June 05, 2020

Addressing return-to-office challenges with Cisco Webex

Graham Robinson
Group Practice Manager
While many may be itching to vacate that home office, the migration back to our office desks and routines won’t be the “sunshine and rainbows” experience that many may be expecting.

As leadership teams work to put in place return-to-office strategies that adhere to the National COVID-19 Safe Workplace Principles as quickly as possible, it’s clear that for many there’s a real lack of clarity as to what they ‘must do’, ‘should do’, and ‘could do’.

However, what’s clear is that the basics haven’t changed; wherever possible, organisations need to take all reasonable actions to ensure the safety of their employees. And while we could easily debate ‘reasonable’ over some of my much improved #isocooking and a nice bottle of red, it’s clear that social distancing, reduced density, and cleanliness will have to be part of the solution.

Unfortunately, things are never that simple and applying these simple principles will create a tall order of issues, the likes of which we haven’t dealt with before.

The meeting rooms you can’t meet in.

Australia’s 4m2 per person, per space density guidelines (as of early June 2020) significantly impact the usability of many high-usage spaces. Applying the limitation to common meeting rooms:

  • meeting rooms designed for 4 people are quickly limited to 1 person,
  • meeting rooms for 6-10 people are now more like 2-3 people, and
  • meeting rooms for 12-16 are probably 4-6 people max depending on size.

Include the additional need to sanitise rooms between meeting and there’s a chance meeting rooms will either become dedicated offices (I call dibs on the boardroom), or they’ll be too impractical to manage and as a result, closed-off altogether.

Let’s assume you’re okay with very small meetings, and that we can overcome the sanitisation issue: who wants to touch the control pad to start the video call? Dial the number for the conference call? What about grabbing the HDMI cable to present your screen? And let’s be honest, the ones that feel fine to use the equipment without sanitising it first, could very well be the same people that didn’t social distance in the first place. Potentially – not the type of people you want to be in a confined space with anyway!

Video-meetings. All day, every day.

The 4m2 density guideline is seeing many Australian employees being allocated into teams, with each team allowed to come into the office only on specific days. This isn’t just because the reduced office capacity requires it, but also because companies can’t afford unwell staff members infecting others and putting everyone into quarantine while tracing and testing is carried out. In the midst of a pandemic, split teams are the prudent management approach.

However, having at least half the company work from home on any given day means that that the video tools we’re living on aren’t going anywhere. Every meeting will need to be video, for three reasons – not all the people involved in meeting are in the office, the meeting rooms aren’t big enough for the entire group, and/or you really don’t want to be in a small space with COVID naysayers such as Karen, who thinks COVID-19 isn’t any worse than the flu.

Fewer people, more noise.

So now everyone is on video, for every meeting, talking loudly, multiple times a day, at their desks. Open offices were bad enough when we could use the meeting rooms, but a large increase in at-desk conferences will mean we’ll be dealing with a dramatically increased noise factor.

High quality headsets will be critical; not just to ensure we can hear the other video meeting participants, but that they can hear you. So while many of us have broken out our favourite Apple, Jabra, Jaybird, or any one of a number of other Bluetooth headsets while we’ve been in isolation, anyone who’s tried to use Bluetooth headphones in a high-density environment knows that they’re extremely prone to drop-outs when there are too many of them around. To make matters worse, Bluetooth uses the same radio frequencies as 2.4GHz wireless networks, laptops, and other personal devices. Using Bluetooth in a dense wireless environment is like trying to have a conversation at an epic concert, where you find the most common thing you’ll be saying may be “can you please repeat that?”.

Maybe home internet isn’t so bad.

We love to complain about the NBN, but when it’s just you and the family using the internet it’s usually pretty good. However, no one in the office has their own internet connection – you’re back on a shared network. In the short time we’ve been out of the office we’ve shifted a lot of our services to the cloud. We save critical files to the cloud, we send messages using cloud services, and those all-important video meetings are all hosted in the cloud. A lot of what we do requires cloud access, and a lot of what your co-workers do requires it too.

Many heading back to the office are now heavily dependent on cloud services, but will be relying on office networks connections that aren’t ready for it. Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re email doesn’t arrive in time, or your chat message is delayed by a few seconds, but if your video transmission time is over 250 milliseconds (a quarter of one second), you’re going to be speaking over one-another in really awkward conversations…. and that’s assuming you don’t get a lot of drop-outs from a simple lack of bandwidth.

Cisco Webex, easing return-to-office stress.

For many people there’s value in working from the office; either part-time or full-time, but doing so without the right approach is going to lead us down a rocky path, leading to higher stress levels, nosier offices, and difficult meetings.

The right approach includes having the right equipment – not just for a safe workforce, but a productive one too. Some of the challenges we’ll face in return-to-office are a direct result of the collaboration tools we’ve adopted, but it’s those same collaboration tools that offer us a solution.

Having worked closely with legal firms, financial regulators, and law enforcement agencies over the past few months, it’s clear that Cisco Webex is more than a platform to keep teams working effectively. Deployed properly, it’s a highly resilient video platform that deals exceptionally well with network congestion and delivers stress-free collaboration.

As employees move back into office environments where the numerous video streams will simply overwhelm local internet connections, Webex Edge Video Mesh dramatically eases the internet congestion. It does this by augmenting the Webex platform with on-premises conferencing services, keeping data on-premises and maintaining exceptional quality.

For managing meeting rooms, Webex in-room devices aren’t just packed with artificial intelligence, voice activation, and wireless presentation features for hygienic, zero-touch meetings. You can also use the video camera to monitor and record the number of people physically present in a meeting room for COVID-19 compliance.

When dealing with the video fatigue that comes from looking at laptop screens and second monitors for endless video calls, don’t ignore the immersive value of Webex personal devices. I’m unsure whether it’s the HD video, the large screen, or the perfectly elevated height, but I’ve found these personal devices to significantly reduce eye-strain and the fatigue that comes with it – something many of us are struggling with right now. To make life easier in hot-desk scenarios, they support the same wireless controls as the in-room devices which make them perfect for touch-free usage.

And finally, in combatting the office noise, Cisco’s Webex headsets provide sensational audio, clearly filtering background noise and capturing the attendee’s voice, delivering it through headphones embedded with noise cancelling technology. To ensure the headphones work in high-density spaces, Cisco offer both cabled and DECT wireless options in addition to their personal Bluetooth headsets.

Staying at home?

Of course, if you’re one of those avoiding the risk of public transport or simply opting to wait out the apocalypse by working from home for a while, I’d suggest BYOH: Bring Your Office Home. The same Webex personal video devices that I called out to battle eye strain and video-fatigue in the office are perfect for home offices. They can also serve as a second monitor and are absolutely something to consider, to ease your work-from-home experience.

Returning-to-office isn’t going to be as simple as we’d like, but it doesn’t have to be as painful as it could be. With the right technology we can make the transition a whole lot easier for everyone.

For more information on Webex Teams and Cisco Collaboration devices click here or contact us today.