Reimagining the workforce: How a powerful collaboration platform improves engagement

With an intelligent, reliable and secure collaboration platform, which spans physical and digital environments, enterprises can empower employees and reap the benefits of remote working, says Vaughan Klein, director of collaboration, EMEA and Russia, at Cisco

Vaughan Klein, Director of collaboration, CiscoWhen the coronavirus crisis began, people quickly looked for tools that would help them to continue collaborating with their colleagues. Most turned to video rather than voice for meetings and check-ins. In fact, we saw a 9,000 per cent increase in the amount of video utilisation on our Webex platform; and there’s a very good reason for that.

Put simply, video meetings are far more engaging than voice-only ones. You can see exactly how the other participants are reacting to what’s being said: whether they’re excited, bored or even annoyed. These non-verbal cues are an integral part of how we communicate, so it’s perhaps not surprising that we prefer tools that allow us to see them. We’re also far less likely to try and multi-task, or tune out altogether, when we’re face to face with our peers.

But while most of us are now happy to turn on our camera to collaborate, the equipment we use doesn’t always deliver the best experience. An ageing laptop or webcam, for instance, is unlikely to provide you with the kind of rich, interactive, high-definition experiences that make working from home a pleasure rather than a chore. But thankfully there’s a better option.

In a world where 54 per cent of the workforce want full-time remote work, our purpose-built personal devices, the Webex Desk Pro and the Webex Room Kit Mini solution, allow everyone to enjoy the same great collaborative experiences. And the cost of this equipment is typically offset by the savings it can generate. For instance, businesses that equip their workforce to work productively from anywhere no longer need a large real-estate footprint.

That’s something we know only too well at Cisco. Over the past few years, we’ve re-engineered our workforce for home working, allowing us to dramatically reduce our real-estate investments. Our people are now more agile, innovative and productive, and we’re no longer subject to the expensive overheads that stem from extensive amounts of office space.

You may hear a colleague’s children playing in the next room or see their dog pop up on the screen, and that’s OK

Of course, the office is unlikely to disappear completely, but it will undoubtedly change to suit the new world of work. People who want to minimise interruptions and maximise their productivity should be able to continue working from home once the current crisis ends.

But if they want to attend a meeting in person or physically see their colleagues, they will still have to head into the office. So while real-estate footprints will shrink in future, the number of meeting spaces may double to accommodate these new working patterns.

The technology inside these meeting rooms is likely to increase as well and much of it will be invisible. If you step into a space equipped with the Webex collaboration video device, the equipment will recognise the paired user. It will know from your calendar that you’re due to have a meeting and you’ll be able to start it with a simple voice command.

Cisco infographic

Once you’re back home, your phone will also pair with your personal video device for seamless collaboration across all the places you work from. And our Webex Assistant, powered by artificial intelligence, can even take meeting minutes and capture key points and action items, saving valuable time and increasing people’s productivity.

We hope to introduce more of these invisible tools in future. But we also recognise that it’s important to ensure the core video experience on our platform is reliable, secure and engaging. High-definition video experiences can vary depending on the bandwidth of the participants’ broadband connections.

When someone looks pixelated or freezes mid-sentence, it reduces engagement and increases frustration. But as a leader in networking for more than 30 years, we have designed our platform with a network-out approach, optimising the video quality regardless of the connection.

Overall, the shift towards home working will improve the work-life balance for many people and ultimately fuse both elements together. Indeed, managers and team leaders are already more tolerant of the more informal atmosphere that comes from the closer integration of our work and home lives.

You may hear a colleague’s children playing in the next room or see their dog pop up on the screen and that’s OK. These personal moments can create a wonderful sense of connection that more formal office environments sometimes lack. And connection is the key to greater engagement.

Webex’s all-in-one design means team leaders can easily reach out to these home workers, and office-based ones, even if they’re working across several different time zones. In fact, location is no longer a barrier to securing the best people for a project. With our single app and unified platform, teams can draw in talent from anywhere in the world, and collaborate seamlessly with our voice, video, messaging and virtual whiteboard tools.

Our single app and single platform approach means enterprises can easily extend communication and collaboration to their suppliers, customers and partners too. And we employ rigorous security standards right across the board, so your data and intellectual property is safe no matter who you’re communicating or collaborating with, which is something that can’t be said of consumer-grade solutions.

Secure and reliable collaboration tools are the foundation of the workplace transformation efforts the coronavirus crisis has accelerated. The enterprises that thrive in future will be those that build their operations around platforms such as Webex, which allow everyone to enjoy digital experiences that rival, or even surpass, those found in traditional office environments.

We call this a “better than being there” virtual environment. To use a sports analogy, being in the stadium when someone scores a goal is a great experience. But you could argue that the experience you enjoy at home is superior in many ways. There’s expert commentary, player statistics, instant replays and more.

Similarly, our intelligent tools can, for example, provide you with in-meeting information on the participants’ titles, work histories and company news. So while there’s a lot to be said for live in-person experiences, with Webex the digital kind can be just as productive, enjoyable and engaging.

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Cutting-edge technologies driving effortless collaboration

Dr Keith Griffin, Distinguished engineer Cisco collaboration

Webex includes powerful cognitive collaboration features that make meetings more engaging and productive. Dr Keith Griffin, distinguished engineer at Cisco Collaboration Group, guides us through them

Noise detection and suppression

Cognitive collaboration is a term we use to collectively describe artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and how these technologies can be used in specific, practical ways to make our work lives more engaging and productive.

Noise detection and suppression is one example of how this approach works in practice. We’ve all had a video meeting where the background noise becomes distracting, be it a keyboard clicking, a dog barking, paper rustling or an emergency vehicle siren. It turns out that background noise can affect your concentration, so we began to wonder if there was any way of solving the issue.

We ended up training a ML model to detect background noise during a Webex meeting and prompt the user to mute their microphone if they have called into the meeting room from their computer. In fact, Webex can even suppress some common noises automatically. It’s a small feature but an extremely useful one – especially now more of us are working from home.

Relationship intelligence

Do you research the people you’re meeting before the meeting takes place? Perhaps you have pre-meeting discussions with colleagues on the participants’ work backgrounds and project roles?

Although it’s useful to know a bit more about the people you’re interacting with, this kind of research takes up valuable time. Lengthy roundtable introductions at the start of the meeting itself can also undermine people’s engagement. And holding all the information on the participants in your mind, while trying to concentrate on what’s being said, can prove challenging too.

Our People Insights tool solves these problems. During a Webex meeting you can quickly view participant profiles populated with information gathered from publicly available sources. This means you can head into every meeting with confidence, knowing that everything from someone’s work history to the latest news on their company is at your fingertips.

Automated meeting transcription

Automated meeting transcription is another highly useful tool that’s included in the Webex platform. Once enabled, you can view a transcript of everything that’s been discussed in a meeting while playing back the recording of it. And our voice-activated Webex Assistant can even take notes, make highlights and create action items for follow up.

It’s a particularly useful feature for distributed workforces, allowing team members across different time zones to quickly see the highlights and outcomes of a meeting that occurred overnight. But even when you’re in the same time zone as your colleagues, the ability to quickly review the key points of a meeting is a big productivity booster.

We’ve also just rolled out a live transcription service to make meetings even more efficient. And we’re working on a translation service too, which will add further support for globally distributed teams and make it easier for enterprises to employ the best talent from around the world.

Computer vision

Webex includes computer vision technology that allows it to recognise meeting participants and even track the active speaker. This means you can move around your environment just as if all the participants were in an office meeting room, making for more engaging experiences that effortlessly blend the physical and the digital.

We’re transparent about our data usage policies and we focused on data privacy right from the beginning of the development phase

Face detection technology also allows us to provide every Webex device user with an accurate count of all the meeting participants. In future, this technology could provide information on the distance between participants in a physical meeting room, thereby ensuring they remain a safe distance apart if and when social distancing is required.

Despite these benefits, we know terms like facial recognition often spark privacy concerns and that’s something we take extremely seriously. We’re transparent about our data usage policies and we focused on data privacy right from the beginning of the development phase. It’s therefore an integral part of our platform rather than an afterthought.

Intelligent assistants

If you ask our Webex Assistant to call someone, it will use natural language processing to figure out exactly who you mean, even if they’re one of several contacts with the same name.

Webex’s Proactive Join feature also allows Webex Room devices to identify people via their smartphone when they walk into a meeting room. Our intelligent assistant will then say: “Hey, your meeting is coming up. Would you like me to start it?” The user simply has to say “yes” and the assistant will take care of the rest, thereby ensuring everyone is ready to start on time.

And while we initially designed our conversational AI with productivity in mind, it also means no one has to pick up a device or touch a screen during the current crisis to start their meeting. All they need to do is speak.

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