Heads in the cloud
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:
Man on Zoom call on laptop The use of Zoom has increased exponentially during lockdown (credit: Adobe Stock/Alex from the Rock)

Simon Creasey investigates the ongoing evolution of cloud-based business tools as we head into a new era of remote working

One of the most oft-cited concepts during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the ‘acceleration of pre-existing trends’, particularly taking place in what we might refer to as the digital realm.

This phrase has been used in relation to things such as the increased adoption of online grocery shopping, for instance, as well as the massive rise in subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix; behaviours, in other words, which were bubbling away prior to the pandemic and have now been super-charged as a result of it.

Another trend that has been massively accelerated by COVID-19 is home/remote working, both in terms of its acceptance on the part of employers and the development of the technology needed to carry it out.

It probably wouldn’t be unreasonable in fact to regard the past 12 months or so as the greatest ‘working from home’ experiment in history.

Naturally enough, this has seen many companies fully realising the benefits of pre-existing technologies in order to connect colleagues with one another, as well as with customers.

The most high-profile of these solutions is probably Microsoft Teams, alongside the likes of Zoom, Cisco Webex and so on.

At the same time – with the world of work having likely undergone an irreversible shift – employers have also started to explore a whole new generation of cloud-based remote working tools and their attendant functionalities. This, alongside the potential long-term impact on the culture of work itself, is what we will be exploring in this article.

Computer vision

When the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, there was an initial period of panic, with many once-based businesses being completely unprepared for their entire staff having to work remotely for a prolonged period of time.

Some might have put contingency plans in place prior to lockdown in order to stress-test their systems, but many simply had to flick the remote working switch overnight.

As the period(s) of lockdown continued, however, companies began to take stock of how they had done things historically, while at the same time exploring what tools might be needed going into the future.

Discussing this, managing director of digital consultancy Sonin, Paul Jarrett, says: “I’m noticing customers, suppliers – all kinds of different people – revisiting what it is they do and how they do it.

“There are so many business processes that went unchallenged for a long time before the pandemic. The reason? ‘That’s always been the way we’ve done it.’ When you’re in the once, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision, but when you’re working remotely, the gaps and inefficiencies become clearer.”

Through their use of Zoom or Teams, companies have realised that meetings conducted ‘virtually’ can be just as productive as those carried out face-to-face (all without the hassle of having to travel to a particular location).

Drilling down further, meanwhile, some businesses have also leveraged those same tools to perform ‘remote diagnostics’, for instance enabling specialist workers to talk local engineers through complex equipment fixes, often at great distance.

According to Wayne Mason, UK and Ireland B2B lead at Logitech, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that companies will go back to the old way of doing things.

Discussing this, he says: “As the world returns to normal, we’ll see a movement towards ‘flexible as standard’, or hybrid working. [This will be due to] acknowledged productivity benefits, as well as improvements to work/life balance.” Mason believes that video in particular will become increasingly important, even after the period of lockdown is finally over.

“As the world returns to normal, we’ll see a movement towards ‘flexible as standard’, or hybrid working."

“Video will of course continue to remain central to facilitating remote working,” he says. “Cloud-based UC platforms – combined with high-quality video hardware – [will be] critical to keeping remote teams working efficiently.

“While video was seen as a ‘nice to have’ prior to the pandemic, it really came to the rescue and became a vital tool for keeping teams connected. Many also came to realise that video was central to keeping team morale up and helping negate feelings of isolation.”

With that in mind, in January this year Logitech launched its Rally Bar video-conferencing tool, designed to enable users to initiate meetings across a variety of cloud-based platforms, including both Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

More hybrid style of working

“By integrating these cloud services, we’ve ensured that everything functions from a centralised device, with users being able to opt for the platform that they prefer,” says Mason.

“As we move into a more hybrid style of working, it will be the norm for meetings to be made up of both in-once and at-home colleagues. That being the case, we’ve designed the Rally Bar to deliver an all-in-one video-conferencing experience.”

The video bar is fitted with ‘ultra-low distortion’ speakers while, according to the company, its “adaptive beam forming mic array” is capable of picking up voices from every seat in a room.

This delivers what Logitech refers to as “outstanding conversational clarity focusing on the active talker”, simultaneously suppressing unwanted background noise. The Rally Bar is also fitted with the company’s RightSense technology and AI Viewfinder, the latter being a second camera dedicated to ‘computer vision’.

Logitech says the camera can detect where people are stood in a room, automatically focusing on individuals so they remain in focus throughout the conversation.

Another company which has developed what might be regarded as a ‘next generation’ remote working solution during lockdown is Colt Technology Services. It has launched – again at the beginning of this year – its Cloud Session Border Controller (SBC), which provides ‘direct routing as a service’ in order to rapidly enable public switch telephone network (PSTN) calling for Microsoft Teams.

Colt claims Cloud SBC is a “major step forward in accelerating and simplifying the deployment of PSTN calling in Teams, without the need to host any hardware on-premises or in a data centre”.

It’s too late to stop now

Over the course of the past 12 months, a huge number of UK businesses have fully embraced remote working technology, something which has in turn prompted the development of a variety of new – increasingly customer-focused – solutions.

That being the case, where does the industry itself go from here? What further opportunities will it have to evolve once ‘the new normal’ finally beds in as simply ‘normal’?

For Simon Gadsby, chief operational officer at IT provider QuoStar, the focus will likely be what he calls “the end point”.

Elaborating on this, he says: “The Microsoft 365/Azure stack has enabled organisations to manage and control devices which no longer come on to the corporate network.

“This has been done through Azure AD, Intune [Endpoint Manager] policies, and AutoPilot deployment. All of this is possible over the internet without the need to come back to the once.”

These authentication (Azure AD), management (Intune) and deployment (AutoPilot) tools historically needed to be on-premise, but they are now delivered from the cloud.

From Logitech’s perspective, meanwhile, Mason says “the challenge of productivity and comfort” will continue to be a major focus for technology providers, something which was the case even before the pandemic. These factors – he says – have taken centre stage when it comes to the design process of remote working tools. So, what sort of cloud-based remote working tools do experts expect to become prevalent over the next five years?

For Gadsby, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what the dominant technologies will be, although there are indications.

“Five years is a long time away, but as I see it, we will be in a vastly more connected world, thanks to the likes of 5G, Starlink and so on,” he says.

“Users will likely use a single device for both personal and business, but business use will be encapsulated both on the device and data in transit. The majority of business apps will be delivered as SaaS. Augmented reality will also be one to watch.

“At the moment, everyone is increasingly asking about ‘cloud first’, [correlating with] not wanting to be tied to the premises. Even if the plan is to return to the once, [businesses] don’t want the restriction of having anything there.”

For his part, Jarrett agrees that forecasting what will happen over the coming years isn’t easy, if for no other reason than we are still coping with the pandemic. However, he believes the experience of the past 12 months offers some clues.

“The current landscape has placed a magnifying glass over so many of the important processes we use at work that previously relied on us being in the same physical location,” he says. “We’re working with several clients whose digital transformation plans have been accelerated. At the same time, the business case remains unchanged in terms of improving customer experience, engaging employees, and driving business growth.

“None of these things can be achieved with ‘tools’ alone. They require a deep understanding of what users are doing, why, and what’s getting in their way.”

Such considerations will determine the creation of cloud-based remote working products in the future. They will also inform the way we work in whatever the new normal looks like, moving towards a postpandemic future.

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