My readers will have noticed the radio silence the last several months. I’ve received several emails and texts from you regarding my opinion on the pandemic’s impact on our industry, and the economy at large. I’ve also had many calls with large enterprises, consultants, and thought leaders recently – and the same subject has come up. I wanted to make sure I could first witness what we’re going through and understand some of the implications before forming an opinion, so apologies for the silence – but I’m ready to speculate – so here it goes.
This is arguably the largest transformation of the workplace that the world has seen since the industrial revolution. If you work in my field (workplace collaboration and technology), the AV industry, or enterprise software – then you know that the workplace was already being disrupted. This disruption has been enabled by the ability of flexible software to replace the traditional hardware-based, heavy-infrastructure approach to building our environments. Traditional conference rooms were rapidly being replaced with ad hoc huddle rooms, and even traditional individual desks were being swapped for workstations that could be “rented”. Employees were demanding a more seamless work-life balance and spaces that reflected that – such as meeting rooms that could also serve as yoga rooms and transitional spaces that could be used for team building and socialization. A strong demand to use their own software and devices throughout the enterprise (and not the company mandated ecosystem) was on the rise. Shared office spaces were developing to provide companies with the flexibility to explore new ways to work. Sometimes these changes were being met with success, other times they were being questioned or even abandoned outright.
So on top of all this the pandemic arrives – and, nearly overnight – we all work differently. What will the lasting effects be? Will there be a permanent rise in people that enjoy working from home? Will office architecture change to support semi-proximate meetings? I don’t know and I think it’s far too early to tell. However, I will make one prediction based on some solid historical evidence– workplace innovation is on the way.
I’m a technologist, and when I think about how the pace of innovation responds to global-scale challenges – I get pretty excited about what’s about to happen. We’re about to see things change in ways we would have only dreamed about in the past. Let me tell you why I think this. You see, there are really two types of inventions – those that are almost accidental leaps and those that arise from great need and force of will. Everyone is probably familiar with some of the great stories around how accidents can lead to great discovery – the X-ray, Velcro, and even penicillin were stumbled upon during other pursuits (here’s a fun list of a few others). But in reality, many of our best inventions come when we are forced, through major disruption, to come up with solutions at all costs to some very hard problems. These types of inventions require focus, an absolute need to change things quickly in response to challenges.
These waves of innovation always emerge during eras of global challenge and then continue to improve our lives well past the challenge that gave rise to them. Perhaps the most well known example of this is the computer and the challenge of World War II. Desperate to break the German ‘Enigma’ code machine, a group of mathematicians – including Alan Turing – developed a whole field of cybernetics and theoretical computing, and then built the world’s first large-scale electronic computer called “Colossus”. This led to the field of computer science, and ultimately the development of a general purpose computer called ENIAC. (Post-pandemic field trip idea: you can still see parts of ENIAC on display at University of Pennsylvania – take the family!)
Of course World War II led to all kinds of inventions – radar, jet propulsion, the photocopy. The same can be said for other disruptive times of change – the settling of the American West led to the telegraph and barbwire. The Space Race led to LED lighting, memory foam, and wireless headsets. Throughout history this same pattern occurs. So now we find ourselves in a time of great disruption when it comes to how we work together. We need to find more effective ways to collaborate. We need to teach classes where half the students are physically present and the other half are in the dorm – while still maintaining student engagement. We need to find opportunistic moments to connect and share ideas – while remaining dispersed on our enterprise campus. We need to be productive regardless of being in our office, at home, or in a park. These are amazing challenges – and if long-standing patterns are any indicator at all – hold on for a whole set of innovations to emerge in the next few years.
It’s pretty exciting – some of the things that we thought even a few years ago were the stuff of science fiction may quickly become reality under the massive transformation that is now taking place in our working lives. “Alexa, find me my next meeting spaces, and inform the team where they are so we have 4 people per room and everyone’s personal preferences are taken into account.”
I’ll end by telling you the three areas I think are particularly interesting and ripe for innovation:
Touchless rooms. This is certainly a dream that’s been outlined in several futuristic movies where a conference room is driven by voice, by gesture, or even predicts what a user wants to do without the need for a clumsy touch panel, light switch, or (heaven forbid) a remote control. The pandemic will certainly accelerate innovation in this area. I’ve heard the words “touchless AV” several times a day from my colleagues already.
Video Conferencing for Everyone, In Every Room. In the old days (a year ago), enterprises would deploy a “video enabled room” that forced users into a certain video conferencing experience. That was okay if my need for video conferencing was specialized, elite, or so important that I was willing to figure out how to use a Zoom Room or a dedicated Webex space. In this new world, I want to walk into any space and reach the half of my team that’s working at home via a Slack call, or use Zoom, or Teams, or whatever I want. The room furniture, camera, audio, and display should be there for me without forcing a choice. We also need a cost structure that makes it feasible to put a camera system in every space – huddle rooms, lounges, or even transitional hallways – so I can reach my colleagues at any time. Enterprise will look for ways to replace those 50 dedicated video rooms with 500 simpler, multipurpose spaces that are video capable. Look for innovation here.
Workplace Analytics and Intelligence. One thing to watch is how companies navigate this new era. Already there were a smattering of projects to equip our workplace with intelligent sensors that help us understand how we work. (Who hasn’t heard of ‘Intelligent Buildings’ by now). However, while we’re trying to modify our very work pattern through policies about how to ‘return to work’, stay safe, or remain productive and engaged – the stakes have gone up. Watch for companies to find better ways to capture and mine data related to their own workplace. It’s something I’m interested in and I suspect we’ll see a whole lot of transformation here that will not only inform individuals better (‘Did you know your best meetings occur before 10 a.m. and use rooms with a 4K screen? Want me to book you one now?’), but help enterprises visualize patterns and make very important decisions (‘Show me all our large conference rooms that are now underutilized in North America’). I suspect the convergence of big data and recent advances in AI/pattern recognition will lead to some really exciting things.
I know this is a positive vision at a time when we’re focused on the downside of the pandemic, but it’s based on what has happened over and over again during times of duress – we find new paths through innovation that pay dividends for generations. This era will not be any different, so if you work in the AV industry, real-estate, IT, collaboration, or enterprise software – you’re at the right place at the right time. Have fun innovating!!