26.08.20

One giant leap: Massive shift to virtual communication

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OLESYA KUZNETSOVA\SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

There’s been a seismic shift in corporate culture as workforces large and small have been catapulted into enforced remote working. Does this mark a fundamental shift in how we’ll collaborate in the future?

Coronavirus has done more for the rise of remote meeting and working in the space of a few weeks than corporations across the world have managed in years. The rising cost of office space, increased employee demands for a work-life balance, growing environmental concerns and the realisation that agile working strategies can bring productivity gains have all been used as arguments that workforces should spend less time in the office.

The arguments were resonating in many quarters and small steps were being taken. This year those small steps turned into one giant leap… for many in less than 24 hours. 

Ready to go?
chris-miller-psni.tmb-mediumWith little to no time to prepare, was enterprise ready for this seismic shift? “Somewhat,” answers Chris Miller [pictured right], executive director of PSNI Global Alliance – a global network of system integrators. 

“The remote working concept isn’t new but certainly hasn’t been tested to the same degree that the pandemic has forced companies to embrace.”

The tools required to support easy remote communication were there, and through platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack or G Suite many corporations were already using them, even if their adoption of some functions were limited. For many, it was a fairly easy move to increase use of these tools and keep their employees connected with each other, as well as external partners and clients. 

There were teething problems as network traffic spiked and communication platforms quickly had to accommodate unprecedented levels of users, but mostly they were quickly resolved. The main takeaway was the tools for virtual communication at least were there, easy to access, and working. 

Dealing with a rapid rise
Abe Smith [pictured right], head of international at Zoom Video Communications, says: “Usage of Zoom ballooned overnight.abe_smith_zoom_head-of-international-web.tmb-medium

“To put this growth in context, as of the end of December last year, the maximum number of daily meeting participants, both free and paid, conducted on Zoom was approximately 10 million,” he continues. “In March this year, we reached more than 200 million daily meeting participants, both free and paid. We have been working around the clock to ensure that all of our users – new and old, large and small – can stay in touch and operational.”  

The trickier issue seems to be security and Zoom – in many ways a victim of its own popularity – took the brunt of the negative press. 

The company moved quickly in an attempt to assuage major concerns. Smith elaborates: “At the beginning of April, we implemented a 90-day plan where we are committed to dedicating the resources needed to better identify, address, and fix issues proactively. 

“We are also committed to being transparent throughout this process. We want to do what it takes to maintain trust. This included enacting a feature freeze, effectively immediately, and shifting all our engineering resources to focus on our biggest trust, safety, and privacy issues. And conducting a comprehensive review with third-party experts and representative users to understand and ensure the security of all of our new consumer use cases.”

“Cloud based VC peer-to-peer platforms solutions are inherently scalable, so access hasn’t been a big challenge. But, in some cases, there have been security issues that had not been exposed until put under heavy and broad use,” confirms Miller. “I’ve heard that cameras, headphones, and better microphones have been somewhat limited as workers seek to improve quality from remote locations.”

While security is top priority for many enterprises used to supporting remote communications on their networks, others were left having to quickly adopt technologies without fully understanding potential risks. Even IT teams and network managers used to carefully considering the implications of any software rollout were in some cases having to move quicker than was ideal in order to quickly get a dispersed workforce up and running. 

James Stickland, CEO of authentication platform Veridium, says: “The Covid-19 crisis has forced a number of firms into taking dangerous shortcuts on security, as well as falling foul of regulations such as GDPR – placing them at greater risk of fines and data breaches. 

“This is an inevitable consequence of companies who have been pressured into adopting technology in order to stay afloat, without conducting the usual rigorous assessments. Businesses must be transparent about who has access to sensitive, personal employee and client data on video conferences, especially when using screen sharing or recording tools. This is imperative considering the escalation of cybercrime, in which funded attacks on passwords worldwide have risen 667%.”

Meanwhile the effectiveness of tools beyond conferencing and communication are being tested. Far more expertise is required of corporate IT departments in rolling out more sophisticated systems that allow true collaboration beyond video calling and instant messaging. This is the area where AV specialists can offer their expertise and stand to make the most gains. 

“Astonishingly we have quickly seen that a lot of companies did not invest in video collaboration tools, VPN licenses and bandwidth in their companies before, and now they want to have it all now,” says Jörg Weisflog, CEO of Dekom, a video conferencing and media technology provider operating in Europe, the USA and Turkey. 

A permanent shift?
But what does the future hold? There are now growing voices suggesting that workers won’t accept going back to how things were and indications that many will have the full support of their employers. 

“People will create a culture of more remote working, where flexibility will be an option in roles,” says Jon Sidwick, global senior vice president of distributor Maverick. “This will need great process agreement and deployment of the right technology, however it will have tangible organisational benefits from team retention to cost reduction on real estate."

Weisflog agrees: “It’s become apparent that even some large corporations are behind the times and now they are waking up. That's why I strongly believe that when this is over, then many more people will be working from remote or home offices. This will change how people work.”

“Relationships are personal and I can’t imagine that [in-person collaboration] will be replaced completely with remote collaboration and interaction. It’s in our DNA,” adds Miller. “However, time is a precious corporate commodity that suggests that some visual interaction is better than nothing and as the quality of cameras, our internet connections and bandwidth improve remotely, the more acceptance we will have between our teams and end-users. With budgets projected to be tight globally for 12-24 months, I would expect non-essential travel to continue to be curtailed for both budgetary and health reasons. It won’t be an option for the near future.”

“[The pandemic] has pushed every enterprise to think differently—both short term and long term,” he continues. “It will likely elevate the importance of remote collaboration and dealing with the aspects of cyber security, new rules of engagement, and as employees become more comfortable with remote working and technology, they will desire higher quality tools and capabilities that improve the experience and quality. But from a technology standpoint it will be more than just remote workspaces. We are already seeing changes being implemented in how people work in offices where people will check-in to buildings, have visual recognition for access, no touch panels and have their temperature checked prior to being cleared to enter the work area.”

Fresh demands
Enterprise has had to act quickly, employees turn technologies they’re not used to and platforms scale quickly. That’s of course come with its own challenges, security for one. But it’s also let people know this works. Some meetings and tasks will still be better face to face or in an office environment but the predictions of a major change aren’t overblown and the benefits will be far greater when technology providers and enterprise take what they’ve learnt and do this on their own terms. 

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“It certainly looks as if it is a “tipping point” for further adoption and use of [remote collaboration] technologies,” says Miller. “As the end-user becomes more comfortable with current collaboration tools available, they will be the change agents to demand new features and capabilities. 

“Developers, vendors and solution providers are listening intently to end users about what they like, what they want, and how much they want to spend on it.  If we make it easy and an extension of their collaboration needs and as basic as ‘air’ then it will become more adopted and used.  It’s an incredible opportunity for our industry to listen, adopt and grow.”

In listening to those requirements, some providers have pinpointed needs outside of technology as Smith indicates: “We are entering a new era for every element of our life and work and we are committed to doing our part to help during this challenging time. When employees are not able to get to the office and when teams cannot travel to see customers, we want to provide a platform for businesses to continue to be productive. We also believe it is important to provide support so we are providing informational sessions, mental health training and on-demand resources for anyone to utilise.”