Three approaches to remote collaboration for home workers

by Joseph K. Clark

Businesses have accepted that the Workplace will never be the same again. In November 2020, McKinsey assessed the state of remote working and reported that hybrid small-work models are likely to persist in the wake of the pandemic, mainly for a highly educated, well-paid minority of the workforce. According to the authors of the McKinsey paper, more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week as effectively as they could if they were working from an office. And the UK appears to be leading the way.

McKinsey reported that between 33% and 46% of work, time could be spent working remotely in the UK. Industry leaders see the challenge: how can employees collaborate effectively and engage with their employer if they only pay a proportion of their time in the office environment? When they are at home, how do they collaborate with people in the office or front-line staff? Although video conferencing has taken off since the pandemic began, the people Computer Weekly spoke to felt that live video conferencing was also becoming tedious. There is also strong evidence that people are not entirely focused on the discussion when participating in conference calls.

home workers

1. Capturing the watercooler moment

Several software platforms offer a way for employees to collaborate and share knowledge. One of these is Workplace from Facebook. Discussing what he has seen over the past ten months during the Covid-19 pandemic, Ujjwal Singh, head of product at Workplace from Facebook, says: “We have constantly heard that instead of Workplace is a place where you talk about work, it’s a place where you get work done, particularly when you have to collaborate with someone else.“We have constantly heard that instead of Workplace is a place where you talk about work, it’s a place where you get work done, particularly when you have to collaborate with someone else.”

Ujjwal Singh, Workplace from Facebook

One of the critical features of a virtual office that Workplace from Facebook attempts to emulate is the so-called watercooler moment – the informal exchanges of knowledge and know-how in spaces such as communal kitchens, coffee machines, and watercoolers. “It’s not just about desk workers and those with email,” says Singh. “It’s also about front-line workers who may just be on a mobile phone.” For instance, Singh says the platform makes it easier for shift workers to swap shifts. One of Workplace from Facebook’s customers, Honest Burgers, built chatbots to support its furloughed staff and provided information via the platform to help them reskill.

Speaking about his remote working experiences, Singh admits that video conferencing takes its toll on concentration. “I had a day with 18 meetings, all on video. I don’t remember the meetings,” he says. One of the areas Workplace from Facebook is looking to address reducing video fatigue and enabling presence and connection without making people feel it is a drain. “We are exploring how to balance asynchronous and synchronous communications and leverage modalities other than the webcam to avoid people feeling constantly presenting,” says Singh.

2. Augmented reality for the front line

Zaid Laftah is a vice president for risk engineering at Marsh & McLennan, based in Dubai’s engineering hub. Working with oil and gas companies, he says the role of risk engineers is to conduct an on-site risk assessment at a site such as an oil refinery to produce a risk profile report. “A risk engineer visits a site and spends a week there to provide an overview of the hardware, management systems, and emergency response,” he says. “We then provide a report to the insurance industry.” Along with Marsh & McLennan’s team, insurers have a couple of engineers for risk assessments. Several firms will often insure a large facility, but the lead insurer’s team and the risk engineer from Marsh & McLennan would usually be given access to the site.

The Dubai hub employs 20 risk engineers to cover 200 sites a year. Because of Covid-19 travel restrictions in March 2020, Marsh & McLennan needed to reassess how it conducted site visits. “We started to use Zoom, [Microsoft] Teams, [Cisco] Webex and designed virtual surveys utilizing video conferencing and document sharing,” says Laftah. “To date, we have done 450 virtual surveys.” The virtual survey also involves a series of discussions with site employees covering various on-site teams. “Previously, these were conducted in a meeting room on-site, but we also toured the facility,” adds Laftah.

The missing piece of the virtual survey is that the risk engineer is not on-site. “You use five senses when you do a survey, but to reduce the risk of infection, the sites have not opened their doors to visitors unless it is essential,” says Laftah. The approach Marsh & McLellan has taken to provide accurate site visits is using an augmented reality (AR) headset to live stream video and audio from an on-site engineer. The engineer is shipped the headset and receives training on how to use it, and is then asked to walk around the facility to enable the remote risk engineering team at Marsh & McLellan, along with risk assessment engineers from insurance companies, to watch a live video stream, seeing what the on-site engineer sees.

There are several headsets on the market, but Marsh & McLennan required one that was intrinsically safe to be deployed in locations such as oil refineries. Explaining the company’s choice of the headset, Laftah says: “From a health and safety point of view, we recognized that the AR headset we required would need to be hands-free and meet industry safety requirements. After reviewing several devices, we decided on the voice-enabled RealWear HMT-1Z1 headset.” This device requires a network connection, so the Ecom Smart-Ex 02 DV1 is intrinsically safe; the rugged smartphone provides internet access.

From a software perspective, Laftah describes the headset as an Android tablet, offering Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex video-conferencing support. The headset has three microphones and noise cancellation to filter out background noise. To meet the intrinsically safe requirement, the battery on the HMT-1Z1 cannot swap out. Left says it provides enough power for four hours. Asked whether the headset will continue to be used after the pandemic, he says: “I am not rushing to spend 200 days on the road.” A site survey is no longer restricted to on-site risk engineers when run virtually. There are also opportunities to enhance virtual surveys with the AR headset in areas with travel restrictions, such as Yemen, parts of Pakistan, and Iran.

3. Using virtual reality to improve participation

Oliver Lingwood-Craddock, CEO of The Supper Club, recently ran the organization’s first event based on using virtual reality (VR) headsets. “VR is not a gimmick. Its incredible effectiveness for collaboration blew me away.”

Oliver Lingwood-Craddock, The Supper Clu

The event, hosted on the Gemba VR platform by Nathan Robinson, CEO of VR learning company The Leadership Network, showcased how virtual world environments can communicate and collaborate in the post-Covid, post-Brexit world. Discussing his experience of using the Oculus virtual reality headset, Lingwood-Craddock says: “VR is not a gimmick. I was blown away by its incredible effectiveness for collaboration.” In the virtual world, people are represented as avatars. “They are pixels, but they are humanized,” he adds. “It is surprising how you engage with them.” The Gemba virtual platform hosts an auditorium. It has breakout rooms and whiteboards, which enable people to work in three dimensions and social spaces. Lingwood-Craddock believes such virtual worlds can allow genuine collaboration, where people are 100% engaged in the discussion.

Remote working in the long term

Many people believe Covid-19 has changed the world forever. The pandemic forced many businesses to make their workforce instantly remote, says Alan Warr, chair of the consultancy specialist group at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. “Global organizations are not expecting to go back to normal now that the remote working genie has been let out of the bottle,” he says. Over the past few years, there has been underlying pressure to allow staff to work remotely, maybe one day a week. “But it was inconceivable we could have achieved that level of transformation,” says Carr. “Global organizations are not expecting to return to normal now that the remote working genie has been let out of the bottle.”

Alan Warr, BCS, The Chartered Institute for I

One of the unexpected outcomes of the coronavirus is that it has led to a dramatic shift in expectations. What will post-pandemic work patterns look like? According to McKinsey, more employers see better productivity from their remote workers. Now that people have experienced almost a year of flexible working, if they are indeed more productive, then remote working should not be seen merely as a stopgap until offices reopen. For Carr, it offers businesses the potential to do things far more difficult to achieve before the pandemic. “Globally, remote working has interesting dimensions as it enables businesses to bring in experts from different parts of the world very quickly,” he says. Technology is improving, and people will need reliable home broadband connectivity. But for Carr, the biggest challenge is in changing how line managers and supervisors manage their teams.

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