Returning to the Office: The Looming Coordination Problem With Collaboration Technology
As people return to the office, they may not return to their office—the office from before the pandemic, the one with the dead plant and the dated ketchup packets, the one with the flashing Ethernet light anxiously seeking a handshake for the last two years.
When people return to the office they may return to another office, one that doesn’t have assigned seats. Visiting an office where people don’t have assigned seats is called “hoteling,” though the company picks up the tab without the need for an expense report.
If someone wants to find someone else, they used to be able to rely on a directory of some sort, one embedded in the e-mail system or a proprietary one that IT deployed after some legacy migration. Regardless of the technology, people knew at least where other people were supposed to be.
When everyone worked from home, people’s location was easy to determine, they were on Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex, or Zoom. Regardless of where they were actually sitting, they owned a virtual address through which others could meet them.
People returning to the office obtain new coordinates when they hotel in a facility. Their physical location may change daily. If the same person returns to the same location every day, they may well stake out a spot and make it uncomfortable for others to claim, but it isn’t really their spot. If they were hired during the pandemic, they may not even have an assigned spot.
Collaboration technology traditionally ties to a directory. If an admin updated the metadata for a person, (or if that responsibility falls to each employee or a local administrator), the directory holds a location of a physical space, a room number, where that person is assigned.
When people attend meetings, collaboration technology typically includes a mapping between the people who accept a meeting and the meeting location. If you know a person is in a meeting, and you need to reach them, you should be able to go to the meeting room to find them.
Meeting room to individual mapping breaks down for people returning to the office. They may hotel in a location closer to their home. They may be in a company-owned building but still decide to attend a meeting virtually. The networking system may know where the IP address used by that person terminates, but it likely doesn’t share that information with the collaboration system.
Collaboration vendors are now scrambling to add features that allow people to check-in with a virtual address that allows them to share where they are. For multi-platform collaboration implementations with that feature, while it makes sense to each collaboration platform, it doesn’t make sense across platforms. I talked with Google on their monthly briefing recently, and they said they were unaware of any interoperability discussions around the emergent data related to returning to the office.
And the issue of where you land when you land is only part of the problem. When you decide to land is also an issue. It would be most useful for colleagues to know not only where you are when you are someplace, but to know where you plan to be when landing. Systems need coordinates in space and in time for meetings. Video conferences eliminate the space dimension as people coordinate around time but returning to the office requires people to associate with spatial coordinates. And if individuals decide to only attend meetings virtually, they need a way to signal that to others, so they don’t try to look for them, which was not unusual behavior prior to the pandemic.
These issues become more complicated in a multi-platform collaboration environment. The coordination of meetings will depend on the behavior of individuals who may share their status in some places, in all places, or in no place. Be prepared for meetings that don’t just start with people waiting for late video tiles to pop in, but instead for a lengthy discussion about who heard from whom about how or where or when they might attend.
IT organizations need to work closely with their functional counterparts to talk through this issue. The ideal answer is a single check-in system that propagates location and time commitments across all compliant collaboration tools. But not all tools recognize these new realities and those that do have not yet cooperated on a way to interoperate. That means with all of the great, “innovative” collaboration features developed over the last couple of years, people will spend more time coordinating meetings that combine physical and virtual attendees, especially if they invest in more than one collaboration platform.
Dynamic Coordination Data Required for Effective Return to Office and Hybrid Work
- Where is a person now, and for how long?
- When does a person intend to be in a particular space, and for how long?
- Which physical room is nearest to the place where the majority of meeting attendees say they will be at the time of the meeting?
- Who is actually in a physical room at the same time?
- Meeting intent: Even if I have a physical location I will attend virtually.
This metadata is not as simple as asking a person to enter an update. It will require algorithms to make sense of both entered data and activity-derived data. This data may come under some scrutiny for privacy issues depending on how it is exposed and stored—and if the organization using it creates policies that explicitly allow or disallow this kind of data for individuals.
Serious Insights suggests that the major collaboration vendors begin discussions about how to define these data elements, and the best mechanisms for interoperability and sharing across platforms.
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