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Updating Your Digital Workplace for the New Normal

During this time of remote work, many companies have continued their business operations by  giving their employees the technology tools that keep them collaborating. 

As we gradually get back to business as usual, what we call “as usual” may have changed as well. The last few months have shut down businesses or hindered their efforts to keep up their operations. Even if your organization was one of those that was already on board with collaboration technology, you’ve seen firsthand just how much people rely on each other when they can’t be in the same office, where they’re just a few feet away from asking a question, giving an answer, or providing an update. 

Our post-COVID-19 era, if we may optimistically call it that, is one that will find thousands of organizations wanting to improve their collaboration environment for those working on-site and off. The following factors will impact and shape the new normal in the workplace: 

Well-being: The offices you return to won’t be like the offices you left before the shutdown. Here are some ways you’ll maintain social connections while also providing for your employees’ well-being through recommended best practices and guidelines they must follow:

  • Support monitored social distancing throughout the workplace, including collaboration spaces. A conference room that was designed to hold 10 people might now only have chairs for five participants at a time. 
  • Share safety protocols like frequent hand washing, social distancing, contact tracing, and the frequent cleaning of common devices and furniture. 
  • Create new spaces and redevelop existing ones to include touchless control and BYOD (bring your own device) capabilities.

Video collaboration: For people to work from home and on site, they need reliable, simple-to-use collaboration technology that integrates with their company’s network and applications. Having that high-quality, user-friendly technology also improves the experience for those connecting with them from various locations. Here are some areas to consider as you address a digital workplace equipped with video collaboration:

  • Look at the ways your staff has used collaboration spaces and how those use cases are expected to change. Prepare for more activity-based workspaces while keeping in mind they might not follow the design you had in mind before COVID-19. Even with enhanced cleaning measures in place, people may not want to use the touch-enabled devices that book rooms, start meetings, or engage video.
  • Provide a consistent user experience for those working from home. Standardize on a UCC solution that is easy to use and has the features that will accommodate your different user types.
  • Consider non-traditional spaces like manufacturing floors as candidates for video collaboration.

Security: The expansion of the work environment to off-site locations, including the home, means that cybersecurity must also expand to include remote workers on a much larger scale than you may have previously anticipated. However, on-site work continues to be a mainstay of company operations. As your business transitions back to the offices, you’ll need to help your talent interact with on-site technology in a way that keeps information secure.

Consider these areas as your IT team focuses on your company’s information security:

  • As you add UCC solutions for in-room and remote collaboration, review the cybersecurity features of those providers. Understand the built-in permissions and privacy protocols of their solutions so you know what steps to take to keep your information secure.
  • Prepare for a resurgence of BYOD. Expect your staff to prefer using their own devices to interact with and control collaboration room technology.
  • As you give access to company services to remote workers, consider how that access affects the security of those on-premise or cloud-based services.
  • Address the home LAN with cybersecurity measures that protect company information, including documents and chat files.

Automation: In the workplace, many employees are booking common rooms and using a variety of control and collaboration devices that are also being used by their colleagues.

By automating in-office functions like scheduling and room control, you can improve the collaboration experience while also minimizing health risks by reducing the number of touch points. Some ideas for incorporating automation technology in your workplace include:

  • Deploy virtual digital assistants like Alexa for Business to create a touch-free experience in collaboration spaces. Through voice activation, people can start their meetings and the devices that allow them to connect with remote colleagues, share documents from their personal devices, and wirelessly connect their devices to room displays.
  • Offer personalized wayfinding employees and visitors through a combination of mobile apps and digital signage. This minimizes foot traffic by efficiently guiding people to their destinations.
  • Automate workspace assignments so that employees know when and where they are scheduled to be on site. These assignments can be based on each person’s need to use on-site resources as well as their work preferences.
  • Use remote concierge services to schedule, launch meetings, and monitor meetings. User management applications like AVI-SPL Symphony can do this, as well as remotely monitor and manage rooms, devices, the network, and the conference infrastructure.

Intelligent buildings: Intelligent building technology anticipates and responds to the way people work, and it streamlines their interactions with spaces and the kind of technology they need to use. These systems give insight into how spaces are being used so that a company can use the analytics to decide if it needs to reconfigure spaces and/or build new ones.

  • Design responsive environments driven by AI and ambient computing. These rooms anticipate what devices and applications will be needed based on who schedules them, who is using the room, and the meeting purpose. Facial recognition tells system how you like the temperature and lighting in a room, and the preferred way of starting a meeting.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) and occupancy sensors, thermal cameras, and Wi-Fi tracking show the density of people gathered in various areas throughout the workplace. They provide alerts when they anticipate collaboration sessions will go over the approved number of participants. That information can be used to provide intelligent space scheduling that shows available rooms for supporting the required number of in-person participants while also maintaining social distancing.
  • Integrated workplace management systems do the heavy lifting by monitoring spaces, down to the device level. This ensures that only rooms with functioning technology are available to schedule, and it lets the support team know when an issue needs a resolution. These systems help staff resolve these issues before an end user experiences any difficulty during a meeting. 

AVI-SPL is helping organizations like yours determine what your “new normal” work experience will look like as you  collaborate across offices and remote locations. If you have any questions about the issues shared in this post, or would like to discuss your organization’s collaboration strategy, contact us.

Improve Your Higher Ed Disaster Collaboration Plan

We recently looked at items you should consider when evaluating your disaster plans for your collaboration environment. Higher education faces unique needs and challenges in collaboration and requires some additional thought and consideration when evaluating your current response and planning for the future.

When evaluating your current response, consider such questions as:

  • Were technology hand-out programs (such as laptops) adequate to meet demand? Did students utilize the devices they were given? Were there any hardware limitations or requirements for some programs?
    • While Chromebooks or other mini-notebooks may meet very basic requirements, students whose programs demand CPU-intensive programs may find it impossible to complete their coursework without a better-equipped device.
  • Which community resources were engaged by students?
    • Did local libraries provide internet access outdoors? Did ISP’s provide free home access or free Wi-Fi locations?  Consider coalition-building with local resources (both near your college or university, and across your state) to learn about their abilities to offer services during disasters, and design collaboration solutions that can cope with these bottlenecks.
  • Were standard university emergency notification channels used during the crisis? How can we expand visibility to these notifications via collaboration elements, such as digital signage?
    • Ensure your emergency notification system is set up to push content into your digital signage.

Accessibility for All

Each student comes to higher education with a unique background, needs, and goals. While many students are lucky enough to be able to move to a fully remote experience without much hassle, others face serious challenges in continuing their education. It is crucial that collaboration technology and resources be made available and utilized in ways that enable these students to continue their educations. 

ADA compliance should be more than a checkbox that is met with each project. Meet with your campus office of accessibility services to learn more about the unique needs and challenges that were met, and those that were not, during the recent crisis. Ensure features that are even more important as classes move remotely, such as captioning, are more than adequate for students to continue their education.

Tech developed for ADA compliance can be re-purposed to meet social distancing guidelines. Assisted listening systems can be re-purposed to meet current social distancing needs.  Rather than voice lift systems that could be complicated and expensive to retrofit to large spaces, products like the Biamp CrowdMics, Listen Tech’s ListenEVERYWHERE, and Williams Sound’s WaveCAST enable students to receive audio and communicate back to instructors and their classmates with questions. These systems are simple to deploy while utilizing a participant’s own devices – protecting them and simplifying your sanitizing requirements.

In many areas, broadband speed and cellular signal can be dramatically limited – if available at all.  Video streaming and conferencing can consume large amounts of bandwidth, making it impossible for students to participate fully. Consider making videos downloadable, and provide audio-only options, enabling students who may only be able to access the internet on a sporadic or limited basis the ability to receive material. 

Hybrids, Everywhere

While instructors scrambled to meet the challenge of quickly transitioning classes from in-person formats to online, courses for 2020/2021 are being developed with the understanding that a quick pivot back to fully remote courses may be necessary. 

While strategies vary as far as whether classes will be fully remote and led from a classroom or a home office, held in person in a socially-distanced manner or broadcast to classrooms on campus, it’s important to ensure your networks are ready for this traffic. While the Spring 2020 semester often relied on from-home recordings, hybrid models will bring new demands. 

With instructors back in classrooms, the recorded video may be of higher quality – and requiring more processing power and bandwidth – than those recorded from home. Comparing previous utilization of lecture capture and the amount of time for videos to be prepared with forecasted 100% utilization will enable you to provide realistic guidelines to instructors.

Streaming video can utilize a large amount of bandwidth. Look for options on your content platform to downscale simple videos of lectures to ensure you are not taxing your networks unnecessarily. Additional WAP’s (such as the Luxul XAP-810) may be required in areas with a heavy student presence. With students and parents already wary of online learning, sufficient bandwidth may be one of the easiest ways to ease the challenges of the Fall 2020 semester.

Define a Pivot Plan

While no one is looking forward to a second round of lockdowns and quarantines, it is crucial to be prepared to move back to fully online status within 24 hours.  Where businesses strive to maintain business continuity, higher education needs to maintain educational continuity while also maintaining channels of communication to anxious students, parents, and wider community.

Create a plan for utilizing existing tech, such as your digital signage platforms, to distribute information quickly and widely. AVI-SPL can work with you to develop a comprehensive digital signage strategy, ensuring your investment distributes information effectively. Your digital signage platform should tie in your emergency notification system, allowing emergency status information to be distributed quickly and widely.

Don’t Forget Your Standards

Many colleges and universities are currently scrambling to complete their usual summer technology upgrades while also equipping new spaces with video conferencing and content-sharing capabilities to aid in social distancing. While equipment can be in short supply, it’s important to ensure your dollars are still invested in ways that will be productive and compliant with your existing standards. 

Existing standards may need to be flexed, but they should not be completely abandoned. AVI-SPL is available as your trusted advisor to provide consulting and engineering teams to assist you in selecting equipment that is both available, high quality, and will be compatible with campus technology standards.

High quality is one of the most important aspects of online learning.  Poor video quality will contribute to the student impression that distance learning is lower quality (and thus, not of the quality deserving of their tuition). Maintaining the classroom-like experience will positively impact student satisfaction.

AVI-SPL has partnered with several manufacturers to design high quality, turn-key systems that can quickly be deployed anywhere around campus.  The All In One Classroom Bundle provides high quality from Newline Interactive’s display, Logitech’s MeetUp, and Bose speakers.  Without permanent installation, this bundle allows any space to be used for distance learning while being re-configurable to meet future needs post-crisis.

Use Your Community

While we can’t come together in person this summer, there are many virtual resources that will help you learn from colleagues about ideas that have been proven to work – and some that have been proven not to work. The Higher Education Technology Managers Alliance will be presenting their all-virtual (and free!) Technology Conference 2020 from June 8-10. This conference will include a variety of expert panels and sessions to exchange ideas with colleagues from a wide variety of geographic, socioeconomic, and institutional backgrounds.

This is also a great time to work on your own knowledge, utilizing free manufacturer trainings such as those from Crestron, Extron, Biamp, Shure, and more.

As always, your AVI-SPL team will be here to provide any support and products you may need to meet your developing requirements. If you run into a challenge, just contact us.

CARES Act Funding for Online Learning Solutions

Schools all over the world are scrambling to reopen this fall and will likely provide at least some virtual classes. Did you know that The CARES Act: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund—Institutional Portion assists with any significant change in the delivery of instruction and allocates funds for distance learning projects? Funding may cover upgrading audio visual and online learning equipment to deliver virtual classes, interactive on-site sessions, or both.

Specifically, The CARES Act states, “Institutions may use the funds for Recipient’s Institutional Costs to purchase equipment or software, pay for online licensing fees, or pay for internet service to enable students to transition to distance learning as such costs are associated with a significant change in the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.” (1) There is also dedicated funding for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund—Minority Institutions Program and other special school populations. (2)

Which schools qualify for CARES Act Funds?

Institutions that entered into the Funding Certification and Agreement for Emergency Financial Aid Grants to Students under the CARES Act may receive funds for Recipient’s Institutional Costs. Visit this page to see if your school has allocated CARES Act funds.

AVI-SPL Online Learning Solutions

Through our network of suppliers, we developed ideas to help schools like yours prepare for the fall semester and beyond. No matter if you have standardized on Zoom, MS Teams, or other collaboration technology, we can help you deliver a positive student experience in the classroom, online, or design a hybrid solution for both options. Learn more about:

Barco weConnect Interactive Virtual Classroom

  • Teacher-friendly interface for classroom instruction while students learn and engage remotely.
  • Quickly deployable and no apps or extra configurations required for students.
  • Multiple built-in cameras allow students to customize their learning views while teachers engage with real-size views of students and large attendance capacity.

Newline All-in-One Classroom

  • Quickly pivot from face-to-face instruction to distance learning while instructors remain in the classroom.
  • Customizable product bundles are suited for every learning environment at a competitive price point.
  • Deliver highly interactive solutions, particularly for virtual labs.

SMART Podium and Interactive Pen Display

  • Ability to deliver lessons from anywhere and connect students in live remote learning sessions on 24” screens.
  • With a simple computer connection, instructors can present and use the interactive pen to add notes or illustrations on the touchscreen.
  • Podium comes with SMART ink™ and SMART Learning Suite, including SMART Notebook® or SMART Meeting Pro® software.

Panopto Lecture Capture

  • Integrates with all major learning management systems, and offers comprehensive recording tools, simple deployment, and top-rated support.
  • Flexible recording and uploading tools let teachers create video lessons anytime and anywhere.
  • Offers personalized learning experiences for students, including inside-video search and variable speed playback.

Helpful CARES Act links

For more information on the CARES act, and how to request funds, visit these helpful links.

The AVI-SPL team is here to help you deliver digital classes and interactive learning solutions. Contact us now or call your local office.

Evaluate Your Disaster Collaboration Plan

COVID-19 has highlighted that many of us were ill-prepared for a prolonged global disaster.  Better accustomed to hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, we had (fortunately) never experienced a crisis like this in our lifetimes. Now that we have had to learn these lessons the hard way, how can we use this knowledge and experience to ensure we are better prepared in the future?

We can all agree that business continuity is the most important aspect in any crisis.  As the world begins to return to “normal”, we should take advantage of this opportunity to evaluate how we have managed the current challenge and think about how we can better prepare ourselves for the next crisis.

When evaluating how well your systems functioned during the crisis, here are a few questions with which to begin:

With many cloud services’ free offers expiring shortly, are you prepared to pay the bill for continued service?  Will this service improve your disaster response in the future, or can alternatives meet this need?

Now is the time to evaluate your options and anticipate how these will assist you in maintaining business continuity in a second wave of lockdowns, or a more traditional disaster.

While most applications have seen a spike in utilization, are there any applications with suspiciously low usage?

This may be pointing out your workforce has developed their own solutions or workarounds for your systems, causing security and intellectual property concerns.

Who are your most crucial users?  Who should belong to Phase 2 or 3?

Rolling out emergency procedures can be time consuming, and you should prioritize when possible to ensure your business continues to be as capable as possible during interruption. While executives are a natural answer, your front-line client support should not be overlooked. New product development, marketing, and even accounting should be considered for lower priority in your disaster collaboration plan.

Are your offices ready to handle users who have increased their adoption of video services?

Social distancing requirements may require a sustained uptick in video meeting adoption as some team members are in the office while others are at home.  Additionally, some employees may be uncomfortable being in an enclosed space with others.  Evaluate your office to include any conference rooms or huddle spaces that could be equipped with video to keep up with increased demand. It is becoming much cheaper to outfit rooms with basic video conferencing and content sharing technology.  Defined corporate standards should provide easy templates to quickly outfit these spaces.

When evaluating your current response and working to refine future plans, there are a few other areas to consider that also impact business continuity:

 

Redundancy and Resilience

Luckily, the world has been moving to many cloud-based platforms in the past few years: between file storage and sharing, cloud video, and shared productivity apps, we are already in a much better place than we would have been even 10 years ago.  However, there are strings attached to that cloud: licensing, security, and the ability for end user devices to access these technologies are all limiting factors. Some areas to ensure you have covered:

  • Securing video meetings against intruders, with a passcode or other method
  • Your device must be secure – but it must also connect to a secure platform. Are the management platforms, manufacturer portals, and individual device logins secure against attack? (For a more in-depth look, listen to our recent webinar with Crestron on AV and cybersecurity.)

 

Enabling Working from Anywhere

In the past, we have joked about working from our backyard hammock, the beach, or a boat.  For these uncommon occurrences, the low-res webcam built into laptops, or those headphones you got with your phone, are perfectly adequate. The recent scramble to acquire webcams, headsets, and other remote work enablement devices has proven the need for quality hardware.  Luckily, these items will not just sit in dusty boxes – they can be utilized in-office as well, improving the user experience and promoting the adoption of video meetings.

Consider purchasing employees basic hardware, such as those provided in AVI-SPL’s work from home bundles, as a hedge against potential second-wave quarantines and future disasters.  AVI-SPL has expanded its offerings to provide solutions specific to COVID-19 office space needs:

  • Temperature checks with the Aurora Temperature Check Tablet
  • Touchless hand sanitizer stations such as the Liberty Cable NOVI-AHS
  • Additional wireless demand will require a more durable network. Consider adding more WAP’s like the Luxul WS-80
  • Improve the videoconferencing experience with webcams, such as the Logitech C925E and audio solutions such as the Yamaha YVC-330
  • Wireless content sharing to enable social distancing while working in a group, using tools like the Barco ClickShare

 

Manage It Remotely

Are there elements of your collaboration technology environment that you cannot manage remotely? How will you handle a situation where a fire, tornado, or other natural disaster compromises your server or office access?  While we have been relatively lucky lately that we can access our offices when required, this will not always be the case.

If you work in a corporate HQ that oversees and supports a company-wide technology environment, how will your satellite offices cope if HQ is gone? 

Is your company planning on equipping multiple smaller offices, rather than one large office, to gain social distancing space?

Once again, a plan for redundancy and resiliency is needed.  Systems such as AVI-SPL Symphony will allow you to monitor and control remote office technologies while enabling remote troubleshooting and meeting monitoring.  This cloud-based application enables you to run a support desk from home and promotes social distancing: minimizing the number of on-site trips required and the number of staff required in-office. 

 

Utilize Your Trusted Advisor

One of the most important life skills – in AV, UCC, or any situation – is to know when we have reached the limits of our knowledge.  Even experts consult with other experts, and it is always a good practice to check in with others to get a second opinion.

AVI-SPL’s teams are at your convenience for that expert opinion. Beyond your account manager or service manager, AVI-SPL’s talented design teams can develop corporate standards that account for increased social distancing, remove touch elements from your conference rooms, and improve the reliability and scalability of your collaboration environment.  Let us know you need help, and we will provide the service and support you require.

Webinar Recording: Reimagining the Modern Workplace With Collaboration Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many organizations to allow employees to work from home and use collaboration technology to get work done. But the reimagining of the modern workplace was already underway, driven by the needs of employees and the capabilities of solutions like Microsoft Teams.

The goal of the reimagined workplace is to give employees areas – huddle rooms, meeting spaces, and boardrooms – that can easily connect with the remote workforce. That way, employees can determine whether to work in the office or at home depending on what they’re most comfortable with, while being equally efficient in both locations.

Technology is where it starts. In this AVI-SPL and Microsoft webinar, you’ll learn how to outfit different spaces in the office with the technology that creates a flexible workplace that empowers people to be productive and efficient. Experts from Microsoft and AVI-SPL will share their insights into:

  • Statistics on the rise of collaboration in the workplace and changes in the workforce
  • Why remote work integration is a crucial aspect of collaboration spaces in the office
  • The value Microsoft Teams and Surface Hub 2S brings to your collaboration efforts
  • How AVI-SPL delivers and supports the Microsoft experience in your meeting spaces

Get the recording for “Reimagining the Modern Workplace With Collaboration Technology” >