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Cisco Primes Webex For The Challenges Of Hybrid Work

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Image: Lisa Schmeiser
Enterprise Connect is back! One of the highlights I always look forward to are the keynotes, particularly Cisco’s as the speakers generally —but not always — deliver a good mix of vision and product. This year, Collaboration and Contact Center General Manager, Javed Khan, took the stage with appearances by SVP and GM Snorre Kjesbu and VP and GM of Cisco Calling, Lorrissa Horton, to discuss the upcoming wave of hybrid work, the problems companies might face, and how Webex has been evolved to meet those challenges.
 
Hybrid work is a fascinating topic as businesses have never faced a scenario like this before. Companies have to plan for scenarios where everyone is in the office, no one is in the office and every combination in between. It’s a confusing time, and many organizations I have interviewed are currently in the process of figuring out exactly what the next wave of work looks like and are struggling with implementing a plan. In fact, I have gone on record stating the first wave of hybrid work will be a disaster as it’s significantly more complicated than work from home. However, businesses are moving forward with it as my research shows that 51% of employees will continue to work from home two or three days a week, and 24% of employees will work at home one day a week, meaning a total of 75% of the workforce will be hybrid.
 
During his keynote, Khan did an excellent job setting the stage, talking about how work has changed in the hybrid era, and highlighting many of the challenges that businesses will likely face. Last week, Cisco pre-briefed the analyst community and was able to go into more detail given he did not have the time constraints of a 30-minute keynote, so I included those comments into this post as well.
 
The first big change that Khan noted is that the office moves from a place to work to a place to meet. I’ve described the future of knowledge work as being similar to the college experience: you attended focused lectures, labs and classroom discussions, then met with classmates separately and did a lot of solo work in other spaces. There are obviously empty spots between meetings and classes where one would go find a quiet place to work. This could be the library, cafeteria or another location often called the “third place.”
 
And now, some people will continue to do much of their work at home. When they do go to the office, those days will likely be filled with interpersonal work like meetings and collaboration sessions. If the employee has a break, they’ll find a desk or go to the cafeteria.
 
Another major shift hybrid work will engender is outfitting employee’s homes with the right tech. Prior to and even during the pandemic, people just cobbled assorted hardware set-ups and spaces for work. The dining room table became the office, the personal phone became the business phone, etc. Looking ahead, companies need to ensure workers are set up with the right technology at home to ensure their productivity is consistent and location independent.
 
The next issue is something that has been and continues to be a struggle for businesses: Democratizing the meeting experience to make it inclusive for all. For years, solutions were deployed to connect remote employees with office-based colleagues in a conference room. This meeting produced two significantly different experiences for two groups of employees in one meeting. The challenge is creating a meeting experience that works for both remote and on-site workers, where everyone can collaborate equally. This overlaps somewhat with the fourth challenge Khan outlined -- and that’s we should no longer tolerate bad meetings. Bad meetings and events today can be catastrophic in an era of hybrid work. Businesses are doing things virtually today that would have only been done in person two years ago. For example, companies are going through an entire M&A process without meeting in person, and a failed meeting could mean losing out on a deal. Also, company leaders are discussing quarterly earnings over tools like Webex. A bad experience could put reporting numbers on time at risk.
 
The last item Khan talked about was particularly timely — employee retention. The era of “shut up and do your job” is over. Workers have a plethora of choices and are no longer hesitate to leave jobs they do not like. We are in the midst of the Great Resignation, which creates a great opportunity to hire people with higher skill levels but attracting people today takes more than a big paycheck. People want to work at a place where they can make a difference and can excel at their job, and that work requires best-in-class collaboration tools. Businesses need to understand that the choice of collaboration platform they make today will have an impact on employee retention.
 
Cisco has spent the better part of the past two years retooling Webex for this moment – the moment when workers head back to the office and the hybrid era truly begins. On stage, Khan mentioned over 1,200 new features have been added since the pandemic began, which shows the pace of innovation Cisco has been working at Kjesbu, and Horton came on stage to demonstrate many of the functions and features available now and coming. There were too many for an exhaustive list, but there are a few I’d like that call out.
 
  • Hotdesking products: This includes the Webex Camera, Headset, Desk Hub and Desk Series of endpoints. These have been announced previously so there is no “news” here but it’s worth mentioning how Cisco is trying to reimagine hotdesking. When people come into the office, they still need a place to work and that likely is a shared desk. Hotdesking 1.0 was a mess because there was too much friction. Users had to find a place, sign into phones or even manually pair devices. The new Cisco products let people book the space before heading to the office, sit down and sign in via QR code. This gives users quick access to meetings, calendars and shared whiteboards. I believe the term “hotdesk” is archaic and connotates the legacy process and should be replaced with something more current such as shared hybrid workspace.
  • Work-from-anywhere capabilities: Cisco has done a nice job of extending Webex to non-traditional meetings. Kulkarni highlighted the previously announced Webex Go which creates a business identity on a mobile phone. During the keynote, he noted Webex Go would be a generally available by the end of March. Cisco also announced native integration between Webex and Ford SYNC, where drivers can use Webex audio when in motion and Webex’s video features when stationary. Cisco also announced native Airplay support, making it easier to connect wirelessly to the large install base of Apple devices.
  • Hybrid events: Cisco has rebranded Social to Webex Events, which makes sense to have it part of the suite. Also, the CLEAR application, which is used to quickly validate vaccine status is now integrated into Webex Events. I’ve recently used it at the SAP Center (SJ Sharks), Chase Center (Golden State Warriors), and Avaya Engage and see it being a critical component of the future of events. Cisco also added AI transcription for and translation for in-person presentations. There are a number of virtual event platforms, but Webex Events is the only one that is built for hybrid events where it’s assumed there will be a significant in-person component as well as online.
  • Co-creation capabilities: Webex has partnerships with MURAL and other digital white board companies; these will enhance the Webex whiteboarding experience with better controls, drawing tools and other features necessary to let people co-create when they ae physically apart.
  • Other noteworthy items: There were difficult to categorize, so I’ll group them here potpourri-style. Cisco announced Webex calling hit six million users, which is phenomenal progress for about a year. Khan told analysts on a pre-call that the service provider role has been significant here as they want to keep these seats, so they have been aggressive in migrating customers. Webex Contact Center is showing strong momentum having grown 144% year over year, and last quarter did more than ten deals over $1 million. Also, IMImobile has been rebranded to Webex Connect Enterprise CPaaS.
 
The Cisco keynote has been a fixture at Enterprise Connect for two decades now. This was the first for both Javed Khan, and I thought he did a nice job of highlighting the challenges hybrid work brings and then providing solutions to those problems. Hybrid work is coming and coming fast. If companies get this wrong, it will mean un-productive workers and employee churn. The choice of collaboration platform (not product) matters and needs to democratize experiences everywhere.
 
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was first published.

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