Collaboration tech evolves for the post-COVID future

Effective collaboration in the hybrid workplace requires that all employees be connected, engaged, and able to participate on an equal footing. Enhanced tools and updated practices can help.

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Although many organizations were already in the process of planning or implementing digital transformation strategies when COVID-19 struck, the pandemic pushed those companies to fast-track their efforts. As work from home become the rule, not the exception, enterprises rushed to deploy collaboration tools so employees could work together and remain productive from disparate locations.

Now, with return-to-office and hybrid work ramping up, companies need to consider what collaboration will look like in the “post-pandemic” world.

In the hybrid workplace, organizations are trying to figure out the right balance between giving remote employees the flexibility they need to be productive and ensuring the technology also meets the needs of in-office workers, said Megha Kumar, research vice president, software and cloud services at IDC. “So when it comes down to collaboration tools, organizations are realizing that they need to put policies in place in terms of how employees will engage with one another effectively,” she said.

Companies have to ensure that regardless of where employees are located or what devices they’re using, they have access to the right information at the right time, Kumar said. And vendors of collaboration tools are trying to expand and improve their products’ capabilities to meet the needs of these organizations. These vendors have to ensure that their customers’ employees can have the same experiences using their collaboration tools on any device, she said.

Hybrid work + collaboration = tension

There is a tension around collaboration when it comes to hybrid work, said Adam Preset, vice president analyst for employee experience technologies at Gartner. What organizations have learned is that the technology that works when people are wholly remote needs to be modified or changed when some workers are in the office and some are working outside the office.

Hybrid meetings are a great example. Videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams work well if everyone is remote and everyone appears in the same size rectangle on a screen — this puts everyone on an equal footing. Companies have developed best practices and etiquette to ensure that everyone can participate, such as encouraging people to insert new ideas via the chat function, Preset said.

But once that all-remote meeting becomes a hybrid meeting, organizations are back to pre-pandemic dynamics, except now only a few workers are in the meeting room, while many more are working remotely, he said.

“The host who might be running the meeting in the office needs technology that allows them to see everyone who’s remote as close to life size as [possible],” Preset said. An in-office meeting host must also be able to see the content and the people who are participating, to hear everybody, and to look at the other digital signals that the remote people are transmitting, he said.

“That might mean if they’re raising their hands, are they using the hand raise tool?” Preset said. “If somebody types something in the chat, is there a way for the meeting host in the room to see that up on the big screen or to get a little notification that a conversation is happening on the side over the course of a meeting? And so on.”

New features in video meeting software can help make the meeting experience feel more equal for all. Zoom’s Smart Gallery, for instance, uses artificial intelligence to create an individual feed of each attendee in the meeting room so remote participants can see their movements and facial expressions more clearly.

And current meeting room hardware, such as Logitech’s MeetUp camera, offers hybrid-friendly features such as the ability to automatically find and frame each in-room participant, sound-level adjustments for louder and softer voices, and other enhancements to create a better experience for remote participants.

These types of meeting tech modifications are necessary for hybrid work to be successful in the long run.

New tools for new times

Organizations also need to implement technology that enables collaboration with “deskless” or “frontline” workers such as technicians in the field, truck drivers, warehouse workers, retail employees, and medical staff so they feel connected, said Josh Bersin, founder and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, a human resources consulting firm.

Deskless workers are often cut off from the company intranet, as well as conference calls and training sessions that help team members stay connected. Such workers may not have the time to attend a meeting or may be unable to interrupt their work to find desktop computers running the latest collaboration software. Rather, they typically use their own mobile devices and apps, which aren’t very secure, to stay connected.

Consequently, businesses need to focus on improving the ability of deskless employees to collaborate with co-workers regardless of where they’re located. One way companies can do that is by implementing deskless apps, Bersin said.

“Your company may not want your personal phone to be your education system because it’s not very secure,” Bersin said. “But there are [secure] applications now, such as WorkJam, that are designed for end-to-end communications with people who don’t have computers. And the big vendors are trying to figure out how to build [out those applications] as well.” Microsoft, for instance, has added a raft of features aimed at frontline workers to its Teams mobile app over the past few years.

Looking to increase engagement among all types of employees, the vendor also recently launched a new workplace social application in its Microsoft Viva employee experience platform called Viva Engage, a sort of social network for the enterprise, Bersin said. The app is available as an add-on for Microsoft Teams, which the company is positioning as a collaboration and communication hub.

Viva Engage, which is built on the foundation of Yammer, Microsoft’s earlier social networking tool, enables workers throughout an organization to connect with each other as well as with company leaders “to find answers to questions, share their unique story, and find belonging at work,” according to Microsoft. The goal of Viva Engage is to help employees feel more included in the hybrid workplace.

Other tools cropping up to boost community among workers in different locations include virtual watercooler apps, online learning platforms, and asynchronous video messaging tools. And several leading tech vendors including Cisco, Meta, and Microsoft are exploring the use of virtual environments for meetings and other events.

“I just talked with the product teams at Microsoft, and their plans are impressive,” Bersin said. “Microsoft Mesh for Teams, which will come out mid-next year, will let you replace your video presence with an avatar, create virtual rooms, and implement 3D spaces in Teams. Imagine a trade show, learning conference, or onboarding experience in 3D, all based on Teams. I have to believe there will be a tsunami of interest in this technology.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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