In a small town called Lysaker, on the outskirts of Oslo, lies Cisco’s research and development (R&D) facility, which houses more than 350 engineers who are dedicated to creating intelligent products for the corporate world.
The on-demand video collaboration tools go through rigorous testing, which include climate, vibration and drop testing, and a combination of various test environments to ensure faults are picked up early on, development time is reduced and engineers are educated.
Using artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, the firm’s video conferencing tools have been developed to eliminate background sounds, track and zoom into who is speaking in a group conference call and follow them from left to right in a conference.
Under its Webex subsidiary, Cisco provides co-creation tools similar to Slack or Microsoft teams, with a virtual whiteboard feature that works seamlessly across video screens, mobile apps and desktops, so employees can collaborate in real time no matter where they are.
It is these kinds of tools that may well define how communication in a corporate space is done in future, with millennials shaping how businesses will adapt.
According to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, the growth of industry 4.0 technologies — such as robotics, the internet of things and artificial intelligence — has already altered the nature of work.
Key findings among millennials and Gen Z, who participated in the Deloitte survey, which included South Africa, were that diversity and flexibility are key to loyalty; perceptions of what motivates a business and its ethics took a sharp downward turn — after trending upwards for the past two years; and young workers feel unprepared for industry 4.0.
Loyalty appears to be influenced in a very different way than it was previously in corporates. Fifty percent of millennials and 44% of Gen Z chose flexibility of hours and location as key drivers of loyalty.
This correlates strongly to what Cisco believes will drive the workplace of the future — the ability to work anywhere, from a coffee shop to a boardroom, but with the right on-going collaboration tools.
Snorre Kjesbu, vice-president of Cisco’s collaboration endpoint technology group, says there haven’t been any significant changes in the workplace since the 1950s. “If you go into the workspace, you see the same thing. We have lots and lots of disparate tools, and it’s a challenge.”
Kjesbu says his personal life had been turned upside down by the iPhone and yet the most creative tool the corporate world has is to fly people around the planet to share the equivalent of Post-It notes.
He believes the right tools are needed to do things quickly, and working agility will play an essential role in organisations of the future. “The way we organise ourselves and sit is changing, and the type of tools we use in the workplace is changing rapidly, with artificial intelligence and machine learning quickly entering the space.”
In all, Cisco has an annual R&D spend of $6-billion.
IBM has already adopted some of these methods at its new offices in Oslo. The corporation has roughly 420 desks but employs more than 700 individuals, none of whom has their own traditional, dedicated workspace. The idea is that people can work anywhere or within teams every day. The overall result, along with Cisco’s collaboration tools, has led to an increase in productivity and a decrease in asset costs.
Garsen Naidu, the head of channel at Cisco Sub-Saharan Africa, says the idea that work can be done in an office only is a thing of the past. “In the future, it is not where we work but what we do. Today’s technologies make it possible. An employee can work from any location and decide how and where he or she can work most efficiently.”
According to the company, working remotely has also proven that it saves time and money, such as cutting out travel between cities and countries for meetings and reducing office space for those who choose to work remotely, thus cutting down on rental and maintenance costs.
“Having virtual meetings contributes to work-life balance and employee satisfaction. Instead of spending long hours at airports or arriving home late because of traffic, employees can spend more time with family and friends.”
Naidu says the trends observed around world also hold true for South Africa, and the competition to attract talent is what motivates businesses to think about the employee experience. “With Gen Y and Gen Z entering the workplace, they are expecting a rich set of communication and collaboration applications which are engaging and easy to use, including video.”
He says what happens between meetings is more important than what happens during a meeting. “Therefore, meetings, as point-of-time discussions only, will be replaced by ongoing collaboration within and across teams, assisted by context-aware technologies.”
Cisco has invested heavily in artificial intelligence tools with machine learning and believes, by 2020, virtual assistants will be capable of summarising the most important topics of a meeting and, by 2022, could propose suitable colleagues for a team based on the company’s goal and team members’ capabilities.
Cisco is also testing features such as identifying people who join a group video meeting by overlaying name labels — a strictly opt-in feature; transcripts and translations of what was said; private feedback, such as how much a person speaks in a meeting and whether they interrupt others or get interrupted frequently; and the ability to book a meeting room when one walks into it.
“The workplace as we know it is changing, and companies need to adapt or die because, just as offices and factories of the 1980s evolved over the years, so too will the current workplace,” says Naidu.
Although change management in companies is key to handling the transition to a digitised workplace — which is not to mean replacement of people, but rather to complement them with the right technology and tools to be more productive — the change should not intimidate companies as there are key benefits to be gained, he says.
As for companies that don’t adapt? “They will have difficulty in attracting young talent who expect to work from anywhere; and inefficient teamwork and increased costs are further consequences.”