One of the big talking-points at Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) 2020 concerned the rise of home offices and the expanding possibilities in this market for professional AV technologies. In this feature, we speak to leading AV professionals, as well as present some research into current technologies and general workplace trends, to investigate how the industry is responding to the global rise in offsite jobs and remote working conditions.
The evidence for the increase in remote working positions – or ‘work-from-home gigs’, as they are commonly called – is widespread, and this holds true in both global and South African frameworks.
A report released by the British company Regus at the end of 2018 indicates that, globally, 52% of workers telecommute regularly – but, in South Africa, this figure rises to 56%. Similarly, a survey conducted by Dimension Data in the same year spoke to 73 executives of companies with at least one thousand employees about the prevalence of remote working within their organisations. The results showed that 42% of these organisations in South Africa have employees working from home on a full-time basis, with 67% saying they aim to have employees working from home full-time by as early as 2021. This latter figure represents a 10% increase on the global average, perhaps indicating that underlying conditions within the South African jobs market make it primed for this shift.
The most common reasons given for the global trend involve two key concerns: from the employee’s side, a desire to strike a better work/life balance and to reduce commuting time and travel costs; and from the employer’s side, the need for greater operational agility to meet changing market demands, as well as the desire to attract top talent and to save costs on significant monthly overheads, such as paying rent for office space.
So far, results seem to be promising on both sides of the equation: businesses who have gone the telecommuting route are reporting lower operating costs, productivity gains and better outcomes in terms of talent retention, while 43% of South Africans surveyed claim that, in a negotiation, they would rather advocate for flexible working hours than for more pay for the work they currently do.
Of course, underpinning this global shift has been a raft of (mostly) free, web-based software applications that make collaboration amongst workers possible, even for IT novices working on standard PCs over residential internet connections. Applications such Skype, Zoom, Slack, Dropbox and others have revolutionised the modern working world, efficiently connecting teams whose members could be scattered in cities all over the world.
As with any market, growth depends on demand, and therefore this leaves the professional AV industry with an important question to answer. We already know that more and more people will be working from home in the near future – but, to frame the question in terms of a market calculation, what can professional AV technology offer these workers that they can’t already get for free?
THE EVOLVING NATURE OF PROFESSIONAL AV TECHNOLOGY
As far as Bruce Genricks, the CEO of Electrosonic SA, is concerned, “The professional AV industry has, in many respects, already begun to respond to this dynamic by incorporating sophisticated integration technology into the product design phase. What’s enabling this is the use of standards in AV over IP and other related technologies. With manufacturers using standard protocols, it makes it increasingly easy to ‘talk to’ devices over networks of any size.”
He lists a range of examples that seem tailor-made for remote working environments. “One emerging technology is being referred to as BYOM or ‘Bring Your Own Meeting’ software. This concept allows you bring your own conferencing platform to the meeting with you. Not only does this cancel out compatibility issues, but it also saves the individual worker having to pay for more than one software licence.”
Other areas where Genricks feels that this ‘integration out of the box’ trend is prevalent include ePTZ cameras – “which feature intelligent auto-framing and motion tracking, despite being static devices” – and all-in-one collaboration devices, such as the MAXHUB X3. “These are perhaps the prime example of this trend. You buy an LED screen of a fixed, standard size – and everything comes in the box. It takes two hours to set up, with no special training required, and then it has all-in-one functionality – including full HD display and full connectivity – with no transmitters and receivers and processors and scalers needed to make the screen work, and no external control elements required to integrate the built-in cameras and microphone.”
He mentions other products, such as Kramer Maestro – a powerful software tool that enables you to configure trigger-based room element automation scenarios – and summarises: “A lot of the traditional control solutions have been integrated into the technology itself, and have become automated in their own right.”
THE PROSUMER MODEL
Meanwhile, Neil Colquhoun, vice president CISMEA and Professional Displays, Epson Europe, says that the company is keenly aware that a key customer base of theirs is the SME and small offices market, and have consciously designed products to service this segment.
Likening this approach to creating a range of products aimed at ‘prosumers’, Colquhoun mentions Epson’s range of EcoTank printers – which allow small businesses to “print and scan at extremely high resolutions, while still proving incredibly affordable in high print volume environments” – as well as its cost-effective selection of ultra-short throw projectors.
“These projectors can deliver a very large, clear and bright image in a very small space, which means you don’t need to compromise – in a home office environment – on the quality of presentations, and it also means you can fully participate in video conferencing environments when content sharing is a priority. In terms of dollar per square inch of image size, you can’t beat projection technology for affordability.”
HOT DESKING AND THE IMPORTANCE OF UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS
Rupert Denoon, regional director South Africa at Crestron, confirms this general working trend: “More and more people worldwide are working off-site, and one of the key drivers of this is better time management. The amount of time we spend commuting and so forth, is valuable time that can be utilised for the workplace – even if it not in the physical work space.”
He also adds another important, often-overlooked, element to the discussion: “It is important to remember that, in most cases, there is still a physical building that houses the company. But now, for a company of 4,000 employees, you might only need to provide space for 2,000 people onsite at any one time – and this is why, as workplaces become more flexible, hot desking technology is becoming so important.”
According to Denoon, “room booking and management is becoming vital. It is about managing the space you have; space costs money, and so the more efficiently you can manage your space, the more your business can save. If you have a system in place that can facilitate this process via mobile devices, touch panels or even Outlook mailboxes, then you have a seamless engine that can drive these efficiencies” in the workplace.
Denoon highlights Crestron’s Flex and Mercury solutions as unified communications technologies which “really echo the theme of the changing working environment.” Speaking about Crestron Mercury, a table-top touchscreen device that Denoon describes as a “BYOD unifier”, he says: “It is your phone system, with added Bluetooth audio functionality; it has wireless presenting; it has facilities management capability; and it enables a Bring Your Own Meeting experience. Because it facilitates so many of these operations, the Mercury really does reflect the changing business landscape”, where reliable methods of digital collaboration– often between workers at remote locations – are increasingly the engine of productivity.
In conclusion, not only has the AV industry played a significant role in creating the conditions for the viability of offsite work – largely through the availability and ease of use of unified communications technologies – but it is proving agile enough to adapt to user demands as this trend grows and develops. By developing innovative products that are ‘pre-integrated’ in the sense that they provide compact, all-in-one solutions to meet critical business needs – and, in some cases, by explicitly catering for this burgeoning market – it is clear that the professional AV technology is perfectly poised as more and more individuals around the world seek to ‘unify’ their personal and professional lives.