The rapid evolution of the workplace

8 min read MSPs Cloud IT
Where, when and how people work has potentially changed forever. Comms Business examines what lies ahead for the workplace of the future.

Working permanently from an office and travelling to every business meeting seems a distant memory for many. Technology provides a proven, viable alternative where jumping on a video call is now a natural everyday experience. Will hybrid working, where employees work between homes and offices, begin to dominate? What challenges and opportunities does this provide the Channel?

For Tony Martino, CEO, Tollring, hybrid working has put organisations into a “massive flux”. He highlighted, “With another winter to contend with, hybrid strategies will continue to face instability for the foreseeable future. What bosses think about remote or hybrid working may be very different to their workers. The key it to avoid conflict between employers and their employees.”

He said that employers need to adopt a new level of flexibility and understanding to support their people. “Those who have come straight from university will never have experienced a different way of working and will have distinct expectations. Business leaders must understand their needs and provide team leaders with the tools to manage both the new joiners and long-standing team members through their different roles.

“Decisions should be based on data and evidence. Business leaders need to know how effective their people are, the impact on customers and if everyone is working towards the end game of the business. By empowering leaders with data and knowledge, they will know if the hybrid model is working or use the data to support any decisions if it is not working.”

Richard Thomas, founder and CEO of Highlight, agreed a clear picture is yet to emerge. He said, “The real bottom line is no-one knows yet what the future of work looks like, except that it won’t look like it did two years ago. Everyone’s trying to be a pundit and predict it, but the pendulum is going to take a long time to find equilibrium.”

Jeff May, sales director for the UK, Konftel, is in no doubt communication technology is going to play an even deeper role in the workplace of the future, with more meetings taking place remotely. This will require more online meeting facilities across more rooms and even at people’s desks. He explained, “A lot of people are now returning to offices but others will not be present all the time. Hybrid working is the future and workplaces need to adapt and be ready. The way people work is now much more flexible and fluid. The pandemic has propelled pre-existing trends further forward and there’s no going back. Video meetings are now a part of everyday working life. Even business critical meetings are and will increasingly be held virtually, rather than always in person.”

Cherie Howlett, CMO, Jola, said companies have realised that it’s possible to run businesses from home which in some cases is more cost-effective and environmentally friendly too. “Jola, like many companies in the channel, offer flexible working allowing individuals to choose whether to work from home or in the office. Those going into the office can now book hot-desks using our new booking app to ensure a safe working environment. Our sales teams have been very successful training partners remotely. Many of our partners prefer it, as it saves them time and they no longer have to travel.

“In the future I think we will see a blend of remote working, virtual meetings and live events. When building new relationships it is often helpful to visit offices and new contacts face-to-face, however once relationships are established I think we will see a lot more virtual meetings as they are really efficient. We are currently running training sessions and meetings remotely but will still go out to meet partners on request and make the most of face-to-face industry events. What it does mean is we have the chance to be more inclusive as you don’t necessarily need to be in the office or to be able to walk or drive to be able to do your job if you can work remotely.”

Connectivity and collaboration

For Nick Sacke, head of IoT solutions at Comms365, a combination of remote and office-based working will likely be how we work in the future. “But what do business leaders need to consider in order to get employees working to their full potential within flexible office setups?” Sacke said connectivity and collaboration hold the key.

He added, “This recent huge spike in remote collaboration technology usage by a legion of remote workers has proven to stress broadband networks and impact application performance. These networks at home and in branches will need to be strengthened by additional connectivity/resilience options to ensure optimised user experience, business continuity and to underpin productivity.

“With excess pressure placed on home broadband networks due to the increased volume of home working, reliable access to corporate networks and cloud applications has been challenging for many. From WiFi extenders to hardware and software able to prioritise important corporate network traffic, adjustments and upgrades may need to be implemented in order for businesses to maintain business as usual.

“This is where 4G data services can add a reliable and cost-effective backup and alternative connectivity option, or even primary access where fixed line options aren’t available. With supplementary connectivity resources for resilience and network control through using business grade 4G incorporating quality of service (QoS) techniques, business traffic can be separated from consumer streams such as Facebook and YouTube, giving it the priority that it requires. Performance of the internet connection can also be enhanced by combining multiple connections, including both fixed line and mobile data. Optimisation of the home workplace in terms of connectivity such as this, is essential and easily achieved.”

Supporting businesses

So, what can the Channel do to help? Thomas, from Highlight, said that taking time to adequately assess needs is essential. “The best thing resellers can do – from a monetary and a growth point of view – is not to say, ‘we can help you manage your homeworkers better’ but rather ‘we can help you deal with whatever changes are coming’.

“The best way to do that is not to simply add some new broadband products and some homeworker-monitoring to your portfolio and say, ‘job done’. The key is to work on building a better conversation with customers, so you’re there when they start to understand how their business is changing, you understand them better, and you’re the one they turn to.

He added that, crucially, the Channel must not focus on technology alone. He explained, “The change could be as much organisational as technological. [That could include] changes in working practices, meetings culture, styles of communication, sales practices, staff welfare and HR. Resellers have a potentially huge role to play here because they’re working with multiple customers, so can feed back to one customer what they see happening in others and can advise on emerging best practices, or successful experiments with technology. That’s a key and very influential role. But they can only do this IF they’ve created a dialogue or customer relationship that’s based on conversation, not technology.”

Martino at Tollring said that next year is all about taking stock and learning from the different experiences of both employees and customers. “Analytics is the answer. It is all about providing accessible information and making it digestible. Through analysis, business leaders can understand the state of their customers and what their experiences look like on an ongoing basis. It will determine what has been learnt, what actions have been taken and what still needs to be done. Without data, you are working in the dark. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

Andrew Wilson, head of wholesale, CityFibre, discussed the need for robust infrastructure, as well as flexible solutions. Wilson explained, “There’s no doubt, the workplace of the future will be one of flexibility, agility and one that’s fit for the 21st century and beyond, as far as we can see it. We’re already seeing a huge increase in demand for video conferencing platforms and systems, VoIP and other cloud-based platforms to enable seamless communication between office-based and remote working staff, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders dispersed across the country and even internationally.”

Wilson cautioned that those platforms and systems “will only work effectively if they are running over a connectivity infrastructure that’s fit for purpose”. He added, “We believe that has to be based on Full Fibre, since the copper-based networks that society has relied upon were never designed to serve the needs of the modern age. Therefore, the channel’s priority should be to ensure their customers are supported by the best underlying infrastructure in order to make the most of these solutions effectively, be that FTTP broadband or Ethernet according to their needs and budget.”

That viewpoint was echoed by May at Konftel, who said that choosing the correct equipment crucial. “There’s a wide choice of video meeting solutions and one size doesn’t fit all. It’s why Konftel has produced an interactive room type guide so resellers and their customers can make the right choice for the right rooms – from a home worker to the biggest boardrooms.

“Quality counts and ease of use is crucial too along with hardware that works across multiple platforms. Video meetings can take place literally anywhere and everywhere. They need to be quick to set up and provide a high-quality experience.”

Essential platforms

The ongoing effects of the pandemic will be felt for decades to come – from the impact on the economy to the change in working practices. CityFibre’s Wilson said, “During the first lockdown back in 2020, employers were encouraged to allow their staff to work from home where possible, meaning they potentially had to invest quickly in video conferencing tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Tools most users have now adopted into their daily lives and consider ‘as standard’. As workers return to physical offices and other working environments, and we see multiple users trying to use these new systems concurrently, we will see businesses struggle to meet those bandwidth demands on their existing infrastructures and upgrades will be required to support these essential platforms.

“As the UK’s largest independent digital infrastructure platform, our role has never been so important. It is our ambition to ensure consumers across the UK, not just businesses, have access to the absolute best Full Fibre network and to ensure our channel partners are equipped with everything they need to deliver our gigabit capable Full Fibre solutions to their customers.”

Howlett at Jola highlighted, “Our partners have been involved in projects such as mobile broadband roll outs for remote workers as well as M2M and IoT projects for CCTV and smart device roll outs, as companies adjust to remote working. With multi-network SIMs and Intelligent routers, you don’t need to send engineers to site, as they are plug-and-play so the opportunity for resellers is vast.”

Far and wide

May noted how the pandemic changed the way people work far beyond traditional offices. “The education and health sectors quickly embraced different ways of performing – from remote learning to healthcare assessments and even operations being performed online.

“There’s a lot of admin in the health sector which requires meetings, in addition to online training and consultations. Teachers have found crystal clear and high zoom video cameras invaluable as they focus on particular art techniques or chemical experiments for example. Fitness instructors have adopted video teaching from their studios or homes to increasing numbers of remote participants.”

He added, “The impact of Covid has been far and wide with many industries adopting new ways of communicating. It’s not just an office, it’s wherever people are working. They can jump of a video call at almost a moment’s notice. People are much more familiar and confident about video conferencing now.

“They might want to conduct a quick meeting with a colleague on a different floor or host a multi-party meeting with participants from around the world. The choice is there, with audio and video technology and improved bandwidth delivering a life-like experience.“

Business as usual

Despite home networking challenges, 4G data technology has proved itself capable of supporting workforces, customers and operational processes. That’s according to Sacke at Comms365, who explained, “And as some start returning to company offices, the technology will continue to support businesses, enabling companies to scale and employ flexible workforces in new regions – both nationally and internationally.

“Many businesses are looking forward to opening up their offices again and getting back to as close to ‘business as usual’, as possible. Clearly, with the impacts of Covid-19 set to remain for some time, employers need to put in place a number of new initiatives and processes to maintain their duty of care and maintain productivity, without impacting their operations. The combination of remote and office-based working will become the way we work, but with the right connectivity setup and collaboration tools in place, firms can maintain productivity and safeguard business operations in order to thrive, even in the likely event of a future health crisis.”

This feature appeared in our December 2021 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.