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Remote work and AI drive the future of collaboration technology

As remote work and hybrid workforces become the new normal, collaboration technology needs to adapt. Tech leaders at WebexOne discussed the drivers for collaboration's evolution.

Many organizations have emerged from the business continuity response to COVID-19 and are looking to the future. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how people approach work, with many businesses realizing that most work can be done anywhere. To best support remote work, collaboration tools need to evolve to provide capabilities for new remote workflows.

In January, before the pandemic sent businesses into lockdown, about 11% of job postings were remote or didn't have location requirements, said Becky Frankiewicz, president of Milwaukee-based staffing firm ManpowerGroup North America. Since the pandemic, remote job listings have jumped to 43%.

While a health crisis drove the sharp rise in remote work, it was underpinned by a desire from employees to work on their own terms, she said. Organizations, too, no longer need to be tied to geographic location when recruiting employees.

Frankiewicz and other business executives and IT leaders spoke about the future of collaboration technology and remote work at Cisco's virtual WebexOne conference.

Platforms evolve for remote workflows

Even before the pandemic, demand for remote work was rising, with the increased adoption of cloud services to support distributed teams, said Dave Michels, analyst at TalkingPointz. But the pandemic accelerated demand significantly. Even organizations that thought remote work wasn't possible were able to overcome the technological, physical workspace and interpersonal barriers to remote work.

The challenge now for both employers and employees is figuring out how to embrace remote work properly, he said.

Prior to the pandemic, remote workers were primarily tech-savvy people, said ZK Research analyst Zeus Kerravala. But the majority of the workforce going remote during the pandemic exposed gaps in collaboration platforms.

Some capabilities may have been intuitive for people experienced with remote work, like click-to-join features for meetings. But these workflows weren't as easy for people who had never worked remotely before, like contact center workers, he said. Collaboration platform features were also lacking for certain industries and workflows, such as those in government and education.

The issue wasn't with the underlying technology, he said, but that capabilities didn't fit with the workstyles of employees who traditionally did not use collaboration tools. The platforms needed to evolve in order to better serve remote workers, Kerravala said.

Cisco, for example, introduced Webex Legislate in October to provide a dashboard that enables legislative bodies to create virtual breakout rooms, vote on legislation, tally votes and review how legislators voted.

AI drives future of collaboration technology

AI could bring further innovation for unified communications (UC) and collaboration platforms to support remote work.

"AI is going to be the single biggest transformative thing to happen to collaboration technology," Kerravala said. Most AI enhancements to date have been small improvements to collaborative interactions.

One advancement that benefited collaboration was meeting transcriptions. Further AI development could take transcriptions to the next level by understanding what parts of a meeting are most meaningful to a specific employee and send meeting minutes based on that information, he said.

But, for AI to be effective, it needs to be invisible, Michels said. The most effective AI enhancements, such as autoframing video and improved audio, aren't noticeable to users.

Craig Thomas, vice president of product and technology at T-Mobile, based in Bellevue, Wash., said the company is starting to use AI capabilities, like data mining of collaboration tools, to better understand how employees network with each other and how those employee networks can help T-Mobile run its business more effectively.

For example, T-Mobile could use data to examine connectivity patterns that indicate the challenges and opportunities in supporting its products, better support product design and more effectively communicate to its customers, he said.

"Things like sentiment analysis and end-to-end communications network understanding is really what we're starting to think about," he said.

Hybrid the way to go

When offices fully reopen, they will become hybrid workplaces, Kerravala said. Most meetings, even if they take place in an office, will have at least one virtual participant.

Frankiewicz said her company's research has found few employees want to be full-time office workers again.

"Most don't want to always be at home, and most don't want to always be at the office," she said. "They want the flexibility to choose when, where and how they contribute."

And, while hybrid work is inevitable, some advantages to distributed teams are lost in a hybrid workforce, Michels said. For example, employees would still need to live close enough to the office in order to commute to on-site work.

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