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Editor's take: I think one of the biggest impacts of return-to-office will be related to something that arguably saved most businesses during the pandemic—videoconferencing. There’s little doubt that without our constant flow of Zoom, Webex, Teams, Meet, and other video-based meetings, our business (and personal!) lives would have been significantly more challenging.
As both California and New York have lifted a majority of their pandemic-induced restrictions for stores, restaurants, businesses, and other indoor environments, it is hard not to think about the potential impact to companies that will now begin to fully reopen their offices.
Now that the reality of a significant percentage of employees returning to their workplace is staring us in the face, the implications of our dependence on video-based collaboration platforms, and the potential issues associated with that, are just starting to be seriously considered. In short, I expect there to be challenges on several different levels.
A big part of the challenge stems from the fact that a hybrid work model—in which time is regularly split between the office and home (or other remote locations)—is going to be the future for most organizations, at least for the next several years. What that means—as Cisco wisely pointed out at its recent Webex Suite launch is that roughly 98% of future meetings will include at least one participant that’s not located in the room. That, in turn, implies that 100% of potential meeting rooms need to be equipped to handle those remote members.
While some could be using audio-only connections, given the dependence (and expectations) we now have on video-based meetings, companies are going to need to equip virtually all of their meeting rooms with videoconferencing equipment.
The problem is that organizations are not even close to those levels of deployment. Though it’s challenging to find hard statistics, numerous conversations with industry participants have led me to believe that most companies have fewer than 10% of their meeting rooms equipped for video, with many organizations below 5%.
To make matters worse, many of the existing rooms that have videoconferencing gear are saddled with older equipment that only works with out-of-date codecs and older software (Skype, anyone?). In addition, many organizations are in the process of allocating more space for meetings, which means the video-equipped meeting room penetration rate is likely even lower.
"All companies are going to have purchase hardware (and software) that supports multiple platforms"
Now, a number of companies have undoubtedly thought about these issues and have started the process of getting modern hardware installed, but there’s little doubt in my mind that many organizations simply will not be ready for the in-office video meeting onslaught that’s coming. Plus, there’s the cost factor to consider—it’s a non-trivial capital expenditure to acquire and install all the cameras and other videoconferencing equipment that will be necessary.
Even if companies have figured out the hardware issues—and don’t forget the large extra load on internal networks that the huge number of video calls are going to generate—there are software-related concerns as well. As we’ve all learned from our own pandemic experience, the notion of a single video collaboration platform being sufficient is simply a pipe dream. Even organizations that standardize on a videoconferencing tool for all their internal meetings will have to deal with the inevitable calls with partners, customers, etc. who use other platforms. Bottom line? All companies are going to have purchase hardware (and software) that supports multiple platforms.
Unfortunately, given the long-standing tradition in the videoconferencing market of producing hardware that’s “certified” for a single platform, this means either software add-ons or more system integration costs to make rooms capable of supporting all the popular video-based collaboration tools. Though it’s safe to say that most of us have now become fairly adept at using the different software-based collaboration tools, remember that, before the pandemic, one of the biggest issues for videoconferencing adoption rates was the difficulty in using these systems. Employees are going to become extremely frustrated with video-based meetings if these new systems aren’t extraordinarily easy to use. (And don’t forget potential support costs!)
As if these challenges aren’t enough, there are also human nature-based issues that I believe will become apparent very quickly in video meeting-based hybrid work environments. Notably, balancing the value and interaction levels between in-person and remote participants is going to be extremely difficult.
Yes, all the major platforms are working on technologies to make this better, but there is an enormous difference between conceptually appealing solutions and realistically practical ones.
For example, several of the big platforms are thinking about ways to essentially replicate the “everyone is remote” experience even for those in the office, because we all know that it worked. Ironically, however, most of the early approaches essentially ignore the fact that people are going to be sitting next to each other at, say, a conference room table and will naturally interact with each other directly.
Forcing everyone who is local to the meeting to feel as if they are remote is bound to be extremely awkward, even if it is well intentioned. Thankfully, some new AI-based technologies that can isolate and focus on different individuals from a limited number of cameras (or even a single camera) may help somewhat, but I have a strong feeling that many early implementations will be so problematic as to be nearly unusable (or, at best, distracting and not particularly effective).
"We survived through the pandemic because, as frustrating as they might occasionally have been, video-based calls worked and allowed us to collaborate remotely."
In spite of all the desires that people have expressed in surveys about wanting to work remotely, once people start finding themselves in meetings where they are one of only a few remote participants, a certain amount of work FOMO (fear of missing out) is bound to kick in for some people, and they may start rethinking their views on hybrid work.
We all know that many of the best interactions occur before and/or after a camera gets turned on via casual side conversations. As good as many of the video collaboration tools have become—and frankly, their pace of improvement over the pandemic has been extraordinary—I just don’t see them ever being able to capture those types of interactions. To be fair, these concerns won’t come because of the videoconferencing implementations that employees have to deal with as they return to the office, but they are certainly related.
While some might argue that the concerns I’ve raised may not be as big an issue as I’ve made them out to be, remember that video-based meetings are an essential part of the whole hybrid work model. If companies can’t successfully support large numbers of these meetings, the entire hybrid work model falls apart. We survived through the pandemic because, as frustrating as they might occasionally have been, video-based calls worked and allowed us to collaborate remotely. If the infrastructure to enable these calls isn’t widely and robustly available in the office, then the hybrid work model will fail—miserably so—and organizations will have little choice but to make hard decisions about their work environments and work policies.
I’m certainly hopeful that well-implemented videoconferencing tools can enable hybrid work environments that will truly offer the best of both in-person and remote work. I’m also more convinced than ever, however, that as hard as it may have been to get people successfully working remotely, returning to the office and providing the infrastructure necessary to enable videoconferencing for all is going to prove to be significantly harder.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
Image credit Girts Ragelis