11 technologies for supporting the hybrid office
By: Peter Wayner
Among the biggest challenges IT leaders face right now is supporting shifting strategies around where the enterprise does its work. Prior to the pandemic, remote work was a facet of most organization’s workforce mixes — but hardly the universal business imperative it instantly became when COVID-19 hit. Now, workers are returning to offices, at least in some measure, with widespread remote work likely here to stay.
The debates over in-person versus remote work are raging on within the C-suites of organizations of all stripes, with some believing in the power of face-to-face kismet and the others extolling the creativity that comes from working anywhere at any time. IT leaders are a key part of this discussion, but will also be chiefly responsible for supporting whatever hybrid workforce strategy emerges from this debate.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever to adapt to shifting priorities, public health mandates, and mercurial bosses. It’s now common for software offerings to support the ability to work anywhere, from a safari in Africa to the same cubicle you’ve held for 10 years. The challenge is knowing what works best and deploying it, as well as facilitating change across the enterprise to ensure the workforce remains productive.
Here are N technologies IT leaders should consider in supporting hybrid office strategies and the workplace flexibility those strategies entail.
Calling these tools “office hoteling” can be confusing because there are no hotels or any sleeping involved. The idea is to make it easier for employees and teams to reserve desks, workstations, conference rooms, and more, all with a click. Sure, some organizations can survive with a first-come-first-served rule, but good hoteling software can discourage conflicts that come from bad behavior such as desk hogging.
Hoteling software is growing increasingly sophisticated. Some solutions offer point-and-click maps of the workspace. Others display the current “owners” of each desk on a big screen so that it’s easy to find where someone is sitting. Some generate reports that plot demand for desks so your company can avoid overpaying for space when it comes time to renegotiate the rent. The feature set is growing quickly because companies are still dreaming up new requirements.
Some leading vendors include Condeco, DeskFlex, iOffice, and EMS.
Knowing where everyone is sitting makes it simpler to handle outbreaks. Good contract tracing software can identify everyone who happened to be working near an infected person.
Some products track employees when they check in by asking them to confirm they haven’t experienced any symptoms. Others use infrared cameras to take temperatures. Some tools can defend against infection by sounding an alarm if people get too close. There are a variety of contract tracing options for enforcing strategies for limiting transmission.
Some options include SaferMe and Mobile Programming.
Better cloud productivity tools
Cloud-based office software isn’t new, but the solutions have suddenly become essential, pushing them to get even better. All these tools are designed to make it simpler to enable an employee to log in from a random browser and start working. Once that jump is made, the transition from office to home to coffee shop is simple. While companies may still supply laptops and other hardware for people working remotely, provisioning these machines and maintaining security has never been easier with browser-based tools.
New features are redefining the space. Microsoft’s venerable Office suite is now a collection of web applications that’s part of OneDrive. Google’s collection of editors and mail programs has outgrown the old name “G Suite” and is now “Workspace.” Zoho offers all the usual productivity apps for editing documents and presentations but also adds tools for customer relationship management, human resources, and accounting under the umbrella “Zoho One.”
Better planning software
Software optimized for sorting and tracking tasks are fast becoming essential for getting work done. Tools for agile programming teams have grown to help project managers track the various parts of any given project with tickets that flow across a Kanban board. Enterprise software managers have their own tools that track every piece of software running on every machine. Sales teams have been using customer relationship management (CRM) systems for years.
None of these packages are new and none were designed to fight a pandemic infection, but all are available wherever employees are and help streamline workflows, reducing the need for face-to-face meetings. Even if people are coming into the office some of the time, there may never be a moment when they’re all there at the same time. If your office has been resisting switching to a better workflow management system, now is the time to investigate upgrading it.
Key vendors here include Asana, Jira, Monday.com, and more.
Messaging and conferencing systems have been around since long before the pandemic, but they are worth another look if you haven’t already adopted them, as they are ideal for maintaining team cohesion when the team is rarely in the office at the same time. Moreover, these tools have been improving by increasing their integration with other tools for workflow management. Upgrading this layer and editing the channel list can encourage use.
Slack is the dominant vendor, but all office productivity software suites include their own messaging options. Others messaging vendors include Discord, RocketChat, and Flowdock. There are also a number of open source solutions such as Mattermost and Zulip.
New telephony solutions
Office phone networks with hardwired phones on fixed desks are rapidly disappearing. Some organizations are standardizing on personal cell phones, reimbursing employees for their cost. Others are buying office plans, something that can mean forcing people to carry two devices.
Still, office phone networks are evolving, and now offer the flexibility to adapt to quickly shifting teams who sit in different places every day and sometimes every hour. The networks can forward calls as needed. And if you prefer the size and heft of an old office phone, new models wrap modern cell phones with bigger handsets and easy-to-read displays, and the vendors tout their ability to switch from desk to home without rewiring.
Microsoft Teams and Google Voice for instance, have a bridge to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Some phone system vendors include RingCentral, Ooma, Line2, and DialPad.
More feature-rich videoconferencing
The world of videoconferencing is growing more sophisticated with vendors rolling out features that do more than just let people look at one another. Ring Central, for instance, has added live transcriptions and seemingly endless whiteboard space to its virtual conference rooms. Google Meet just rolled out automatically translated captions for discussions between people who speak different languages.
Zoom has enhanced the power of users to control breakout rooms to add more personal interaction to big meetings. At the same time, the Pandemic darling has added richer formatting options for the chat rooms. The most exciting area may be where third parties offer various possibilities in several dozen categories such as education or healthcare.
Some of the greatest innovations in response to the pandemic are those that helped replace the world of conferences, conventions, and meetings. There are now virtual spaces designed to emulate the big convention centers where you can wander from presentation room to sales hall, all while working the room and bumping into old acquaintances.
These spaces aren’t just for big public events because some companies are using them for internal all-hands meetings. Departments can cross-pollinate and teams can generate reports for each other. Some of the new vendors defining this space include Aventri, Accelevents, Eventzilla, Demio, and Hopin.
Onboarding tools and continuing education have moved beyond the conference room as well. Modern education software includes new features that improve the training experience, like variable-speed videos and interactive quizzes to make sure the message is getting through. Knowledge is more structured than ever. Employees don’t need to wait for a new training session or even come into the office.
Major vendors such as Coursera and Udemy offer options for supporting business-specific training.
Many jobs need little more than an average laptop. Some tasks like video editing or 3D rendering require stronger processors and more RAM. Pools of high-powered hardware that’s booked through hoteling software is often a good solution — especially when some workers aren’t going to be using all of the power every day.
New collaborative spaces
Not every collaborative interaction needs to happen through video tech. Game companies are repurposing their virtual worlds to create rich, virtual workspaces designed to capture the best parts of real work rooms. Sound, for instance, can obey the laws of physics making it possible for people to speak freely to those next to them in the virtual environment, even if they’re thousands of miles apart in real life.
There are also some fun touches such as a virtual firepit that slowly burns down unless you add another virtual log. Work will never be as much fun as a pure game but there’s no reason that we can’t try to make this new hybrid world better than the old office life before the pandemic.
Some companies building out these options include Ronday, Gather, and MeetinVR.