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Collaboration & COVID – Respond, Recover and Reimagine
Ram Ojha Global Practice Head – UC&C | June 9, 2020

Good things end so that better things can begin. A model to hire and retain employees using the best of facilities in physical office spaces had its own lifespan. These facilities encouraged employees to not only spend their working hours in offices but also motivated them to go beyond. However, virtual collaboration-powered work from home (WFH) and collaboration spaces had already started challenging the relevance of such a model since some time. COVID-19 proved to be the final nail in the coffin. But is it really the case? In order to find an answer, we need to understand the impact cycle of COVID-19. I liked the way Microsoft’s CEO, Mr. Nadella, structured the impact cycle of COVID-19 into three phases; Respond, Recover, and Reimagine.

The Landscape of Collaboration through the Phases of COVID-19

What we are witnessing today is the first phase­, respond. In this phase, the usage of virtual collaboration is at its peak, with almost no face-to-face collaboration because of restrictions and lockdowns. The magnitude of the usage of collaboration platforms is quite high and, in contrast, the time to be prepared for such virtual collaboration has been quite short.

Enterprises need a platform to meet this demand in a very short time. However, immediate restrictions and lockdowns have left enterprises with no time to prepare.

Large enterprises were ready for site failovers, but their architecture wasn’t designed to support 100% remote working, particularly, for select features like enterprise voice, virtual meeting rooms, cloud monitoring, etc. Shifting to a unified communications as-a-Service (UCaaS) platform rather than an on-premises one, quickly became the go-to option for organizations as the platform offers the required scalability, flexibility, reliability, and APIs for integrations.

Organizations will be keen on using the power of collaboration APIs to address and implement COVID-19-related activities like temperature measurement, social distancing, plasma donation, etc.

Enterprise voice is usually one of the last features to be migrated to a cloud platform (UCaaS). Its dependencies over local gateways, analogue lines and regulatory laws make the migration process quite treacherous. Replacing physical meeting rooms is the next big thing. It’s about ensuring as good a meeting experience virtually for remote workers as they have experienced in the office. A robust tools strategy for a cloud platform (UCaaS) is another aspect. The absence of a tools strategy for monitoring, discovery, and automation in a cloud platform is another challenge that an enterprise has to deal with in this phase.

Going Beyond the Immediate Response

The second phase, recover, is already underway. In this phase, organizations aim to move beyond the realm of an intermediate state in order to finally attain and realize an end-state architecture. This is the phase when platform readjustments must be done.

The strength of face-to-face conversation lies in its potential to gradually unfold opportunities with a human touch. The notion of work from home-fueled productivity increases will be challenged. After all, it’s a matter of figuring out how much longer business transactions will take place in the absence of physical interaction. Face-to-face interactions could try to recover their lost ground to a certain extent during this phase, leading to readjustments in user experience and platform configuration.

Enterprises will go through a comprehensive series of tests including platform and functional ones. User experience, business productivity, and cost optimization are finally validated in this phase. Organizations will be keen on using the power of collaboration APIs to address and implement COVID-19-related activities like temperature measurement, social distancing, plasma donation, etc. After all, why can’t the capability of ‘intelligent proximity service’ be leveraged to enforce social distancing in a meeting room? Intelligent proximity service already delivers enhanced collaboration experience on various types of end points including mobile devices. Similarly, enterprises can integrate applications providing a COVID-19-related status in Digital Engagement Hubs like Microsoft Teams, Slack or WebEx Teams. There could be chatbots that assist employees in answering COVID-19-related questions. In short, a reinvigorated adoption program for the newly introduced modalities will gather momentum.

Reimagining a New Balance between the Virtual and the Physical

It’s only during the third phase, reimagine, that an enterprise will find its right balance between virtual and face-to-face collaboration. This is the phase to reimagine the capabilities of the implemented solution. Bots need to be enriched with more use cases, conversational interfaces need to be further aligned with user experiences, machine learning will churn out more effective use cases, and the full potential of interop-like solutions will be realized. A bot integrated with collaboration platforms like MS Teams, Slack etc, will be leveraged more effectively to answer employee queries.

Numerous research papers assert that coronavirus will forever change the way employees work and operate. The reimagine phase will essentially focus on assessing the change in employee behaviour to develop relevant features in collaboration platforms to enhance user experience and increase business productivity.

Lastly, industry-specific innovations born out of necessity will gain momentum and credibility among stakeholders. Microsoft Teams, Slack or WebEx Teams could be great enablers across various industries, including banking, education, high-tech, manufacturing, healthcare, etc. Microsoft recently built a ‘Plasma Bot’. This self-assessment tool lets people know if they can donate their plasma to help fight COVID 19. Similar types of use cases across verticals can be identified and integrated with collaboration platforms in the reimagine phase.

“The immediate response to the COVID-19-induced emergency was to focus on business continuity with a special focus on workforce continuity. Most organizations implemented a work-from-home model, in many cases, almost overnight. This also ushered in the phase of virtual collaboration of a geo-dispersed workforce for large organizations working from the safety of their homes.

In the next few months, as organizations chart their recovery from COVID-19, the lessons learnt from a hastily implemented WFH model and virtual collaboration will help organizations finetune their policies, processes, and associated technologies. It will not be surprising to see enterprises become more open to flexible working hours along with a work-from-home model to attract and retain talent while reducing the cost of building and maintaining expensive offices and campus locations.

A possible REMOTE-FIRST strategy may become the new normal for large organizations, providing the necessary benefits of having a globally distributed workforce that can collaborate virtually while also striking the necessary balance between face-to-face interactions and virtual presence.”

 – Tajeshwar Singh, Senior Vice President & Chief Architect - ITO, HCL Technologies.

HCL as a Go-to Partner through the Impact Cycles of COVID-19

At HCL, we’ve been working with large enterprises for over 25 years in the space of unified communications. Our customers have been leveraging many of our unified communications solutions in various specialized fields, including managed services, in the collaboration space throughout the COVID-19 impact cycle. Here are the solutions we offer:

  1. Transformation services to help enterprises transform their legacy unified communications (UC) infrastructure to the cloud model (UCaaS) in order to enhance user experience, increase business productivity, optimize run cost, and secure scalability.
  2. Managed services to manage collaboration infrastructure efficiently with the help of an in-house product called Rendezvous. As part of HCL’s managed services portfolio, this product, built on a ChatOps framework, enables discovery, monitoring, and automation in a collaboration infrastructure.
  3. Platform engineering, where several hundreds of our developers work for OEMs to develop rich features and functionalities on leading UCaaS platforms. Along with platform engineering, we also offer application certification services to leading OEMs to help certify third-party applications on UCaaS platforms.
  4. Applications services to deploy communication-enabled business processes. Through our applications services solutions, we develop intelligent bots using artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing (NLP), and machine learning (ML).

These four offerings enable a Fluid Workspace for enterprises and help them navigate the COVID-19 crisis effectively.