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Cisco: Hybrid work needs to get better

Cisco’s head of collaboration and security talks up the state of hybrid work and calls for organisations to create magnets rather than mandates for workers to collaborate in the workplace

More organisations are adopting hybrid work across the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region but the experience for many workers is less than ideal, according to a senior Cisco executive.

Speaking to Computer Weekly on a recent visit to Singapore, Jeetu Patel, executive vice-president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, said with most meetings having at least one remote participant, spaces will need to be configured not only for people in a physical meeting room, but also for those who are not in the room.

“Today, if you have four people in a conference room and three people who are not in the room, the experience for the three people is not that great because what happens is someone invariably gets up and starts drawing on a whiteboard.

“They wouldn’t know what’s going on and won’t be able to read the facial expressions and non-verbal cues of those in the room. That’s such an important part of communication,” he said.

Patel said Cisco has been working on solving that problem for the past 18 months to make sure hybrid work arrangements will give everyone in a meeting, whether they are participating virtually or in person, a seat at the table.

This can be done through its artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that work behind the scenes to remove background noise and zoom in on everyone in the room, in addition to digital whiteboards that meeting participants can use to jot down or edit content during a meeting.

“We want to make sure our AI capabilities can take the experience to the next level. We started with predictive AI, and now, with generative AI, it gets even better. If you missed a meeting, we could tell you what you missed based on the permissions you had on the meetings you could have attended but chose not to,” Patel said.

While organisations in APAC have been progressive in adopting hybrid work arrangements, Patel cautioned them against making the mistake of mandating that employees work in the office all the time.

“It’s much better to create a magnet than a mandate,” he said. “Give people a reason to come back to the office because when they collaborate in the office, there’s going to be this X factor that they don’t get when they are 100% remote.”

Patel said adopting hybrid work would also help organisations recruit the best talent from anywhere in the world, enabling more people to participate equally in a global economy.

“The opportunity is very unevenly distributed right now, but human potential is pretty evenly distributed, so it would be nice if anyone in a village in Bangladesh can have the same economic opportunity as someone in Silicon Valley.

“Most of the time, the mindset is that you are distance-bound, so if you don’t happen to be in the same geography, then you don’t have access to opportunity. That’s a very archaic way of thinking and we need to think about this in a much more progressive manner,” he said.

But societal changes are needed to maximise the potential of a hybrid workforce. For one thing, business leaders will have to learn how to build relationships with people without meeting them in person.

“A 30-minute video conference is usually very structured. There’s an agenda and an end. If no one’s talking after 23 minutes, someone will invariably say we can give you back seven minutes. That always happens.

“But when you have dinner with someone – if there’s a lull, you don’t just say you’re going to leave. You’ll ask about that person’s family or whatever it might be. Those questions give you context and texture about the person, which creates familiarity and the ability to engage in debate without taking things personally. And conflict is such a necessary condition of business that if you don’t have that familiarity, it doesn’t work.”

Enabling hybrid work also brings with it a set of security considerations. Patel said while there is an implicit level of trust between people about who they are when they are engaged in a face-to-face conversation, that trust needs to be present in a hybrid work environment as well.

“How do you prevent deep fakes from coming into a meeting? How do you make sure your private data does not get stolen? How do you create security conditions so that people can use the systems without worrying about being hacked?

“Those are the baseline security capabilities that you need in any hybrid work solution. I would take it a step further and say that in the future, the absence of security will completely deter anyone from using a system,” he said.

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