You know a market or trend is maturing when the world’s biggest companies start to take interest. Tesla may have led the development of the modern electric vehicle (EV) but we only knew the EV market was here to stay when all major automotive players began to develop their own electric models. For many, Apple’s first-generation iPod in 2001 marks the beginning of the MP3 era for portable music, but the first MP3 players were the Playback Engine and the MPMan, developed by APA and SIS respectively, in 1997. Today, after the disruption of the pandemic, the biggest tech firms are now looking towards the rapidly maturing hybrid workplace market.
Microsoft, Google, IBM, and other tech giants have always had a big stake in the workplace market, but work has experienced a monumental disruption that put everything on hold. During the early stages of the pandemic the world debated the future of work, opinions ranged from full-remote workforces to everything going back to normal. That speculation gradually narrowed down on the hybrid work model, which has now taken the full attention of big tech companies who have each released a range of new features, services, and hardware dedicated to the “new world of hybrid work”. Except, hybrid work is not new, a range of smaller firms have been driving the similar development of “flexible work” long before the pandemic even began.
“The market is maturing, having seen considerable activity over the past two years, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology based user experience in commercial office space is becoming the norm in the post-pandemic era and is expected to have long-lasting implications on the continued development and use of digital workplace solutions,” reads our latest digital workplace report. “As the digital workplace takes shape in businesses worldwide with a revised set of working styles, whether it be remote working, hybrid working or flexible working, this change will necessitate an enhanced toolset enabling data-driven decision-making about the use of commercial office space.”
In 2021, Microsoft announced its new vision for the hybrid employee experience with Microsoft Viva, centred on four modules —connections, topics, insights, and learning - that can be used independently or in tandem with the all-encompassing Microsoft 365 suite. Viva Connections brings the SharePoint Online employee portal (intranet) into workforce communications platform Teams, with the help of a few integrations such as Yammer Communities and Stream. This integration leads to a more seamless and natural “physical-workplace-like” experience for employees working on various devices and in various locations.
Viva Topics is like Wikipedia for an organization, integrating with 365’s Topic Center in SharePoint that utilizes AI to mine data across 365 while highlighting experts and resources from across the organization. Research from McKinsey suggests that workers spend over an hour a day finding or recreating lost information, and the problem is only getting worse as more content and systems are created. Viva Topics aims to tackle this problem using AI and ML, paired with help from dedicated knowledge managers, thereby simulating and maybe even enhancing the multi-departmental connections and recollections of water-cooler moments in the traditional workplace.
Viva Insights focuses on time management, relationships, and wellbeing, by delivering both personal insights for workers and another set of insights for those managing large hybrid teams. Personal insights are an organizational tool designed to help workers stay on top of meetings, conflicts, rescheduling, following up, and catching up on missed information. Whilst team insights reveal patterns of work to identify inefficiencies and solutions, with specific reference to assessing work culture and how employees spend their working hours. Microsoft even shared an example, where Insights found that the top salespeople spend 12 hours or more with direct customer interaction, which it then applied to focus the productivity of the whole sales team.
At the end of 2020, Google also rebranded and reintegrated its range of productivity and workforce management tools for the remote/hybrid work era with Google Workspace. The renewed suite ties in Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Meet for the hybrid worker, whilst also adding a few new tools for this new era of work. Google being Google, a few moonshot-style technologies have been tested to solve the bigger issues with hybrid work, most notably, Project Starline. Through a combination of computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression, Project Starline is a light field display system that creates a 3D-like sense of volume and depth, without the need for additional glasses or headsets.
“Imagine looking through a sort of magic window, and through that window, you see another person, life-size and in three dimensions. You can talk naturally, gesture and make eye contact. The effect is the feeling of a person sitting just across from you, like they are right there,” explains Google through its blog and fascinating video intro. “Project Starline is currently available in just a few of our offices and it relies on custom-built hardware and highly specialized equipment. We believe this is where person-to-person communication technology can and should go, and in time, our goal is to make this technology more affordable and accessible, including bringing some of these technical advancements into our suite of communication products.”
Another digital communications player is also following the custom-built hardware route is COVID’s most public success story, Zoom. The US firm has launched Zoom Rooms, which promises flawless, high-definition video across multiple devices, as well as one-touch join and other features, but only using specific equipment from Zoom’s hardware partners. Zoom Rooms include the ability to dial out to standards-based SIP/H.323 endpoints, while its Conference Room Connector takes it a step further by allowing any standards-based video conferencing endpoint to join a meeting. Zoom says the new system “enables in-person and remote participants to interact in real time” and makes it “simple to start a meeting, book a room, and share content”, which sounds a lot like the old system with better connectivity and video quality.
Rebranding technology suites to suit a disrupted market is to be expected, the embrace of hybrid work by big tech companies confirms many hybrid work predictions, and while improvements in communication technology are always welcome, the custom-built hardware route limits market adoption. The consensus among big tech investment and marketing campaigns confirms a maturing of the hybrid work trend, creating a dedicated market segment for a hybrid future of work.
By muscling in on the workplace experience market, IT giants find themselves rubbing shoulders with the OT-driven world of building automation, but as hybrid trends pull work away from the workplace, the lines of the IT-OT relationship are being redrawn. Hybrid trends mean a much greater share of “work” now falls into the IT domain, OT is no longer the master of that domain but a specialized player that seeks to optimize and improve parts of the physical workplace within a decentralized hybrid work model. This represents a big step for buildings within a growing long-term trend towards IT, which should ultimately improve the workplace experience for everyone.