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Q&A: Collaboration Technology and the Future of Work

Crestron, Collaboration Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work—and where we work—and those changes will be felt far into the future. As people begin to head back to the office, enterprises face crucial challenges in reimagining their workplaces for this new reality.

How can the needs of remote and on-site colleagues be balanced? How can employers accommodate new work styles like hot desking? How do unified communications systems fit into the picture?

To answer these questions, Kenton Williston, Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech, spoke with Andrew Gross, VP for Enterprise Sales at Crestron, a global leader in audiovisual technology. We were joined by Wei Oania, General Manager of Education and Collaboration for the Intel IoT Group, who shared her insights on the future of the workplace.

To hear the full conversation, listen to our podcast Crestron’s Vision for Collaboration Technology in 2021.

How Will Digital Transformation Affect the Workplace in 2021 and Beyond?

Kenton Williston: Andrew, can you tell me about your role at Crestron?

Andrew Gross: I lead our sales and technical decision makers around the globe in being evangelists and advisors in what the future workplace looks like, and how technology can help.

I like to say that we do is we make enterprises, meeting rooms, and offices smarter and more connected. The most recent focus has been on becoming one of the world leaders in Teams and in Zoom rooms, which are making their way to everybody’s home office and their office-office.

Kenton Williston: Wei, what is your role at Intel?

Wei Oania: Our team globally focuses on accelerating technologies, the inter-schools and inter-enterprise offices. Our goal is to improve and positively impact the way we learn and the way we work.

Very similar to Andrew, but our group focuses more on the enterprise side. We want to make sure that we set up a similar technology and similar usage in schools and campuses, as well as in enterprise offices.

Kenton Williston: This last year forced an acceleration of digital transformation and the way we work. How will this affect the nature of the workplace in 2021 and beyond?

Andrew Gross: COVID really was the catalyst to what we’ve all been calling digital transformation. The difference today is that we’re actually doing it. And I think that’s the really exciting part—we’re not just talking about it.

A great example of what it means to actually do digital transformation—or adopt or embrace digital transformation—is the enablement of offices and homes, and really all workers, to be connected and integrated all the time.

I think a great example of that is in the office space of just two years ago. If you wanted to meet with a colleague who was halfway around the world, or in a different office even in your own state, you had to go to a conference room, maybe dial them on your phone. Or you dialed them on your laptop and then connected it into the room to bring them in virtually. The technology was there, but it was adjacent to your daily activities.

Today, the technology is integrated into our lives, or integrated into the spaces. The meeting room itself lives in the cloud, and the technology connects to the virtual meeting room. And everybody has a somewhat democratized meeting experience—whether they’re in the office or remote.

The Emerging Role of IoT Technology

Kenton Williston: Where does IoT technology fits into this new workplace? Are there any new trends?

Wei Oania: IoT technology has already impacted our lives and is making them better in terms of providing very easy and frictionless living. So, from a working perspective, that should be the same.

COVID has just sped up that transformation. We know that the current workforce is mobile, collaborative, and geographically dispersed, and the future workforce is going to be even more so.

With the right tools, with the right technology, we can enable that collaboration much better. It’s thinking about inclusion and belonging—making every worker feel like they can contribute equally. And these are types of things we often don’t think technology is there to do, but it can.

Looking at a conference room today, they’re just regular meeting rooms. But looking forward, they will become collaborative rooms that focus on video with remote annotation and sharing.

Then the next step—we’re looking at smart meeting rooms. How do we insert audio and video enhancement? How do we use analytics and data insight? Can we do some transcription automatically? All of this on top of security and management.

Last, what we really want to achieve is getting all these stages together—immersive meeting rooms that would ultimately offer that frictionless meeting experience for us.

So certainly IoT is playing a vital role in all of this. But I also want to say that it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Technology is smart enough and modular enough that now we can do a step-by-step approach to ensure that different things can be connected in the time frame you want, and also to make sure they are affordable and accessible.

Enterprise Strategies for Collaboration Technology

Kenton Williston: What best practices should enterprises follow as we enter this new era of collaboration? Do you have any examples of organizations who you are already doing things the right way?

Andrew Gross: A keyword that I know Crestron has always been focused on is “automation.” How is my life enhanced and maybe made easier by the technology around me?

We’ve actually seen two phases of this. The first wave, which was right at the beginning of the pandemic, was that those who were in the office were seen as first-class meeting participants because they had better technology—they were heard and seen better. Those at home were seen as second-class participants, where they were using their own laptop, audio, or video—they weren’t really seen as being connected to the meeting.

That started to change near the end of 2020, as we became work-at-home experts, or hybrid-work experts. And what happened was that a lot of technology made its way into the home to enable a better meeting experience.

What we’ve seen now is that the at-home worker is starting to be seen more and more as the first-class participant, and the in-office worker is seen as the second-class participant.

The only way to bring that into balance—whether you’re in the office or at home—is through automation—video and audio technology that’s not just good enough, but truly enterprise grade, regardless of where you’re taking the meeting. That’s what the greatest enterprises that have deployed this today are really doing a great job of—ensuring that their employees are engaged, regardless of where they’re meeting with their colleagues.

A New Role for Unified Communications

Kenton Williston: Before 2020, platforms like Zoom and Teams were a secondary mode of communication used for specific purposes. Now they are the default—and these platforms are evolving to become more of the basis of unified communications platforms. What makes for a successful deployment of a unified communications platform?

Andrew Gross: I’d say that you need to break down the deployment of unified communications into two main aspects: First is the software. What is my standard platform? What am I rolling out as my majority share for my enterprise to meet and collaborate over? That can be chat, file share, video content, audio meetings.

Then I make the hardware decision, and the hardware decision gets into probably a larger decision-making process. I think there are four key things when you’re looking at a hardware platform to support the software standard that you’ve deployed—automation, intelligence, awareness, and management.

Automation: How do I now take that software deployment with my hardware system in my meeting spaces and automate it? Reduce touch. How do I make it simpler for my teams and my colleagues to join meetings?

Intelligence: How are we making our rooms smarter? One of the great pieces of technology that we’ve integrated with Intel is the ability for our cameras to actually count people in a space.

Awareness is giving data and information to employees across the office—which spaces are booked, which spaces are available. Of course now it’s which spaces are clean for me to use?

And the last one is management. I think we’ve all agreed that more technology is certainly a big part of the answer here—to enable workers in this hybrid-working format. But more technology means more management. This technology is valuable only if it’s actually working.

Preparing for the Return to Work

Kenton Williston: How should enterprises update their infrastructure to support these emerging use cases?

Wei Oania: From a deployment point of view, from an enterprise-setup point of view, it’s about what would you like to offer your employees? And how is that going to work with the integration of other ingredients? But the important thing is that you have to deploy enough infrastructure to enable what’s coming in the future.

At Intel, we work with our co-travelers to see what the compute needs are on the cloud side? What are the compute needs you would have on the Edge? How much workload would it take to run AI? To run 5G? To run different types of emerging use cases that are coming along?

And how do you set that up in a way that allows companies to have flexibility at any time that they would like to insert additional compute, additional hardware? Offering a framework that could sustain those changes, and always with one thing in mind—making sure the technology can be easily adjusted and is very adaptable to changes.

Kenton Williston: Andrew, what are your customers doing to create workplaces that are more flexible, comfortable, safe—and inviting?

Andrew Gross: People are certainly no longer novices in the world of Teams and Zoom. And so if your room system does not support that type of meeting technology, then you’re not giving your workers a purpose to return, right?

It’s about driving that purpose: Why am I coming back to the office?

And if I come back to the office, the technology had better be there to support the efficiency that I had at home. So equipping the conference rooms with the right technology for the collaboration platforms that they’re familiar with and have enabled is key.

The other one is certainly about the sense of security, a sense of health and safety. A really great example of what a lot of big technology companies—or really any enterprise—are doing with Crestron and Intel technology is leveraging digital signage on the outside of conference rooms.

Before, digital signage was used for advertising or company updates. But now digital signage is becoming ubiquitous across every single meeting room, and it’s displaying a lot more than just a room calendar. Meeting-room calendars are now actually showcasing cleaning schedules; they’re showcasing room-capacity limits.

These are things that we never thought of before, but that are easy to do on Crestron panels. And all of the intelligence from those smart Intel chips built into the Crestron technology inside the room is communicating back to those panels on the outside.

Taking Collaboration to The Next Level

Kenton Williston: What are the next steps enterprises should take?

Wei Oania: I think one thing we have to acknowledge is that the future workforce will be different.

We have to start embracing the flexibility of mobile work, the flexibility of different types of working environments. And ensuring that not only are we competitive as employers but that we also adjust to just what this generation of people is requiring.

That experience cannot be first-class/second-class. It has to be equal, has to be inclusive, has to provide those needs that all of us have regardless of where we are. Those are the things that as a technology company we’re looking at.

We can continue to learn collaboratively. Things will change, and things will always surprise us. But if we have some basic needs in mind, we can be creative when challenges come along, and quickly retrofit whatever we have to meet the requirements of the time.

Andrew Gross: You can’t wait for the return to the office to do everything we just talked about. The strategy for understanding how to enable hybrid workers, in-office workers, at-home workers, and to democratize the experience between those levels of workers—it has to be started now.

And that’s what Crestron is doing now—we’re working with our partners, like Intel, and speaking to customers as early as possible. It’s about being an advisor in the Future of Work, and advising customers as early as possible; developing a strategy around those platforms, and ensuring that it’s defined now, and deployed and installed and ready for that massive return back to the office.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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