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The Hybrid Workplace: New Opportunities for Collaboration

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One in-office businessman meeting virtually with remote colleagues
Image: fizkes - stock.adobe.com
With 2020 as the backdrop, the stage is set for 2021, and nothing is off the table — how we do things, where we do things, when we do things, and even why we do things. Each of these vectors are jumping off points for enterprises, both for how the workplace adapts as well as the role UCC technologies can play. Last year, enterprises had to shift on the fly to work from home (WFH), and just as that was falling into place, they had to start thinking about return to office (RTO). 
 
Nobody is ready for this, and nobody knows where it’s going, but one thing is pretty clear. For most businesses, having a fully remote, home-based workforce is just not viable. Nor is it reasonable to expect a return to pre-pandemic times where most workers are ensconced full-time at the office.
 
Enterprises need to strike a balance between WFH and RTO for this emerging hybrid workplace model to succeed. While top management and line-of-business leaders drive the policies that will shape the hybrid workplace, IT leaders can contribute by showing how collaboration technologies can have a positive impact.
 
Likewise, vendors need to recognize that for hybrid workplace, their value proposition needs to go beyond simply making communications and collaboration easier. I have a lot of ground to cover here, and each theme deserves a separate post. Here I’ll focus on RTO; I’ll cover the WFH side of hybrid workplace in my next post.
 
RTO Theme 1 — Safety First
Safety is absolute table stakes, not just for enterprises and their employees, but landlords and the entire commercial real estate sector. In cases where WFH is here to stay, businesses are downsizing their office footprints — which triggers a whole new set of planning issues — but most need to maintain some degree of office space. Some workers will welcome RTO, but others will only do so if they feel safe.
 
Defining an acceptable level of safety is a work in progress, but with so much at stake for the real estate ecosystem and the overall economy, clear guidelines will certainly emerge. This represents a prime opportunity for technology companies to develop smart office and smart building solutions, which in turn will tie into smart city initiatives. Being a pandemic, holistic thinking is needed here, since workers don’t just occupy offices. They often have to go through buildings to get there, and of course go through urban spaces coming and going from work.
 
Inside the office, collaboration technologies are great touchpoints for smart office, especially for desks, workstations, and meeting rooms. AI and Internet of Things (IoT) will also help reimagine what smart — and safe — offices can become, but that’s a topic for another time.
 
With UCC solutions, enterprises can make their workplaces safer with voice-enabled applications that minimize touching surfaces like keyboards, doors, or light switches. Smart speakers like Amazon Echo are just the beginning, as these speech technologies are the right capabilities for pandemic times. Another example would be AI-driven sensors built into videoconferencing platforms to monitor the number of people gathering in spaces, or to maintain social distancing in a meeting room.
 
These capabilities are here now, but other applications are emerging, such as voice biometrics to authenticate team members to join a meeting or share files without touching a keypad — all of which will help make RTO safer.
 
RTO Theme 2 — Improve the Experience
Presuming enterprises can check all the safety boxes, employees still have to be willing to come back. Mandating RTO may or may not be an option, but either way, this is only going to work if workers are ready for it. Some workers will be more than ready to come back, but others will be quite comfortable staying home. By now, we’ve gotten very used to WFH — thanks in large part to today’s collaboration technologies — and RTO has to compete with that.
 
The cloud is a double-edged sword for enterprise IT in the sense that it enables a distributed workforce with UCaaS, but it also makes a wide range of applications available for workers to use on their own. If WFH employees have settled on a mix of collaboration tools — either solely company-provided or in tandem with cloud-based tools of their choosing — bringing them back to the office will likely require providing a better experience.
 
Good enough may work for some, but what employees really need are tools and experiences that are better than what they have for WFH and that will make them more productive. A good analogy here is how the film industry has evolved over the years to compete with television. Initially when TV cut into theater attendance, the response was drive-in theaters, and later innovations like Panavision and CinemaScope for widescreen experiences.
 
Then along came home theater and HDTV, and theaters had to up their game with surround sound and comfy seating. With the rise of streaming, it looks like theaters are fighting a losing battle, but the main idea is that whoever provides the best experience wins.
 
Coming back to collaboration, enterprises have many cards to play here, starting with the comforts of a proper office environment — spacious desks, ergonomic chairs, full-spectrum lighting, open spaces, green spaces, etc. No doubt, the entire office environment will be rethought to offer a post-pandemic workspace that is vastly better than the cramped settings with which many home-based workers must live.
 
Collaboration players have a role to play here, both for software and hardware. Being in-office and LAN-based, UC platforms can perform better by virtue of higher-speed bandwidth and more reliable uptime than what many workers have at home. They can also be managed more securely since IT will have better visibility into the desktop, meaning that workers can worry less about security risks.
 
On the hardware side, things get even more interesting, as enterprises can provide endpoints that make RTO a superior collaboration experience to WFH — essentially better toys. Recent examples include Cisco’s new line of smart endpoints — Webex Desk, Webex Desk Hub, and Webex Desk Camera — and Rally Bar from Logitech, with a new suite of video and meeting room devices. Unless enterprises provide these for home-based workers, having them at the office should prove a strong draw for RTO.
 
RTO Theme 3 — Resetting Expectations
Aside from rethinking workspaces, enterprises must also rethink their social contract with workers. For the hybrid workplace model to succeed, enterprises will need to support both RTO and WFH. Of course, these issues are much bigger than collaboration, but the value of these offerings should become more compelling in the context of how they support workers in this new environment. Whatever balance of RTO and WFH works best for each employee, IT needs to provide a seamless set of tools and capabilities across these workplace settings.
 
While collaboration offerings enable the “work from anywhere” mantra many vendors now are touting, this flexibility also puts a lot of pressure on workers to be always-on and perform at wire speed. In theory, this is a dream scenario for management, but the reality from 2020 was closer to video meeting fatigue and burnout.
 
If left unchecked, UCaaS, CPaaS, and all things AI could create a different type of pandemic, where the productivity bar becomes so high that performance, morale, and retention all drop. Simply put, if technology is setting the workplace agenda, the skill sets of workers won’t be able to keep pace.
 
To counter this, employers are paying more attention to wellness, fitness, and mental health. Increased support for these will become part of the package to bring workers back to the office. Of course, they can do these things virtually from home, but being in-office provides more possibilities for in-person support, along with an alternative to the WFH isolation that contributes to these stresses. Even if just doing a 15-minute group fitness virtually — while in the office — at least the worker is in a social setting, and a healthy change of scene from doing the same thing at home.
 
Collaboration players have a role to play here as well. First, these platforms provide the tools for related activities, such as virtually joining group sessions, like yoga, meditation, spin classes, etc. While employers could offer these onsite for office workers to participate in-person — distanced, of course — these same workers can do the same without missing a beat on their WFH days. This type of continuity — a mix of in-person and virtual — goes a long way to building culture that would otherwise be near impossible to create when only working from home.
 
On another level, collaboration players also recognize how their offerings contribute to these stresses, and are taking steps to be part of the solution. I expect we’ll see more innovation on this front during 2021, but we’ve already seen some examples with video. While its immersive nature can enhance collaboration, video can be draining, and detract from our overall productivity.
 
To mitigate that — with the help of AI — these platforms can prompt users with tips in real-time to better manage video usage, such as taking a break after being on video for a certain length of time, urging the user to stand instead of sit for a session, or optimize lighting and screen brightness to minimize eye fatigue, etc.
 
Conclusion
I have a lot more to explore here, but these three themes present a good starting point for how to make RTO work, not just on its own, but also as part of a broader hybrid workplace strategy. I’ll do the same in my next post for the WFH side of the coin, as enterprises must consider both for a hybrid workplace.
 
UCC vendors and providers have a lot to offer here, but it won’t be enough just to address one of these settings. As I’ll explore in my next post, these capabilities have been instrumental to making WFH so seamless during 2020, but they’ll need to be just as supportive for RTO to make this emerging model succeed in 2021.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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