We Are Doing It All Wrong!

hybrid work wfh on site

How Can We Do Better?

In this new world of “Return to Office,” we are faced with an interesting question… what exactly is RTO/what is the “New Normal” and how do we plan for the future of work in that new paradigm. In looking at the landscape, we seem to have companies firmly planting flags at both ends of the spectrum.

At one end, we have companies like Dropbox and, most notably, Airbnb, who have proudly stated, “We. Are. Remote!” and so far, they seem to be going that way. At the other end of the spectrum (if you follow the scuttlebutt on blind), we have Google, Apple and Tesla facing an almost open revolt from their employees who are legitimately asking “Why?” as they have been just fine cranking out new products, etc. over the last two years. (Let’s not even talk about Twitter.)

In the middle are countless organizations trying to figure out how to strike a healthy balance. While the reality is that the vast majority of the economy has no choice here (you can’t stock shelves, fix cars or manufacture widgets remotely) even those companies are asking, “is there a way for some work to be done remotely?”

Let’s face it. Remote (at least some of the time) makes sense. Remote work allows that mythical “work-life balance” to become a reality. No commute, access to (in many cases) better coffee and snacks, and the ability to strike a far more reasonable balance with work and family. For a remote employee, it’s nothing to start a meeting in your home office, switch to a mobile setup, pick up your child at school, drive back home and switch back to your home office all in the same meeting and not lose a beat of productivity.

But let’s be honest, we also like going to the office sometimes. You cannot understate the value of connecting with others in person or in ad-hoc hallway conversations. The reality is that humans function well when they work together in groups.

Ultimately though, we cannot escape the fact that almost all work is collaborative in nature. The more collaborative the environment, the better the outcomes. Whether we are talking about a distributed team in Silicon Valley and India working on some software widget or a tire shop training new staff, collaboration makes things better. We learn and grow and expand our experience via those we collaborate with.

Collaboration (no matter how we choose to define it) really only has one objective — to enable people to work. Better. Together.

So — What exactly is it that we are doing wrong?

A few years back, I was working at a large enterprise, and one of my colleagues and I started talking about a mythical thing called the “Conference Room of the Future!” After a pretty short time, we realized that we had to back things out a fair bit and first understand “how we meet.” This, of course, led to discussions about “how who meets?” And how many “whos” did we have? For the rest of this article, I will refer to the “whos” as constituents. And just like politicians do tremendous amounts of work to identify their myriad different constituents, we need to take a similar approach in order to deliver solutions that foster ever greater collaboration.

Since the dark ages (you know, CRT projectors and slide projectors), we have defined what goes into a conference room by some vague high-level requirements. “We need a VC system, and a local laptop connection and a DVD player,” and then whatever was required to support that.

But what I have come to realize is that this is backwards.

In a general sense, at companies from Amazon to Zynga, all meeting rooms are fundamentally the same. But while their needs and subsequent technology deployments are fairly similar, HOW they meet and use that technology can vary greatly. And ultimately, “HOW” you meet is a big part of your corporate culture. And culture is what makes your organization unique. As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So what this means to us is that it’s critical we understand an organization’s culture and lean into that when we present solutions.

Ever since we have had a choice in conference room technology, the HOW of individual corporate cultures has affected what goes into conference rooms. Even the DNA of a company plays a part. About 25 years ago, I was working on the AV at a big corporate retreat in Banff for a high-tech Silicon Valley company that builds and designs semiconductors. And in its meeting rooms, the company did not want laptops and data monitors or projectors, nor did it want overhead projectors and markers … not even want whiteboards or flipcharts. No, dear readers — this wanted… blackboards and chalk in all meeting rooms! And while that may seem crazy, it’s how its workers met.

The other big pill we have to swallow here is that if the last two years showed us anything, it’s that AV (as we typically used to define it, anyway) can be made irrelevant in a heartbeat! No, I am not suggesting that we do not need AV. But it cannot be ignored that all of a sudden, every conference room in the world went dark for about 18 months, and business operations continued largely uninterrupted (to varying extents).

So, what is the magical spark missing to simultaneously solve three big issues?

  1. Get people working more efficiently in this new normal of remote/hybrid work.
  2. Ensure that in the event of another serious wave, or pandemic or anything that can radically get in the way of business continuity, all employees are BETTER set up than before so that things continue smoothly.
  3. Adopt new tools and technologies so that we can better measure productivity and know for sure that we are working just as well when remote.

Again, what exactly is it that we are doing wrong? How about if instead of defining meeting/conference ROOMS, we start defining the desired meeting/conference EXPERIENCE? A critical conversation needs to happen in which an enterprise defines what it wants the meeting experience to look and feel like. Do we want people scribbling on interactive whiteboards? Do we want meetings to be standing up to encourage a quick pace? Do we share content in PowerPoint decks that everyone works on? Or Jamboard/Miro/Mural sessions that we scribble together and then present to a team?

Once that experience is defined, then we need to identify all the different constituents. In the office at their desks, in a conference room, remote (hotel/traveling), home office, etc. And then, beyond that, let’s also look at those who have been disproportionately overlooked in the past. We have the tools at our disposal to ensure an equitable meeting experience for those who have disabilities. I was talking to an IT director recently who had just enabled closed captioning on their company’s videoconferencing platform. All of a sudden, he started getting emails from a variety of people thanking him. What surprised him most was that he had no idea how many people this function had helped. At my current employer, we are a Zoom shop, and we have just enabled CC, which is great. However, we can’t default the CC to ON. So while users can enable it themselves, things like this are always better when deployed as an Opt-Out as opposed to Opt-In.

All these different people and all their needs make up your constituents. Even with remote workers, we need to get pretty granular in order to help them be as effective as possible. Take me as an example: I work remotely most days. And for a while, I was using my oh-so-nice Bose NC700 headphones. They are awesome … I was in my own world … up until my wife lit me up one day, as I couldn’t hear her telling me that the dog needed to be let out. You get the drift. Those headphones are great for a person on a plane or traveling or working in a coffee shop. They fit that need. For a person working at home, they simply CANNOT shut the world out. Remote work is about balance, and with the right equipment, that can be well managed. That is why I now use AfterShokz bone conduction headphones. Nothing gets shut out at home, and I can maintain that balance (not an ad, I bought them myself). But the main point here is to recognize that not all remote scenarios have the same constituents.

In the “before times,” we spent loads of money building out conference rooms, but the remote people … well, they were lucky to have a desktop VC client so that they could join in. More often than not, it was just audio dial-in. But their experience was that of a second-tier citizen. We have now flipped that script, and as a result, the majority of people are remote, with in-office being the smaller group. As a result, we have to take a much closer look at how everyone attends and what that experience is. Some people have a well-equipped private office. Some have a desk in their bedroom, some just put their laptop on the kitchen table. I have even had to take meetings from the backyard when the housecleaner was here (don’t judge me, my german shepherd sheds like you wouldn’t believe!). So as we look for solutions, we have to think about not just how people meet, but when and where they meet and what they need to accomplish in those meetings.

Another emerging example of this is the whole digital whiteboard arena. While I can equip all my conference rooms with Jamboards, Prysm systems or Jupiter Pana touch screens and do cool stuff with Miro, or Zoom whiteboard or whatever… that is great for those in the conference rooms, but all the remote attendees are no longer full participants in that meeting as they can only view things. So, if we want to deploy solutions in this area, we need to ensure we look into options for everyone. Whether that means Microsoft Surface Pros for staff, a tablet, or maybe touch monitors (and don’t forget a stylus!), we need to ensure that as many different constituents as possible can fully participate.

Hybrid work is the present and the future. Even without the mess that COVID inflicted upon us, the reality is that 20 years ago, 99% of the meeting participants were in the conference room, with the remainder connecting usually through a phone bridge, or maybe via video. Whereas today, it has completely flipped. Now we have to assume that the main stakeholders are not in the same room, so while we need to embrace new technology for even better and collaborative ways of working, we must also ensure that we enable the maximum number of people to be fully engaged and present in those meeting experiences.

This brings up all manner of business opportunities; it opens up the possibility to not just sell conference rooms, but also act as a consultant to your enterprise customers for so much more. There was a time when the “demo room” was an effective selling tool. Those days are long gone. But being able to show your customers four different desk setups with a variety of demo workstations with different options to enable better employee productivity can lead to far more business and a far more “sticky” relationship with your enterprise customers.

The key to the future of work is ensuring that as many people as possible have an equitable seat at the table. And the more we are able to facilitate that, the more effective that customer can be. And ensuring that we think about and enable everyone, no matter where they are located/joining a meeting from, is the key to that future.