Widgets Magazine

Four Considerations for the Future of Workplace Technology

How to design tomorrow’s workspace

By: Robert Bach, Director, Product Strategy – Digital Workplace at Crestron

At the beginning of last year, would you have believed that most businesses could shift to a completely remote workforce in a matter of weeks? In your most comprehensive Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plans, did you even consider this happenstance?  Who was around from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic to warn us? Hindsight is now, quite literally, 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been transformational in its effect.  At the onset, many of us responded quickly to set up our employees and workplaces with the tools needed to effectively support the work-from-anywhere movement.  In recent history, we had some small glimpses of the benefits of a remote workforce as we responded to regional shutdowns due to blizzards, hurricanes and typhoons, mass transit outages, and other disruptions; but never all of us globally at the same time.  After a year of living in this world of isolation in our own private germ bunkers, we see that Covid-19 has been a catalyst in the process of workplace evolution.  The shift to remote work and agile workspace was very slowly gaining traction over the last 15 years, yet it was not a priority for most companies.  As we come out into the light again to resume more traditional pre-pandemic behaviors, we must revisit our digital transformation strategies to ensure we have the right technology approach to support and scale a productive, flexible, and efficient workforce and address normalizing and solidifying any patchwork solutions put in place in urgency, when making it work was enough just to simply keep us going.

According to Microsoft, this past year has caused a sea change in the desires of our workforce, with 70% of our workers expressing a desire to maintain the flexibility of working from home routinely and coming into a corporate office as necessary.  What we have learned in this past year about supporting the home worker is that having the proper technologies and infrastructure in place will help enable employees to work together safely, effectively, and collaboratively wherever they may be. It will also assist in anticipating and addressing the fast-evolving needs of the workplace now and well beyond the pandemic as we synthesize this newfound knowledge and experience to build the next generation of work spaces and technologies.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it has been that we, as business leaders, must collectively try and look at the workplace through a more forward-thinking lens. In a post-pandemic world, it is critical that every employee is supported from both a safety and productivity standpoint, whether they are working remotely, in the office, or taking a hybrid approach. In order to do so, leadership must begin re-imagining the workplace now.

There are a variety of considerations for the future of the modern workplace that everyone should keep in mind as they plan for workplace success post-pandemic. These key guidelines and drivers for technology in the future of work identify the need for end-user consistency, single-platform solutions, scalable and secure and remotely supportive services, and a technology infrastructure that informs as strongly as it performs through data and analytics.   The global storm of 2020 met need for action with a swift reaction and a finger in the air for prediction with the urgency of get it done, and just in time deliverables which must now seek firmer foundation and use data and analytics to ensure that these solutions are sound.

The following insights illustrate how implementing new solutions and models can help overcome challenges in the future.

Deliver consistent end-user experiences and workflows

Organizations that were early adopters of cloud technologies and ecosystems like Office 365 or G Suite were already familiar with the concept of consistent end user experiences, but in early 2020 as the pandemic ramped up, many organizations had yet to create a workplace that facilitated flexibility and supported a concept of work from anywhere.  Organizations based on brick-and-mortar store-based sales with weak e-commerce or lacking in omnichannel sales struggled to implement technologies to support their call centers remotely and achieve PCI compliance while supporting sales outside the traditional office and off corporate networks. As we return, and some are starting to already, we will face many challenges in the short and long-term in formally adopting, ratifying, and standardizing these strategies, which may have been implemented quickly and are in hindsight only loosely compliant. In the modern workplace, employees will have little tolerance for an office environment that hinders their ability to easily connect and collaborate, whether it is at home or in their headquarters. However, the underlying fact remains that our networks, data, and communications traffic must flow reliably and securely.

Our basic needs for telephony have morphed into a demand for easy-to-use Unified Communications (UC) and collaboration platforms, and VPN access to file servers and shared drives has morphed to become access to cloud storage and content. And at the transport layer, basic internet access has become SD-WAN and a pathway to the IoT with Cloud service providers like MS Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud, which is now more important than just basic access from our local exchange carriers in delivering access to applications and storage.  Terrestrial circuits with 4G & 5G backups provide an always on for home or office workers.  The result is a consistent end user experience that scarcely notices the commute between the home and office, as well as enabling connectivity and inclusion during business travel when that resumes at a more normal pace.

The entire technology backbone and architecture of the new office must work consistently and synergistically. Portability, flexibility, ease-of-use and integrated support for an entire ecosystem of UC and cloud-based services, storage, and applications are all critical in ensuring consistency for end-users.  

Grow with a platform-based approach that is open, scalable and extensible

COVID-19 has, like we said about workplace transformation, also acted as a catalyst for digital transformation.  IT spending in 2020 was focused largely on transformation, and historically slow movers may have jumped the equivalent of what would have been three or four years at their previous pace.  Platforms, by definition, are open, scalable and extensible. A single UC platform for example ensures that there is efficiency in the support model and that training and management tasks may be streamlined, requiring less staff and fewer hours dedicated to disharmonious point solutions.  A scalable platform-based ecosystem allows enterprise decision-makers to build upon it as new software and solutions come to market.

It has long been the case that integrators and IT services companies have pushed “best of breed” as a design approach using multiple systems and applications.  While in many cases it can make sense to use products that are complimentary to and compatible with the platform, sometimes this approach is not taken with benevolent intent.  Oftentimes, a best of breed approach is a sales tactic designed to lock the customer in to a provider who has the expertise to manage the myriad of technologies, but at the expense of easy-to-use integrated systems. Enabling the enterprise to have the ability to manage core functionality, metrics, and reporting in-house is the hallmark of a well-built platform and one of the greatest cost savings benefits.

With the focus toward cloud platforms and services, the digital transformation of corporate IT resources underpins the enterprise’s ability to consume these technologies.  Investment in product platforms rather than one-off products ensure that organizations receive the best return on investment and that diverse needs across the enterprise are met while consistent user experiences are delivered. Continually evolving with new capabilities over time and offering the ability to connect with external tools and IoT data and metrics, the platform approach provides the greatest flexibility and choice in deployment.

Utilize infrastructure services that are secure and cloud-based

As technology proliferates across an enterprise, IT teams are tasked with deploying and managing a growing number of devices with the same resources. Today, as we have discussed, scalable and secure cloud-based services are becoming the norm to support work from anywhere, and organizations can now securely deploy, manage, and monitor devices without having to be onsite.  In the example of Microsoft O365 based enterprises running Microsoft Teams devices at various distributed home office or company facilities, traditionally local IT would push an upgrade to a device. However, with the Teams Admin Portal, the devices can be controlled by a centrally located admin over the Azure network or easily outsourced to a trusted partner.  Crestron offers the same approach with XiO Cloud® where the management software is an Azure hosted application that a system administrator can use to push updates, configure settings, turn systems on or off automatically or as needed, and even trigger button push events from miles away from the controlled device or system.  This enables common support for a globally diverse organization and simplified workflows for support and device administration.

Data driven decision making

In addition to system management and monitoring, digital transformation brings into play the ability to adopt IoT products and solutions that are designed to gather an immense amount of data about how and where workplace technology is being used. Since there is an increasing amount of data available, organizations and business leaders should use these insights and new AI to make better workplace decisions.  The cloud platforms we’ve discussed enable the harmonization of this unrefined metadata into dashboards and reports, which can be automated or used to drive alerts on anomalies.

Google Data Studio, for example, is just such a tool linking disparate systems and software through connectors to provide raw data for conversion into visual charts and metrics for measuring performance.  The value of this data is inestimable in the transformation process and will give the enterprise the empirical measure to implement change and drive better planning, and the reports with which to prove longstanding success in the modern workplace.  Using systems and software that are closely aligned with the Google Ecosystem results in better reporting derived from the Data Studio and avoids islands of isolated data, which is after all the point of the platform approach to system design.

The cloud ecosystem has fundamentally changed the day-to-day operations of the IT and UC services teams, maximizing overall efficiency, and supporting distributed workforces to make it easier to create centers of excellence. However, we have not yet mentioned security, which along with privacy and data integrity, are also key components of this tenet.  As Cloud platforms expand and cover more systems across the hybrid workplace, security must be built-in to all processes and be simple enough to roll out through the cloud.

Digital transformation to cloud platforms depends on enhanced security through SD-WAN based measures to protect against attacks and breaches not just at the beachhead, but globally while in-transit.  Zero Trust is another common discipline adopted in cloud transportation, which goes hand in hand with SD-WAN.  Whereas the advantages of the platform approach allow for a more centric and efficient support mechanism along with improved data and analytics, the change from perimeter security to network and IoT security should not be an area to expect savings but rather a critical area for ever increasing discipline, a topic worthy of another article.

As we return to a world that has experienced a dramatic shift in a very short period of time, the reality is that many of us are using this moment in time as an opportunity to figure out what the right workplace environment looks like. Too many of the decisions made over the last year have been reactionary in nature or were made with a finger in the air as if testing the wind direction.  Now is the time to ensure that the underpinnings of the corporate digital transformation are sound and secure, enabling a platform-based approach poised for growth and scalability. We are now embracing the flexibility that the new normal has taught us but working hard to mine the data and produce the analytics that empirically shows the benefits of an approach that offers work life balance and job satisfaction with a simultaneous advantage of an efficient, cost effective, and secure path toward growth and profitability for the corporation.

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