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Rise of the digital workspace hubs

More relevant than ever before, Virtual workspace software offer great options for effective continuity of work and collaboration

- By R. Narayan

It does seem now that Technology has been quietly preparing us for scenarios which have been unfolding over the past month or so. Today, we are empowered with technologies that enable us to connect and collaborate on the work front remotely with a rich array of choices in terms of solutions.

The continuing onslaught of Covid-19 has spared almost no country in terms of infections, slowing down the wheels of global economy. While we wait for the pandemic to slow down and subside, Business may have slowed down but needs to continue.  And how do we do that when getting to your physical workplace become a challenge?

Technology offers you alternatives that are as good  as being at your workplace, in connecting and collaborating with your colleagues and others, thus keeping pace with work deadlines. There was never a more apt time for realizing the worth of tools that enable video based meetings and work related collaboration. This is the juncture at which traditional work as we know it is truly seeing a mass transformation as more numbers of global workforce are compelled to find Technology alternatives for staying connected with their work and carry on.

Enabling the transformation are a good number of Technology vendors who have been steadily building up and enhancing those suites of collaboration software, integrating easily with the hardware of choice. Look around and you will spot a great variety of collaboration tools that are being offered for free as well in several instances.

A virtual workspace is a digital avatar of the physical office and comes with many collaborations as well as communication tools, depending on the vendor of your choice. These are mostly cloud based apps and there  web enabled versions as well for most. They act us hubs for teams to connect via internal communications software or video conferencing software and they provide a framework for Businesses to continue work, overcoming disruptions as we have seen in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak globally..

These workspaces typically also allow users to create virtual offices spaces separated into “rooms" with dedicated purposes. They provide internal communication channels like instant messaging, video conferencing, etc and they offer collaborative tools like screen sharing and document sharing.

There is likely to be a steep adoption of these tools and this is already happening in verticals like Education for instance as institutions have been hurriedly on-boarding their staff and students on to collaboration platforms for continuing video based live instructional classes as regular classes are disrupted dues to concerns over Covid-19.

Microsoft offers Microsoft Teams,  which is a chat-based digital workspace for Office 365 that has been built and designed to make collaboration and group work easier and more efficient. Microsoft Teams allows you to instant chat, schedule calls and meetings within your own teams and across your organisation.

According to Mohamed Arif, Business Group Director, Modern Workplace and Security, Microsoft UAE, “The value that Businesses service from Teams goes beyond video conferencing.  It is a modern chat based collaboration workspace. It enables integration of apps and of course enables video calling and conferencing. At Microsoft, we have always maintained that work is not a place you go to necessarily but rather what you do and which is truer today than ever before. Teams enables you to travel with your work, serving as a hub for your workspace.”

He adds, “Beyond the fact that it enables get together with your colleagues, it allows work with features like transcription for instance- as you speak, automatically transcribing and translation of the talk so little is lost in terms of listening and understanding by all colleagues. So it includes some AI features like transcribing/translation and settings like blurring of the background, helpful when operating out of home environments. So the objective with Microsoft teams is to provide a hub for your workspace.”

 Zoho offers a suite of solutions for remote working. Zoho Showtime and Zoho Meeting together provide all-in-one solution for video conferencing, live webinars and delivering presentations. It supports recording the session and playback.

Hyther Nizam, President MEA, Zoho Corp, says, “ In general, the UAE market like others prefers in-person meetings and video conferencing would be  used only when a person outside UAE is involved in the conversation. But given the situation now, we see huge spike in our video conferencing solutions in the region. With Zoho Remotely launch this is going to increase in the coming weeks exponentially. You can moderate the conversation and share screens, which is much-needed when collaborating with your co-workers. We have also provided productivity and collaboration tools such as project management tools (Zoho Projects and Sprints), office suite and more. Together, packaged under Zoho Remotely, are all the tools a company needs to enable remote working.”

Zoho has also gone ahead and made the tools free for use by Businesses for now, looking to help out in this hour of need.

He adds, “From March first week, 8000+ employees of Zoho, spread around 10+ offices across the world have been working from home, and we have been using our own collaboration and productivity tools, which we have recently launched as Remotely. It's free for all businesses till July 1, by when, we hope this pandemic would have passed.”

Avaya is offering Avaya Spaces, a cloud meeting and team collaboration app.

Savio Tovar Dias, Senior Director - Sales Engineering, Avaya International says, “Avaya Spaces is a cost-effective cloud meeting and team collaboration app that effortlessly integrates voice, video, tasks, sharing and more into one app that can be accessed from any endpoint device.  The solution offers all the meeting and team collaboration features that remote workers need. This includes voice and video conferencing for up to 200 participants, meeting spaces, and file sharing.”

As such, Avaya Spaces enables collaboration, with team members in any location working as though they’re in the same room effortlessly in chat, via online meetings or using meeting room video. Avaya Spaces has been witnessing a significant adoption growth rate since beginning of the year, according to Savio.

He adds, "Avaya believes in technology for the good of humanity and we are providing our Avaya Spaces collaboration software for free to education institutions and eligible non-profit organizations worldwide. We know there is an especially immediate need in the education sector as school and university administrators consider the safety of their students while ensuring continuity of their classes, engagement with their students and delivering on their educational objectives. This solution is recognized for its ease of implementation and the significant impact it can have on organizational resilience and continuity. Since January, Avaya has seen a 200 percent increase in video collaboration traffic on the Avaya Spaces platform.”

As it is cloud-based, Avaya Spaces has been designed for utmost convenience, allowing users to seamlessly transition between devices – be it their laptop, smartphone or tablet. For this reason, Spaces can be accessed via the browser - all you need is your password and you can sign in from anywhere and any device. Avaya Spaces also offers also built in Google, Slack, Microsoft Office 365, Outlook, and Teams integrations.

Against the current backdrop, while most collaboration suites would be seeing a faster than normal adoption, Microsoft Teams has been witnessing a huge traction for Microsoft Teams and has also enabled trial versions to enable more businesses and individuals to work remotely.

Mohamed says, “Previously as well, we have been seeing strong adoption with customers like Emirates Airlines, adopting Microsoft teams as workspace of their choice.  We have seen over the past a strong adoption across the board- possibly one of our fastest rates of adoption across product lines. “Recently, we have a seen a sharp spike and had published recently about  a 500% increase in adoption in China. We are seeing a  real sharp increase because of the current challenges and are focused on helping partners and customers in terms of adapting. We recently announced a free trail version for anybody without a Microsoft license. We are constantly innovating, adding new capabilities.”

One of the strong advantages is its integration with Office 365 and is able to leverage the large installed base.

Mohamed elaborates, “The defining value proposition is that you can bring in all applications you work with generally into Teams as tabs. It integrates with the entire Microsoft office 365 portfolio so you can edit Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point within Teams adding them. You can have One Note and even integrate with third party applications. It its a platform that you can continue to add what you need for your workflow. This is a space where you can get all applications within Teams and get work done, without the need for shuffling between different applications.”

One of the challenges is on data residency requirements. Microsoft as a cloud services provider and with an UAE based datacenter is quite well placed to meet those requirements from companies looking to use these solutions.

“We are global cloud provider and we have a lot of services companies across the spectrum use. There have been requests from government side customers and Financial sector customers especially about how they would like to leverage the cloud but in compliance with regulatory requirements of the need for data to reside locally. We announced the local datacenter last year and made investments and have seen a great momentum generated further to that for cloud adoption.”

Microsoft is also providing a lot of support to larger customers in terms of deployment and guidance around remote work.

Mohamed says, “The Ministry of Education has a plan around rolling out Microsoft Teams as a tool for enabling distance education for students. The federal government has announced the plan to use Microsoft Teams to enable employees to work remotely. We are encouraged by the fact that these segments from education to government are looking to us for the support in this hour of need. Public health of customers, partners is our top priory now. We are here to support them to enable and support remote working. That said, what differentiates us is the ability for organizations to meet data residency requirements and the fact that we are the office productivity solutions vendor of choice for many means that they are able to leverage the deep integration of Teams with Microsoft office 365, setting us apart.”

The questions is if this spike in current demand also to likely fashion a longer term change in workforce engagement even after normalcy returns? There is every reason to believe so in light of the convenience remote working offers although it will never supplant the physical face to face meeting.

Hyther adds, “Once the businesses start embracing secure, collaboration-friendly cloud-based service, and realise the benefits, they will be more open to embracing the remote work culture. The employees will save time and money on commute, and be more productiveWith high-speed internet available everywhere, there is no reason why work from home can't be continued after the normalcy has returned. The biggest benefit is that companies can hire talented employees from anywhere in the world. Geograpy will no longer be a limitation.”

The familiarity challenge was perhaps one of the challenges until so far. But now, more people are compelled to work with these tools and once they are more aware of the advantages on offer, it is likely that this could be a sustainable shift.

Mohamed adds, “At this point, how we are focused on helping customers, partners, students & teachers adopt and overcome challenges. This phase will likely  accelerate a larger number of people to familiarize with the concept of remote working and how Technology enables that effectively.”

According to Savio, the shift was always in motion as more number of people and businesses were adopting remote working option steadily.

He adds, “Gartner forecasts that by 2023, fewer than one-third of digital workers will choose the office as their preferred place to work. So yes, even prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, there has been a significant interest from UAE businesses in enabling employees to work from anywhere, and on any device. While the crisis has no doubt accelerated the adoption of remote workforce enablement tools, there has already been a broader trend which we fully expect to continue in coming years.

While we hope that normalcy would return at the earliest and together humankind would have overcome the pandemic, Technology has risen to the fore, connecting us and helping us collaborate better than ever before, at the work front and otherwise.