The pandemic forced workers out of the office and into their homes. Now that things are returning to normal, those workers are reluctant to come back. Anna Hayes explores the landscape of a distributed workforce.
An Officeworks desk, a laptop raised to eye level on a couple of shoeboxes, a monitor and a chair borrowed from head office – this might not describe your home office setup but it certainly rings all the bells for me.
As office blocks went dark last year, people wondered when they might return.
Fast-forward a year or so and you have people wondering if they even want to, while others have opted (or argued) for a hybrid system – working a few days from home and the rest in the office.
This new idea, that of a distributed workforce, presents opportunities for employers and employees alike. But it also poses challenges, particularly in the area of technology and how to create a unified communication experience if everyone is singing off different hymn sheets.
Facts and figures
A recent survey by Barco showed that 55% of employees in Australia wanted to continue working from home for an average of two days a week. Although, 51% admit to finding it less enjoyable now than at the start of the pandemic.
Most notably, the survey found that employees wanted a hybrid workplace model that offered flexibility and freedom, and there was significant demand from workers for their employers to invest in better facilities and to change existing facilities to enable this hybrid working balance.
Barco ANZ managing director Claudio Cardile explains: “Enterprises are implementing creative solutions like hybrid ways of working and they have been trying to find the right balance between employees working partly remote and partly in-office.
“We have been focusing on the integration of data metrics, where we can use the data from all sources and analyse them to come up with decisions which can reduce the manual eff orts, keep the employees satisfied and drive growth.”
Interestingly, half of the participants expect hand gestures to control video conferencing platforms within two years.
Jumping into action
For many, setting up a home office was something of a patchwork quilt and attempts to purchase new equipment when it became clear that offices were going to be off limits for a time were largely futile.
That prompted a lot of manufacturers and distributors to examine their ranges and see what could conceivably be repurposed and remarketed for the work-from-home (WFH) market, including Bluetooth microphones and headsets.
Jands technology lead Jeff MacKenzie says that most commercial grade manufacturers and suppliers weren’t focused on the home market until recently due to its domination by a handful of consumer brands.
“Suddenly, pro manufacturers are looking at WFH products. It’s an emerging market when many others are shrinking.”
One of those manufacturers was Crestron which had a whole suite of products that could easily transition into a WFH space.
Crestron’s director of residential solutions in Australia, Dee Bubeck explains that, pre-COVID, they already had the Flex range which offered one touch meeting control for Teams and Zoom.
“Bringing that into the home was a pretty easy thing for us to do. It was more a case of making the residential side of the dealer base aware of products that were, historically, commercial centric. There were a couple of these products we adapted to be more home centric.”
Crestron Hometime is a product designed for family experience but can also be used professionally for video conferencing.
Similarly, ClearOne simply had to fine-tune its commercial solutions to meet the new demand for the home office.
ClearOne chairperson and chief executive Zee Hakimoglu says: “We were lucky to already have solutions well suited for remote work. This is a result of our market strategy to offer audio and video solutions that scale to meet workspace, performance, aesthetic, and budget needs. That said, we quickly optimised these existing solutions and assembled them under the new ClearOne Aura brand, launched in November 2020 for the work from home environment.”
Not isolated, disrupted
But while working from home seemed like a very solitary, isolated life, as time went on, the individual became part of the collective.
Jeff remarks: “Traditionally the conference room was the centre of attention. As the WFH situation evolved and more people joined remotely using an eclectic collection of VC peripherals, we realised we were now dealing with a distributed meeting scenario, no longer a meeting room with a bunch of remote people connected. The quality and configuration of the remote VC peripherals is just as significant as that of the main conference room. If one person has poor audio or echo on the line it degrades the meeting experience for everyone.”
When push comes to shove, it’s all about the experience and, as mentioned before, employees are pushing employers to invest in technology that works and makes their experience better.
Jeff sees a natural progression here.
“It seems to me that the next logical step will be standardised and potentially certified hardware for the remotes. I’d love for that mindset to catch on so that corporate customers consider not just video conferencing systems in the office meeting spaces, but also cater for the needs of remote participants. You’d get consistent performance as well as improved monitoring and control of the distributed VC system as a whole.”
And it’s decisions like this that many believe will dictate the landscape of the working environment in the future.
Zee says: “Organisations are poised on the edge of a new workplace frontier. In this new workplace reality, an organisation’s success will rely on its ability to harness technology that enables effective team collaboration both in the home and the office, easily and effectively. It will be important to choose the right technology with features that facilitate remote team collaboration.”
It’s likely to be a ‘top down’ approach, according to Dee who says the technology will be part of that debate.
Expectations will remain high in the central hub too.
Claudio adds: “The hybrid workforce is here to stay, and it is the time to redesign and invest in safe, efficient, and fully equipped offices and meeting spaces that will enable better engagement between employees.”
A rife market
While the home office has firmly established itself as an area of great importance, both in a home buyer and a technological point of view, the idea of every remote worker installing an enterprise-grade system in their home office is, in most cases, a bridge too far.
That’s not to say that some distributors haven’t thought about it though.
Jands marketing manager Will Repanellis explains: “We have tossed around the idea of the executive home office, and what that would look like in terms of some of our higher-end products, because of the reliability of control, the remote management – IT can dial in and monitor and manage the setup. But you’re talking a significant jump in price point, so you’d really want that to be your office, and that’s it.”
Crestron too has added a few extra little capabilities that aren’t likely to appear on the doorway to your average home office. Tabletop hardware means users can do away with wired/wireless headphones and microphones and give their home office a real boardroom feel.
Dee adds: “We also have cool wireless light indicators for outside your home office door. It works on a traffic light system so that you don’t have to worry about family barging in when you’re in the middle of an important call.”
As everything in our homes becomes more connected, it stands to reason that there are opportunities in this area for integrators and, for some, it may even surpass other historically more popular features.
Zee remarks: “We feel the home theatre space at home may now play second fiddle to a professionally equipped home office.”
She feels that integrators who have been moving towards recurring-revenue service models as external AV/IT support for small-to-medium businesses may be better positioned to take advantage of the new WFH landscape. AV practitioners may also find new sales channels in partnering with residential real-estate professionals as the fully equipped home office will be a prime feature of homes to support remote work.
“Many companies are trying to find a balance between remote and working from the office, placing many integrators in the position of finding the solutions that work for both seamlessly, and also supporting existing IT administrator staff with experienced advice on the tools that will work in both locations without integration issues.”
She adds: “The ability to support the split workforce and split work environments efficiently, with plans for support and maintenance revenue models will need to be considered.”
Dee feels that there are huge opportunities for integrators in the home office area, pointing out that many homes could have two remote workers.
“A recent survey by the Real Estate Buyers Agents Association (REBAA) showed that the home office is now ranked third in the list of requirements for people building homes. Two years ago, it didn’t even make the top ten.”
He encouraged integrators to be proactive; liaising with architects and interior design partners, pointing out that design of these rooms is going to be very important.
“And I think that’s where integrators can come in, being able to integrate those solutions with the rest of the home. They’ve got the ability to design the space, to look at things like: where’s the screen, where’s the camera in relation to natural light, etc. Those are the things that people will have to start really considering when designing these systems and rooms. And if integrators can invest a bit of time into researching things like placement, etc, I think it will be really beneficial to them.”
Claudio agrees, remarking: “It is important for integrators to have access to the innovative and leading-edge solutions that enable rapid and connected deployment of digital conferencing, presentation, visualisation and collaboration tools that enable hybrid workplaces as seamless and integrated environments for the employees.”
The home office, it seems, is here to stay.