Bruce Genricks, director at Electrosonic SA, one of the leading distributors of technology for smart offices in South Africa, shares some advice for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) trying to make the shift towards smart business practices.

The rapidly unfolding Digital Revolution continues to impact every aspect of our daily lives – from how we learn, shop, consume media and socialise, to how businesses operate at an organisational level.

Rapid advancements in technology have made video conferencing and remote real-time collaboration a practical and highly desirable part of the modern working experience. Also, as we become more comfortable and reliant on the Internet of Things, young professionals expect to be able to connect and carry out their work remotely at any time of day or night, as they would any other task. Research has shown that companies that are geared towards smarter working practices are at a distinct advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent.1  As a result, the vast majority of large multi-national corporations have become early adopters of smart office technology, further driving the trend towards connected workspaces across verticals.

The rapid acceptance of the smart working environment as a norm continues to put pressure on smaller companies to adopt new ways of working – or risk becoming redundant. At its most basic level, a small consulting firm that uses video conferencing and can collaborate over a safe and reliable platform with clients across time zones is more likely to survive and thrive than one that cannot or does not.

There are, however, several challenges that SMEs face when it comes to implementing smart office technology. While most large corporations have dedicated IT and AV departments that are tasked with keeping the organisation up-to-date with the latest technology trends, many smaller organisations do not have these skills in-house. Also, large companies have large budgets – which allow them to purchase the highest-end AV solutions from the best solutions providers. Smaller companies generally start with a much smaller budget and cannot afford to risk capital on an installation that is not going to generate a return on investment.

Despite these barriers, many SMEs are successfully embracing AV technology to enable smarter ways of working and the benefits – which could include reductions in operating costs, higher levels of productivity, more agile business practices and better staff retention – are often immediate and impactful.

WHAT DO I NEED TO MAKE MY OFFICE SMART?

IT INFRASTRUCTURE

The backbone of any effective AV solution is your IT infrastructure. Smart offices require connectivity and no part of your smart office solution will work without it. Your first step, therefore, is to invest in broadband and ensure that you have at least a 1-gig network. You also need to ensure that you have a robust internal network, both wired and unwired, with good-quality routers.  

AUDIO

One of the most important rules of thumb to follow when it comes to AV is that your audio should take priority – and therefore should take the lion’s share of your budget. You cannot have a successful online meeting unless you can hear the person on the other side – no matter how well you can see them. As a result, you need to invest in high-quality microphones; the acoustics of the room needs to be taken into consideration; and all of the necessary amplification and processing needs to be implemented and programmed by an integration specialist.

PLATFORM

Once you have your IT infrastructure and audio solution taken care of, you need to consider the video conferencing software that you will be using. As a small business, there is no need to purchase a high-end enterprise solution, especially as these products are designed to operate between regional offices of a single multi-national organisation, where all collaborators are on the same system using the same network. There are many options available that are perfect for the needs of SMEs including Zoom, BlueJeans, Lifesize, Adobe Connect and Skype for Business, among others. All of these options are available online and offer a selection of packages and features that range from free to a per-host fee of between $10 and $20 per month.

DISPLAY

Your next consideration is choosing a display for your smart office. An SME is probably not going to have a massive boardroom, so an LCD flat panel is often a good solution for this market. You need to consider the size of your room and ensure that the people who are sitting furthest from the display are still able to see what is on the screen. Screens that are designed for commercial use have vastly different features, specifications and warranties to consumer screens, and it is essential that you select a display that is designed for business use.

CAMERA

The most basic camera that is used for video conferencing is a webcam, but while a simple webcam is suitable for a one-on-one meeting on your laptop, you need something better for a smart office. You need a camera that has the appropriate viewing angle and you have several options. You can opt for a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ camera) that is capable of remote directional and zoom control, allowing you to zoom into individuals or widen to capture the whole room. The other option is to select a tracking camera, which automatically tracks a presenter around the room. This is particularly useful in a training environment, where people need to see the presenter and participants at the same time. The important point is to ensure that you think about the type of meetings you will be having, the number of participants and the size of your room – and then choose your camera appropriately.

COLLABORATION

Once you have a solid video conferencing solution in place, you are halfway to having a fully-functional smart office. The next step is to include a collaboration solution that will allow you to share content on your display in real-time with participants. Most SMEs rely on a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) model, where somebody can walk into your meeting room, wirelessly connect their phone, tablet or laptop and present on your room’s display. There are a number of products that make this possible at an affordable price, such as the Kramer Via range, which provides collaboration functionality in your smart office without compromising the security of your internal network – a huge consideration.

MAINTENANCE

The final consideration is the cost of maintaining your smart office solution. Ensure that all of the equipment used for your installation is sourced from recognised equipment manufacturers that have local representation to carry out warranty repairs.  The vast majority of reputable AV integrators offer service-level agreements (SLAs) as part of their offering, which means that they will take care of the installation and all of your AV needs over the long term. SLAs can be negotiated and structured to meet your needs and your budget, which is a worthwhile investment to prevent downtime and ensure the longevity of your installation.

DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME

The most important piece of advice that I need to share with the small business owner is to consult with a reputable AV integrator before purchasing any equipment or software for your smart office. Professional AV is a specialised discipline, and a certified AV technologist is trained to take into account all of your needs, your space and your budget to design a solution that will fit your current needs and can grow with you into the future. It may be tempting to go online or to a retail store and purchase the different components of a smart office and hope for the best. Unfortunately, one of the secrets of professional AV is that the simpler the solution looks to the end user, the more complicated the back-end installation tends to be. It is not unusual for end-users to arrive at an AV integrator’s door after many failed attempts and bad experiences, having already spent more than was necessary. The best way to avoid this is to approach an AV Integrator and ask for a site visit and quote before making any decisions.

As a distributor, Electrosonic does not deal directly with end-users. However, we have a solid database of vetted AV integration companies that service most regions across Southern Africa. You are welcome to contact our offices and request a referral.

1. Keller & Meaney (2017) Attracting and Retaining The Right Talent McKinsey & Company www.mckinsey.com