Digital equality is a real challenge to address in the hybrid working world. Our Director of Multimedia and Infrastructure Mike Halliday considers whether hybrid is here to stay and shines a light on the evolving role of AV in the balance of experience, flexibility and choice.
The post-Covid world has scientists, analysts, politicians and, of course, businesses worldwide still looking for the best ways of dealing with all its challenges.
This is driving the latest wave of technology-related challenges presented to designers and SMEs, falling under the umbrella term ‘Hybrid Working’. People want to provide experience-parity between local and remote participants to all forms of working, including ‘collaboration’ (a term that somehow is starting to sound increasingly dated).
People now expect the flexibility to work wherever they choose, but don’t want to miss out on the benefits of being physically present in the office or workspace where their colleagues are. At the same time, leadership teams want to justify and optimise use of their expensive real-estate and entice users into the office, offering tangible benefit to justify a costly and time-consuming commute.
According to the Microsoft 2021 Work Trend Index: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. To prepare, 66 percent of business decision makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments.
The ’hybrid’ solution is often touted as simply providing videoconferencing capability (and of course, that magical all-encompassing answer, ‘collaboration tools’) to all areas. A simple idea, which seems an obvious approach. However, if this conferencing/collaboration capability does indeed provide an experience to remote participants that equals that of people who are physically present, this immediately raises the concerning question: why should people bother going to the office at all?
To counter this, perhaps there are areas within the office that aren’t conferencing-equipped, designed either for in-person meetings or discussions only, as a ‘perk’ for those making the effort to get out of their tracksuits and make the trip into the office. However, this then inevitably may leave those at home feeling left out, if there’s even a hint that business is being done in their absence.
Is experience equality even possible?
We, of course, need to return to the notion that conferencing and collaboration capability can provide experience parity to all attendees, in any setting. This, although an unpopular statement, is simply not possible. Technology aside, people react to their surroundings – this is part of the experience. If this wasn’t the case, meeting spaces wouldn’t be designed to be aesthetically pleasing or interesting, they would all be identical; perfectly efficient in their design, likely beige boxes with flat lighting and simple tables.
Dynamic workspaces are generally viewed as an excellent carrot to entice users away from their static and often cobbled-together home offices and into a beautiful and exciting environment where in-person meetings and collaboration can help productivity thrive. This trend seems to be on the increase, at least on the surface. However, this continues to present the challenge of providing experience parity to all participants. Aesthetics aside, there are significant technical challenges to delivering something that even comes close. In a technical utopia, there are no platform interoperability issues, each in-person participant is individually framed in-camera perfectly, microphones reject all un-wanted noise whilst retaining perfect yet natural intelligibility and the issue with eye-to-eye contact to each individual is somehow magically solved. Don’t forget automatic transcription to enable maximum efficiency in attendance so all can participate without taking copious notes and minutes. And why not throw in simultaneous interpretation to both local and remote participants while we’re at it – as language barriers are a further limitation on productivity.
Thankfully, many manufacturers and vendors are recognising these challenges and are heavily investing in R&D to bring what will hopefully be a silver bullet solution to resolve a particular issue. Some are looking at their technical solutions as holistically as possible, trying to propose entire end-to-end meeting and conferencing solutions. But all vendors remain limited in their capability to deliver one-size-fits-all or even scalable, consistent solutions to meet the requirements of what are effectively infinite possibilities of sizes, shapes, finishes and use-cases for meeting or collaboration spaces. Whilst designers, consultants and other SMEs will continue to do their best to rise to the challenge and create solutions that meet the consistency and functionality requirements of their clients, they too are limited in what they can provide when presented with a space that is fundamentally incompatible with its desired requirements.
Whilst technological innovation will continue to provide additional capability in various scenarios, there will always be some limitations present. Design focus should consider both what is possible and practical, and what is not. Some compromises will inevitably need to be made, and the overall workplace strategy needs to be considered in full alignment with both practical and technical capabilities available.
Collaborative, holistic design is key
To properly succeed, design teams need to work closely together to develop suitable workplace environments for their clients. The working environment, technology, and importantly, the supporting services all need to be considered holistically to provide optimum workspaces. Equally, requirements that cannot be fully met need to be highlighted to avoid going down a road where client expectations will not be met. In both this and general design, teams working in silos will always face additional challenges in comparison to a joined-up approach.
Data from the Gartner 2021 Hybrid Work Employee Survey shows that for the knowledge worker population, hybrid teams show greater agility, psychological safety, intentionality and equity than on-site teams.
Whilst careful management of a hybrid approach is deemed crucial to deliver on these benefits to power creativity and performance; hybrid working is simply the latest of what have been many challenges faced by design teams over the years.
Thankfully, challenges drive innovation, and we are already seeing some really exciting spaces being developed and delivered for clients that should increase wellbeing and productivity, whilst enabling both new and not-yet-envisaged ways of working. It’s great to be at the forefront of technology and workplace innovation, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with our colleagues and clients in creating the best environments possible, both now and for the future.
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