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Developing workflows: Exploring digital workspaces

The concept of the digital workplace – in which modern technologies are combined seamlessly for faster and more collaborative working – has been a hot industry topic for years. Now it’s gaining fresh impetus from the need for more remote working, writes David Davies...

As with all umbrella terms, a number of definitions have grown up around ‘digital workplaces’. While some emphasise a level of interconnectedness that enables more effective solo working and collaboration, others focus on the emergence of a new overall computing environment that draws on a greater number of consumer-like devices. 

But for its all encompassing nature, the description offered by Deloitte’s is hard to beat: “The digital workplace encompasses all the technologies people use to get work done in today’s  workplace – both the ones in operation and the ones yet to be implemented. It ranges from your HR applications and core business applications to email, instant messaging, enterprise social media tools and virtual meeting tools.”

The one element that is underplayed by this description is remote working. Increasingly, many companies need to incorporate remote working into daily working operations as well as various conference and meeting scenarios. Needless to say, the current coronavirus crisis is encouraging many companies to review their remote working capabilities with some urgency – more of which anon.

Acknowledging that all firms have at least some degree of digital operation, the picture that emerges is one of a trend gradually – and often systematically – reshaping our working lives. The main issues that tend to be hindering progress are too many organisations using multiple communications platforms, insufficiently early collaboration between AV and IT teams, and a failure to plan adequately for how work patterns might evolve in the future.

Digital dividend
So if it’s possible to generalise, how far has the business world progressed towards realising the ideal of the digital workplace? Jim Fitton, head of solutions at AV specialist Electrosonic, says: “Like many organisations moving along the ‘digital workplace’ road, many will have already gone through the process of updating their technology hardware within the business to support a more collaborative workplace. The next step is to fix a single software platform to allow communication with anyone, anywhere, using any device. Some businesses have moved over to Microsoft Teams. However they may be experiencing team members who still want to use Zoom and other platforms as they are more familiar with them. This, therefore, demonstrates the need to offer sufficient training and support to help drive user adoption.”

Hence, advice to clients looking to implement trouble-free digital workplaces would be to “make a decision around the [communications] platform and also think about some wider investments in standardising the technology available to individuals. For instance, going down the single cable BYOD meeting room route is only viable if everyone has a device capable of supporting it. There may need to be a more fundamental refresh of users’ devices before a single, unified software solution can be successfully deployed. In larger organisations, software and hardware may not even be managed by the same groups.” It is vital, therefore, “to have those fundamental conversations about software and hardware early on”.

Snelling Business Systems is a UK-based systems integrator for whom corporate projects now account for approximately 50 per cent of its workload. Kevin Madeja, the company’s technical director, says it is increasingly the case that “companies are seeing extensive roll-outs” of technologies aimed at creating upscale digital environments.

Invited to outline what now constitutes a ‘state-of- the-art’ digital workplace, Madeja says there will invariably be “a focus on end-points, including displays, speakers, microphones, cameras and insert points for BYOD, as well as the integration of wireless or wired PCs. Whereas a few years ago there was a tendency to spend big money on [dedicated switches], more and more customers are using existing IP infrastructures. It’s also the case that, in a lot of instances, they are using software to do what hardware used to do, while collaboration is increasingly centred around the use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Go To Meeting.”

Above all, Madeja stresses that the concept of the digital workplace is evolving to become more about the customer requirements than the actual technology. “With most people now it’s not about the technology so much – it’s about what they need to do and how they wish to work. It’s very much application-driven, so the [chosen AV systems] are regarded in the corporate environment as tools to accomplish primary business goals – whether you are a service provider, in banking or selling cars.”

Essential planning
With the importance of corporate objectives in mind, all contributors to this feature emphasised the make-or-break nature of having a well- developed plan in place – including consideration of how work patterns might develop in the future – from day one. “A company needs to have a firm sense of the workflows it requires, and how the different technologies will come together to support them,” says Madeja, adding that this becomes evermore critical as project size grows – and for Snelling its corporate workload increasingly entails “large deployments of sometimes 35 or 50 spaces, encompassing meeting, collaborative and event rooms.”

Fitton emphasises that as well as the choice of equipment and scale of the investment, companies developing digital workplaces should think carefully about “logistics and planning. Management and storage of data is another very important issue, especially if there is going to be [a lot of remote working]. And then once the equipment has been installed, everyone has to feel comfortable with it to get the most out of the investment – and that means having access to the training and support they need.”

Several of these aspects become more challenging as additional remote working enters the picture – something that, for many companies, is currently becoming a significant new priority.

Remote working and BYOD
With many European countries in near-total lockdown at the time of writing, there has been a call from the UK government to allow people to work from home as much as possible. In just a few weeks, says Fitton, “we have noticed a change in the nature of customer conversations [about remote working]. It’s gone from being a ‘nice to have’ in some cases to more of a ‘must have’, with companies wanting to support more people working at home, and for longer periods.”

A fairly swift and dramatic surge in the amount of work being done from home may pose several fundamental challenges to the digital workplace. “If you suddenly have a majority of people working from home, bandwidth becomes an issue as not all people will be provisioned for it,” says Fitton. “Also, if you have a set-up whereby people are dialling into VPNs, it may be that you don’t have enough concurrent VPN subscriptions. There are also implications for the data infrastructures as there may not be sufficient bandwidth there to support lots of remote users accessing files and moving them around. So the big overriding question to ask here is: can my infrastructure actually support this?”

The issue of remote workers and data access becomes even more acute in sectors such as legal and financial services. They may find that a third- party cloud-based solution is not only undesirable, but actually incompatible with their regulatory framework. More sensitive data types “do provide an argument for having locally hosted storage and management, and for some clients that can really be the only palatable way of having these capabilities. So while they will also definitely want to ensure they have sufficient bandwidth to support everyone dialling into their VMR [and other resources], they can also ensure they have proper ownership of everything within their own walls – and make sure they meet their governance requirements and all the regular checks and balances.”

Madeja agrees that many companies are now looking to extend their use of remote working and, as much as possible, have the same capabilities for meeting and collaboration that they enjoy in the office. “Remote working is often a matter of routine, meaning that for instance people want to be able to join a Zoom meeting or work with Microsoft Teams from wherever they are, be it in a meeting room, on a laptop remotely, or using their mobile devices. The job of AV is to provide the systems and services that allow all of this to happen effectively and efficiently.”

Solutions for more flexible working
For collaboration-oriented communications company Poly, the remote and BYOD trends are symptomatic of an overall desire for more flexible working. Paul Clark, senior vice president EMEA managing director at Poly, observes that “with only six per cent of people in the UK working a traditional 9am to 5pm work day [source: 2018 YouGov survey], remote and flexible working are becoming the new normal. We live at a time where we have come to expect technology to work fast and effectively, and in exactly the way we expect and want it to. One- touch ordering in our consumer lives has led to the expectation that this convenience should also feature in the workplace. [As a result] organisations are having to adapt to the growing demand for flexible working and employees using their own devices for work.”

A major focus of Poly’s R&D, therefore, remains the development of technologies that “allow employees to integrate their own technology devices into enterprise settings. For the mobile worker, the Poly Elara [mobile phone station] turns your smartphone into a desktop collaboration experience with a headset, built-in speakerphone, handset and dial pad for complete versatility. With no wires beyond a power cable and integration of popular apps like Microsoft Teams, it’s a great solution for hot-desking and shared facilities that prioritises the individual and their productivity in the workspace above all else.”

Newer types of workspace are also informing solutions development. For instance, “with the rise of huddle rooms we’re also seeing the popularity of plug-and-play video bars like the Poly Studio X that don’t require any special apps, tools or software for users to share content wirelessly via their own devices. This enables convenient collaboration for those in the room or attending remotely.

There continue to be instances, however, where “enterprise-grade solutions are far superior to BYOD consumer technology. Poly headsets such as the Voyager and the Savi range combine high- quality audio with best-of-breed noise-block and acoustic fence technologies to reduce background noise and distractions that many consumer headsets don’t”.

Service and support
So what of the future? Several new or emerging technologies – including UHD displays (both 4K and 8K) and VR – seem likely to add to the potential complexity of digital workspaces, especially in areas of business where visualisations and higher resolutions can add significantly to the effectiveness of projects. But increasingly, it is likely to be service and support where systems integrators and service providers can derive the greatest benefit.

Madeja says he is already observing “reduced expenditure on hardware, and where money is being spent it is often in a more concentrated way. In the future we will also see increasing use of off- the-shelf hardware, so I think AV integrators will have to become more involved in software licensing. Then there will be the whole issue of ongoing service and support.”

Fitton agrees that there will continue to be significant opportunities in the long-term service and support of digital workplace customers, especially as remote working becomes more habitual. He concludes: “From fault detection and system management to ensuring that people are trained and empowered to be able to use systems in and out of the office, there will be a lot of scope [for ongoing support arrangements] as the digital workplace continues to evolve.”