Editor’s opinion: I think one of the biggest impacts of going back to the office will be related to something that possibly saved most companies during the pandemic: video conferencing. There’s no question that without our constant stream of Zoom, Webex, Teams, Meet, and other video-based meetings, our business (and personal!) Lives would have been much more challenging.
As both California and New York have lifted most of their pandemic-induced restrictions for stores, restaurants, businesses, and other indoor environments, it’s hard not to think about the potential impact for companies that will now begin to fully reopen their offices.
Now that the reality of a significant percentage of returning employees is staring us in the face, the implications of our reliance on video-based collaboration platforms, and the potential problems associated with that, are only beginning to be seriously considered. In short, I hope there are challenges on several different levels.
A large part of the challenge comes from the fact that a hybrid work model, in which time is regularly divided between the office and home (or other remote locations), will be the future for most organizations, at least for the next few years. What that means, as Cisco wisely pointed out in its recent Webex Suite launch, is that approximately 98% of future meetings will include at least one participant who is not in the room. That, in turn, means that 100% of potential meeting rooms must be equipped to handle those remote members.
While some might be using audio-only connections, given the reliance (and expectations) we now have on video-based meetings, companies will need to equip virtually all of their meeting rooms with video conferencing equipment.
The problem is that organizations are not even close to those levels of implementation. Although it is challenging to find solid statistics, numerous conversations with industry participants have led me to believe that most companies have less than 10% of their meeting rooms equipped for video, with many organizations below 5%.
To make matters worse, many of the existing rooms that have video conferencing equipment are loaded with older equipment that only works with outdated codecs and older software (Skype, anyone?). Additionally, many organizations are in the process of allocating more meeting space, which means that the penetration rate of video-equipped meeting rooms is likely to be even lower.
“Every business is going to have to buy hardware (and software) that supports multiple platforms.”
To be sure, several companies have thought about these issues and started the process of installing modern hardware, but I have little doubt that many organizations simply won’t be prepared for the onslaught of office video conferencing to come. In addition, there is the cost factor to consider: it is a non-trivial capital expense to purchase and install all the cameras and other video conferencing equipment that will be needed.
Even if companies have solved the hardware issues, and don’t forget the large additional load on internal networks that the large number of video calls will generate, there are also software-related concerns. As we’ve all learned from our own pandemic experience, the notion that a single video collaboration platform is sufficient is simply a pipe dream. Even organizations that standardize a video conferencing tool for all of their internal meetings will have to deal with the inevitable calls with partners, customers, etc. used by other platforms. Bottom line? All companies will have to buy hardware (and software) that is compatible with multiple platforms.
Unfortunately, given the long tradition in the video conferencing market of producing hardware that is “certified” for a single platform, this means software add-ons or more system integration costs for rooms to be able to support all popular collaboration based on video. tools. While it’s safe to say that most of us have become quite adept at using the different software-based collaboration tools, remember that, prior to the pandemic, one of the biggest issues for video conferencing adoption rates was difficulty to use these systems. Employees will be extremely frustrated with video-based meetings if these new systems are not remarkably easy to use. (And don’t forget about potential support costs!)
As if these challenges weren’t enough, there are also human-based issues that I think will become apparent very quickly in video meeting-based hybrid work environments. In particular, balancing the value and levels of interaction between remote participants and in person will be extremely difficult.
Yes, all the major platforms are working on technologies to improve this, but there is a huge difference between conceptually attractive solutions and realistic practices.
For example, several of the big platforms are thinking of ways to essentially replicate the “everyone’s remote” experience even for those in the office, because we all know it worked. Ironically though, most early approaches essentially ignore the fact that people are going to be sitting next to each other at, say, a conference room table, and will naturally interact directly with each other.
Forcing everyone in the meeting to feel remote is sure to be extremely uncomfortable, even if you mean well. Fortunately, some new AI-based technologies that can isolate and focus different individuals from a limited number of cameras (or even a single camera) can help a bit, but I have a strong feeling that many early implementations will be problematic enough to be. . almost unusable (or, at best, distracting and not particularly effective).
“We survived the pandemic because, frustrating as they may have been at times, the video calls worked and allowed us to collaborate remotely.”
Despite all the wishes that people have expressed in surveys about wanting to work remotely, once people start meeting in meetings where they are one of the few remote participants, a certain amount of FOMO work (fear to get lost) is bound for some people, and they may begin to rethink their views on hybrid work.
We all know that many of the best interactions happen before and / or after a camera is turned on through casual side conversations. As good as many of the video collaboration tools have become, and frankly their rate of improvement over the pandemic has been extraordinary, I don’t see that they can ever capture those kinds of interactions. To be fair, these concerns won’t come up because of the video conferencing implementations employees have to deal with when they return to the office, but they are certainly related.
While some might argue that the concerns I’ve raised may not be as big of an issue as I raised them, remember that video-based meetings are an essential part of the entire hybrid work model. If companies cannot successfully support large numbers of these meetings, the entire hybrid work model falls apart. We survived the pandemic because, as frustrating as they may have been at times, the video calls worked and allowed us to collaborate remotely. If the infrastructure to enable these calls is not widely and robustly available in the office, then the hybrid work model will fail, miserably, and organizations will have no choice but to make tough decisions about their work environments and work policies.
I’m certainly hopeful that well-implemented video conferencing tools can enable hybrid work environments that truly offer the best of in-person and remote work. However, I am also more convinced than ever that, as difficult as it has been to get people to work remotely successfully, going back to the office and providing the necessary infrastructure to enable video conferencing for everyone is going to be much more difficult. .
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm providing market research and strategic consulting services to the technology industry and professional finance community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
Image Credit Girts Ragelis