26.08.20

Does the office have a future?

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A good home office setup is crucial to productive working. Photo: Jelena Zelen / Shutterstock.com

Recent months have forced many people to set up office at home which is turning into the new way of life, even after lockdown. Amy Wallington looks at what the future holds for offices.

I’m sure you’re used to hearing the phrase “this is the new normal” since the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down and almost everything changed overnight. The biggest change in many people’s worlds was that they could not go to work anymore. Offices shut and employees were forced to work from home, no matter their situation. 

Now, many employers are realising the benefits working from home has on their business. No office means cost savings on the rent of a building, electricity, facilities, as well as huge savings by not having employees travelling around the world for meetings they can have from their home office over the computer. 

Of course, everyone is different; for some, being in the office is an escape from home life or the only place they can get work done. For others, especially those with a long commute, they are experiencing a much better work-life balance. Many companies are noticing more productivity from their employees since they have been at home and a lot of workers have admitted that they often work for longer without having to travel to and from the office. 

So, is this the “new normal”? It could be. 

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Businesses should invest in collaborative tools and platforms when remote working. Photo: Potential Filmmaker / Shutterstock.com

Transitioning
Many businesses have invested a lot of money in their offices and in particular, meeting rooms, filling the place with collaborative technology in order to get the most out of meetings. So how will this now transition to the home? David Willie, head of marketing and product management at Visavvi recognises how workplaces have had to undertake a rapid transformation in a very short period. “This has been underpinned and enabled by collaborative technologies. Organisations have digitally transformed their businesses in a matter of weeks to enable effective collaborative working from home.

“This has and will continue to prompt many organisations to rethink their physical estate. Home working is set to continue for some time to come but many organisations are implementing changes in the workplace to welcome their employees back. Workplaces are always in a constant state of change and advancement; the Covid-19 pandemic has in most cases accelerated the pace of that change or has encouraged organisations to rethink how they use these physical environments.”

“The remote worker should consider the access to their home network they are providing to their employer.”

Late last year, Shure commissioned a survey of business leaders about virtual meetings and found they were already becoming a thing, even before the pandemic. Jim Schanz, vice president of global sales, integrated systems at Shure Incorporated, explains that businesses have been seeing the value of virtual meetings for a while. 

“The survey we commissioned found that the growing global workforce has accelerated use of virtual collaboration tools as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. Seven in 10 meetings are already virtual and nine out of 10 employees believe they are imperative to the success of their organisation. 

“Virtual meetings have been growing because of drivers such as reducing travel costs, reducing environmental impacts of travel, more efficient use of staff time, improving bandwidth and technology making online meetings more practical, and the lower costs of hardware and services making virtual meetings more affordable for more users.”

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For some people, working from home can be too distracting. Photo: Maria Svetlychnaja / Shutterstock.com

IKEA system
For those businesses introducing their staff back into the office, they have had to make big changes to make it a safer place for workers. Kieran Purdie, pro AV channel manager and technical manager at NETGEAR, points out: “In the short term, we will see the obvious things like more social distanced desks in the workplace, desk shields and layouts that means travelling through shared working spaces is defined – a bit like a trip around IKEA.”

But is that really the sort of experience we want in the workplace when we can be comfortable, safer and possibly more productive at home? How do we adapt office technology to give us the same, if not a better experience at home? Jörg Weisflog, founder of Dekom, explains that it starts with the setup.

“Workplaces in an office environment usually consist of a laptop with a display or sometimes a dual display setup plus the laptop. The home office setup created due to lockdown has often been just a laptop, a webcam and a headset from your smartphone – this is not sufficient. A home office working environment used daily should consist of a dual display setup (24-in or 27-in), plus a good webcam and a good audio input/output.” 

“Can you hear me now?”
A good audio setup is critical for a home workspace. “Our 2019 survey found that four out of five main frustrations with virtual meetings relate to audio – background noise, echo, sound cutting out and not being able to hear the other meeting participants,” highlights Schanz. “As a result of these technical issues, 82% said they have experienced negative consequences including rescheduled calls, damage to the brand’s reputation or even loss of customer trust.”

Kai Tossing, head of product management business for Sennheiser, agrees that audio should lay the foundation of a home workspace. “The base for seamless collaboration, apart from the conference software, is good audio – without good audio, you can only chat with written messages which is not efficient or fun. It’s crucial that no matter where you work from, be it in a home office or a meeting room, that the minimum setup caters for a good audio input and output. The flow of a remote meeting is often determined by the weakest link.”

“The flow of a remote meeting is often determined by the weakest link.”

But it’s not just audio. Without pairing the audio to a good video stream, you miss the personal feel of a meeting, which is often key to doing successful business.
 
Video conferencing services have already played a huge part in the new working from home lifestyle that many have adopted over the last few months. A lot of companies are now recognising the need to invest in better collaborative and communication tools, as Willie says: “Personal communication and collaboration technologies have been deployed in unprecedented levels during the pandemic, resulting in global shortages of business grade webcams, headsets, etc.”

Digital interaction is something some businesses are still missing and it’s having a major impact on productivity. Weisflog highlights: “High quality video conferencing and collaboration tools are imperative. Many companies realised the importance of video conferencing throughout the start of the pandemic, but the collaboration part is still unsolved and underestimated.”

Virtual meetings do not just reduce costs and environmental impacts, but it often means business is done quicker. Without having to organise to travel to meet with someone and organise an appropriate space, it is easy to schedule a time to video conference where you are still having a similar face-to-face experience only, in the time you travel to have one physical face-to-face meeting, you could have had several virtual meetings. People are also slightly more relaxed in their own homes, making the meeting more positive for all participants. 

But it is crucial that if meetings are happening virtually that good video is used. Without it, the personal feeling doesn’t come across. Weisflog suggests: “Seeing the person you are talking to can help build a foundation of trust, it makes people feel more comfortable, body language is a really important part of the communication, and people tend to stay more engaged and concentrate more.”

Willie adds: “Critically, the quality of the devices must be business grade and represent what businesses wish to relay about their organisation. If their workforce is engaged with clients or suppliers and the image quality is poor or the audio is very bad, that is the perception received by the remote meeting participant. 

“The physical environment too needs to be considered. It needs to be uncluttered, appropriately lit, and appropriate for use. During Covid-19, many individuals had to ‘make do’ but if home working is to be considered the new norm, the environment needs to be right. Videocalls while perched on the end of a bed does not present a great image of a company.”

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Network security is a big consideration for businesses and employees when it comes to working remotely. Photo: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

Natural space
When building a home office, it’s not just collaboration technology you have to think about. Tossing points out that the physical space has to feel natural and comfortable too. “You need to include everything that would make a space feel more natural to collaborate remotely, as you would while meeting face-to-face. That could range from technical features such as adjusting the acoustic performance to make the room sound natural, but more so, I think it is the adoption and acceptance to use technology and still act as you would if you were not using it.”

Integrators should talk to their clients about installing natural lighting, HVAC systems, and blind solutions to create a better environment for home working. “For years, businesses have been prioritising workplace comfort,” states Steve Detmer, residential channel programme manager at Lutron. “As more of us are now likely to work from home more often, we must take these lessons home. Creating the right light for any task in your home office can be easily achieved by dimming and controlling glare with automated blinds which will improve productivity and comfort. These capabilities have never been easier to add thanks to wireless technology and can quickly and efficiently improve the home working environment and the adaptability of a room.”

Often, home offices are multi-use rooms. Integrators should discuss the requirements of the room with homeowners to decide what technology would fit best. Detmer continues: “In the office environment, electricians have been opting for lighting solutions that offer app-based control so users can easily make changes to settings/scenes without the need to call a contractor so that the working spaces can continue to adapt with the ever-evolving community. The same should be applied at home. Whereas office spaces might be used by multiple occupants, home spaces are often required to fulfil multiple purposes. Users need the flexibility and adaptability to meet these purposes and ensure that every use has a corresponding lighting scene.”

According to Purdie, other crucial elements include: “Internet speed, network coverage and security will be key considerations to allow for technology in the home to flourish. These will be the areas that businesses need to research and invest in to allow for home working to be successful.”

Security & bandwidth
That takes us to the issues surrounding home networks, security and bandwidths. Whose responsibility should it be to ensure a worker has sufficient bandwidth and a stable network to work from – the homeowner or the business? A safe and secure network, however, is often a concern when it comes to remote working. 

Purdie suggests that it should not only be the business’s concern. “It works both ways,” he says. “The remote worker should consider the access to their home network they are providing to their employer. An example would be network devices like a home NAS (network attached storage) that are discoverable on the network – will they now be visible to their employer? Do we route all employee traffic back to the corporate network if a VPN is being used, and does that invoke privacy concerns about what the employer can see, like websites visited for example?”

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Sufficient bandwidth and a stable network should be ensured. Photo: helloijan / Shutterstock.com

On the other hand, there are things employers can do to protect their business security. “For the employer, there are key things they can do to mitigate risk to similar problems from their perspective, such as only allowing official devices like corporate phones and laptops to connect to their network remotely, ensuring anti-virus is up to date and introducing things like two factor authentication on those devices,” explains Purdie. 

Weisflog thinks the answer is the cloud. “Security is an issue when data is being shared with externals whom you generally mistrust. The easiest solution is on-premises software and VPNs. But we are living in a cloud age. With cloud, the biggest security question is whether all participants are who you think they are. The solution here is subscriber (non-free user) subscriptions. Subscribers exclude non-subscribers through unique identification by payment. Security is a matter of the business model of your vendor and payed subscriptions delivers more trust and security.”

To ensure a secure and stable network for working, bandwidth, capable home routers and Wi-Fi devices all need to be considered and upgraded. In an office environment, wired connections are still king, but this is often reversed when at home, as Purdie explains: “We need to ensure we get the speeds we are paying for, not just on a wired connection, but on a wireless connection too. For a lot of us the standard ISP router provided is just not going to be up to the task in both coverage and speeds.

“We’ve seen a spike in wireless mesh systems and premium home routers as people who have been working from home realise they don’t get good enough coverage in the places they need to work from in the house, which aren’t always the same day to day.”

NETGEAR has various products to help with this, such as mesh Wi-Fi systems like ORBI for whole home coverage. This gives multiple wireless access points to place around the house which all connect via their own dedicated wireless connection to the main router for fast and easy deployment via an app. Wi-Fi 6 routers are also a consideration, like the RAX80 for blazing fast wireless speeds and add-ons for existing home networking equipment such as mesh extenders and range extenders to increase the performance of what is already in place.

I think it could be part of our “new normal” that home office installations will play a greater part in a home automation installation. If not already, integrators should be getting familiar with office technology and finding ways to adapt it for the home environment as home work life shifts to become the office of the future.