Video in vogue: mapping future tech strategies for the workplace

Technology is central to workplace strategy, so why is it still a source of frustration to users? Mike Halliday of Cordless Consultants looks at the impact of audio visual and unified communications in the workplace and how the right tech strategy can really change the game

Video usage is quickly becoming a standard in everyday life, from our personal lives to professional work video is used as a staple to communicate with others. So much so that the user experience is now dependant on the quality of video and audio and how well they integrate with other technologies. This means that the experience is becoming defined by the Unified Communications platform selection – leaving customers at the mercy of vendor-led change.

Investing in workplace trends

Technology investment is a fickle game. Businesses want to make long-term investments, but the pace of technology development is moving so rapidly that most tech has a short sell-by date. It is well recognised that much technology (particularly AV) won’t last the life cycle of the building, and in a large number of cases won’t last even half way through their proposed occupancy. It is, therefore, vital that companies are aware of new technological trends and have a well mapped strategy for the future.

Whilst in many companies some form of agile working is now commonplace as a general strategy, it is quite clear that definitions of agile working can vary significantly. Even with a clear definition as a summary, businesses often take different approaches to achieve their version of agile.

The art of collaboration

One thing that remains consistent in any agile working strategy is the desire to improve or enhance productivity through collaboration. Whilst many immediately think of interactive whiteboards, huddle spaces and drop-in cafés, collaboration at its heart is simply people working together.

Above all else, the ability to communicate is essential to enable effective collaboration. Email, Instant Messaging, and live boards and project spaces via platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are great for sharing information that doesn’t require an immediate response. However, real-time communication that is not possible face-to-face still predominantly relies on some form of audio or Video Conferencing.

‘Getting conferencing right in meeting rooms has always been a challenge’

Adhering to some fairly straightforward guidelines when it comes to room layout, finishes, acoustics and lighting will result in optimum spaces for conferencing. However, aesthetic preferences and the requirements for multi-purpose use often results in compromises that prove detrimental to the conferencing experience. Telepresence solutions remain expensive, but at least their manufacturer’s strict guidelines on the room makeup ensure a consistently good user experience, making the most of the investment.

Designers are increasingly sympathetic to Video Conferencing (VC) requirements that extend beyond simply optimising screen height. However, it’s not enough to consider VC as simply video screens, VC requirements now need to be seen in their entirety. This means utilising quality microphones and cameras to deliver clear audio and crisp, high definition video, without breaking the bank and hampering room aesthetics too much.

The missing pieces of the productivity puzzle

However, once the design has been optimised and high quality equipment has been installed there are still two crucial elements that need to be considered: the VC platform and the user experience.

Let’s look at the VC platform element first. Traditional videoconferencing which offers interoperability between manufacturers is clinging on for dear life but in their place is the rise of a divergent range of platform. The VC element of these Unified Communication (UC) platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx Teams, Google G-Suite, only makes up a small part of their product offering.  All jockeying for market dominance, each vendor’s key goal is to get their platform to be at the centre of everything a company does.

With solutions constantly evolving, adding new features and USPs to keep up with competition, interoperability for VC is becoming a luxury, not a standard. Now some vendors are allowing basic interoperability between a select few, but not many – some additional infrastructure or service such as BlueJeans is often used to bridge calls between platforms, adding complexity and cost to the solution.

The user experience

Increasingly, vendors have a good grasp on user experience. Which makes sense in many respects – for example, whilst some customisation of any Microsoft app is available, this is more configuration than customisation, with all options defined by Microsoft themselves.

With these UC platforms being software-based, it is understandable that the same approach is taken – the user experience is consistent regardless of where the system is installed, and updates can be pushed out at any time without fear of breaking any custom code. The result is that the user experience is defined by the UC platform selection.

The impact of video and audio conferencing in the meeting and collaboration spaces (essential to making an agile working strategy successful) is often overlooked. Furthermore, with most pricing models now being license-based, vendors want to keep their customers embedded deeply in their products to ensure the money keeps rolling in.

What comes first, the design or solution?

Meeting Room solutions designed to integrate with one of these UC platforms are limited. Often only a few options are available, each one designed for a particular use case or type/size of meeting space. They are also typically designed as standalone systems with little or no ability to integrate with additional systems such as video distribution and third party mics.

So, do the rooms need to be designed around the solution?

Where this is an agreed strategy from the outset, this can be very successful, provided users work within the system’s limitations. If we remind ourselves of the current trend for agile working and the multiple workspace types this promotes, and couple it with the inevitable requirement for a 30-seater boardroom or divisible training room, these solutions soon lack viability when considered holistically.

The difficulty of keeping up with change

This is becoming a huge problem, particularly when large quantities of rooms are built and designed and a product that ends up having a very short lifespan. Typically, it has been commonplace to install AV systems containing components from multiple providers, which becomes less and less viable when providing a solution that natively supports one of the UC platforms. Whilst there are clear benefits to a single-vendor AV solution in terms of maintenance, support, and integration with a UC platform, the lack of flexibility puts customers at the mercy of a vendor’s roadmap. In a fast-evolving market, the roadmap for the meeting room hardware doesn’t necessarily align with the software.

It is good to see vendors such as Microsoft continuing to partner with third parties to offer meeting room solutions, particularly with their push towards Microsoft Teams soon necessitating a replacement of all the Skype-based systems sold over the last few years. However, Microsoft is not just dictating the user interface, but the hardware on which these systems are based.

The impact on the future of corporate AV

In the short term, I am sure we will increasingly see companies building rooms and spaces around a UC platform and whatever benefits or limitations it has, reaping the benefits of swift rollouts and reliable, supportable systems.

AV manufacturers will do their best to push software vendors to open up their platforms to allow better integration. Perhaps the ease-of-use of these systems will convince users that they no longer need Boardrooms or Town Hall spaces, or that a reduction in audio or video fidelity still offers performance that is ‘good enough’.

However, with technology development continuing to outpace workplace strategies and a typical office lease, companies will need to be prepared to adapt their AV solutions to meet the requirements of the new ways of working driven to an increasing extent by software platforms. Ensuring any technology and workplace strategy has a roadmap to provision against future change will be key to optimising the lifespan of an office.

Mike Halliday is the AV and Multimedia Director at Cordless Consultants

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Cordless Consultants Cordless Consultants is an independent IT, AV and Smart Building consultancy. All opinions expressed in the Academy's Technology section are not necessarily the view of Cordless.