The future of the workplace dominates virtual board rooms across the globe. Every executive Lopez Research speaks with has plans to restructure physical workplaces and digital remote work scenarios. These new hybrid workplace strategies reimagine three categories of work that include full-time remote work, full-time return to the office and nomadic work. A nomadic worker is an individual who spends a portion of their time at an office and a part of their time working remotely. Any of these workers will also be individuals that travel, work in coffee shops, or otherwise need connectivity to corporate services on the go.
While the categories of work haven’t changed, how organizations design their technology and work policies to support these scenarios will change in a post-COVID world. Recently I interviewed Tom Puorro, executive vice president and general manager of products at Poly, to get the company’s take on how this new hybrid workspace will evolve. Poly provides a wide range of hardware assets such as headsets, phones, and video devices. What may be lesser known is that Poly provides extensive management, software, and analytics to support work from anywhere. Given Poly’s heritage in producing inbuilding audio and video conferencing rooms, I was particularly interested in how the company sees the future of work in a post-COVID world.
Now more than six months into the pandemic, it’s clear that flexible hybrid working locations are a part of our permanent new normal. With the initial wave of “remote-lite” strategies behind us, companies are focusing on a hybrid approach that provides the policies, technologies and services to support safely and securely working anywhere. Puorro spoke of the three phases of technology deployments pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and post-pandemic.
In the pre-pandemic phase, the discussion focused on how companies could deploy ubiquitous video. Companies were purchasing IP desk phones and phone service was slowly moving to the cloud. Huddle rooms that provided smaller, more affordable equipment were the hot item. Organizations, especially the federal government, were rolling out on-premise video equipment. The office concept was growing by leaps and bounds. Poly was providing headsets that allowed employees to focus and tune out the sounds around them and tools for collaborating around the office and at home. There was also a sense that there would be a migration to the cloud, but it would take time to manage that transition. Puorro said some customers were looking at between 1.5 to 3 years to make the transition to the cloud.
The second phase, during the pandemic, ushered in a rapid move to the cloud for voice, video and collaboration services. Organizations rapidly bootstrapped solutions for the pandemic, but IT needs to move beyond quick and dirty, to long-standing hybrid workplace solutions. Lopez Research calls this the move from remote-lite to remote-right. During this phase, an organization must revisit the tools it provides to its employees. With audio and video conferencing at an all-time high, businesses need to provide employees with better PCs and peripherals such as headsets, audio and video equipment. This is where Poly comes into the picture.
Both during and post-pandemic Puorro said organizations have a better appreciation for how a specific physical environment changes a company’s technology requirements. Employees need solutions that deliver the right audio, visual and lighting quality to get the job done, regardless of location. For example, employees need headphones that support all-day use and bi-directional noise canceling. Employees need high-quality cameras. Companies also need to upgrade their aging fleets of PCs with newer PCs, Chromebooks, or other devices that have the performance characteristics to support video.
Looking and sounding good on video calls is a new business imperative. Another lesson learned during the pandemic is that there’s no “one size fits all” collaboration solution. A business needs to purchase hardware that will work well with all of the video services because you’re going to be on Google Meet, LogMeIn, Microsoft Teams, Cisco’s WebEx and Zoom. Even if your company standardizes on a collaboration solution, a firm still needs to communicate across companies. For example, Poly mentioned that one of its consulting client’s needs collaboration hardware that works with whatever software their client’s using. Poly noted how it’s been delivering hardware that’s optimized to support cross-company and cross-service collaboration. Puorro said audio and video flexibility, high comfort and high-quality experiences are part of the new digital workplace imperative.
Reimaging the work and collaborative experience
Going forward, Poly believes group environments, such as conference rooms and huddle rooms, won’t go away. However, some of the dynamics may change and technology will play a key role in the return to the office. For example, conference rooms will have fewer people in them to support social distancing. Meanwhile, huddle rooms will convert to personal video-enabled offices. Puorro said in the post-pandemic world, companies will create a clear distinction between group experiences and personal experiences. Group experiences, such as conference rooms, will offer dedicated devices experiences where you walk into a room and use your personal device or voice to join a video call or start an audio conference without touching any equipment. The industry was discussing this vision pre-pandemic, but these interaction models will be commonplace in the post-pandemic world.
Puorro also spoke about recreating collaborative and open spaces. He noted open environments would change to be adaptive spaces, such as glassed-in public areas where you’re physically separated but visually together. In this scenario, Puorro described how companies need to rethink equipment requirements, such as offering headsets to support acoustics in highly reflective environments. Additionally, Puorro said Poly designed its hardware to support frequent cleaning, which many customers are requesting today. Customers are also asking for features to support social distancing, such as notifying IT if a room has exceeded capacity.
A new imperative: supporting many networks of one
Lopez Research expects the future of work to evolve from managing networks and services at the building level to managing services based on a user’s location. Lopez Research calls this supporting the “many networks of one vision.” It’s clear from my conversation with Poly that it agrees. Puorro talked about balancing the needs of IT while creating a compelling user experience. He said, “Technology must demonstrate value. The end-user experience must offer high-quality and ease, but the IT administrator also needs to ensure security interoperability, compliance and manageability of those products. Poly says it will is focused on balancing those two ends of the spectrum going forward.”
Poly says it’s designing holistic, plug and play solutions with management and analytics to support what that many networks with one vision. Poly’s goal is to provide employees with a plug and play experience, that works effectively, and gets upgraded without the user doing anything. On the back end, the system needs to monitor each user’s experience and alert IT of any current or potential issues. New intelligence services will provide insight into what parameters have changed; proactively suggest changes to improve performance and offer recommendations to resolve performance issues for impacted users.
From my discussions with Puorro and others, several things are clear. Remote work is here to stay, and companies will reimage workspaces for safety and collaboration. Cloud-resident services will enable the change to a hybrid workspace and video will have a more significant role than we ever imagined. As Puorro said, “Successful companies won’t mandate that everyone returns to the office. On-premise services will erode over time, whether it’s a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) or a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU), as organizations migrate to cloud services. Moving to the cloud is still a heavy lift, but it’s no longer a nice to have. Cloud migration is a business imperative.”
It’s an exciting but challenging time for all organizations. Despite the dire times, Puorro ended our conversation with a note of optimism. “The opportunity for businesses is endless. There’s so much capability available through these new services. It just comes down to how fast you can adopt the technology to seize the opportunity.”
A version of this was posted on my contributor column at Forbes.com