristotle again perhaps. 

SPS admits that, at present, it is difficult to predict if the meeting room market will grow because some companies may downsize their real estate footprints to reduce costs. It is more confident that the design of meeting rooms will become more important and that this means communication and collaboration technology will grow in select areas. These include cameras for conferencing, displays for presentations and conferencing, wireless presentation and new technology for more creative collaboration.

Culture and connectivity considerations

But effective collaboration won’t just be a function of how many cutting-edge video tools are placed in the hands of workers. Gaining the best from people will need a lot more than that. Employers will need to look at who is in their workforce and how they want to communicate, taking into consideration culture in addition to cameras and connectivity. 

At the end of 2020, networking and communications technology giant Cisco undertook a significant refresh of its collaboration portfolio, noting that to address the needs of businesses adopting the new normal of a hybrid workforce, it had to introduce a product with markedly different technical and cultural demands than seen previously.

Putting the move into perspective, Cisco says the company’s purpose is to power an “inclusive future” where collaboration technology plays a critical role in levelling the playing field in the new normal so everyone is able to participate in the global economy, regardless of geography, language and personality type.

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The collaboration tools are centred around a hub facilitating people-focused features such as noise cancellation and speech enhancement – automatically detecting and suppressing common noises so meeting attendees can concentrate, and offering transcriptions and closed captioning to remove the need for extensive note-taking. Users can call specific team members into a spontaneous meeting with a single click and the suite offers localised, real-time transcription of an active speaker, available in 10 languages.

Later this year, the collaboration suite is slated to offer immersive sharing to enable users to share presentations, videos or applications as a dynamic background with video overlaid. This will also support in-meeting gesture recognition, which, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), can translate very localised signals into something recognisable by all those partaking in the meeting, no matter their cultural origin, preferences or their own knowledge. In short, workers can be around people anywhere in the world and feel a sense of community.

Prepare for the unexpected

The tools to support this sense of community are readily available, as are the global networks that will support them.

In its fifth annual IT survey, The future of enterprise networking and security: Are you ready for the next leap?, secure access service edge (SASE) platform provider Cato Networks surveyed 2,376 IT leaders to provide detailed insight into how IT organisations have responded to the pandemic and their plans for 2021.

One of the more interesting findings was that connecting the massed ranks of remote workers often came at the expense of other factors such as performance and management. The overwhelming majority of respondents (81%) expect to continue working from home, meaning that companies need to address certain areas, such as evolving remote access architectures to protect the remote workforce without compromising the user experience.

“The true test for any enterprise network is how easily it accommodates the unexpected. The right architecture helps IT avoid spending long hours and significant budgets responding to a sudden shift in business requirements,” says Cato CEO and co-founder Shlomo Kramer, commenting on the survey.

He adds that firms need to have the infrastructure to adapt dynamically to whatever comes next. Whatever next is, it will mean making sure workers can collaborate with a sense of community. Aristotle has not left the meeting.

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