I could have used some virtual meeting technology when I covered my first tech vendor conference in Las Vegas a decade ago.
I made the mistake of wearing shoes with a very modest high heel. After a day of walking miles across those colossal Vegas convention hall floors, my feet were killing me.
In 2021, however, I barely have to worry about wearing pants to work-related events, let alone shoes. (For the record, I’m not among the 10 per cent of people who attend virtual work meetings sans trousers.)
COVID has pushed work meetings and events online. With hybrid work now gaining traction, employers are seeking technologies to improve the meeting experience both online and in the office. After attending two (virtual) sessions of the most recent Enterprise Connect conference, here are the five E’s of meeting tech I came away with.
Videoconferencing as the new normal is here to stay, not just a pandemic-era blip. And enterprises are investing heavily in video solutions for both WFH and the office. Work has gone hybrid, and in a hybrid environment, video is ubiquitous.
Enterprise Connect panelist Snorre Kjesbu of Cisco noted the number of meetings with remote participants has risen to more than 90 per cent today, up from just 10 per cent pre-COVID.
“That’s a complete game changer. Every meeting space has to have the ability to accommodate remote participants. We’re not going back to the same way we used to work,” said Kjesbu, VP and GM of Cisco’s Webex Devices unit.
“Every (office) space that you walk into will be video-enabled and is likely to be filled with AI,” predicted fellow panel member Ilya Bukshteyn, general manager of Microsoft Teams Devices.
If 2020 was the year of enabling virtual meetings, 2021 was the year of enhancing them. Enterprises are exploring AI to improve the meeting experience for all attendees, both on-site and remote.
For virtual meeting guests, AI enhancements include:
- automated translation and transcription
- automatic recording of certain speakers (triggered by facial recognition)
- background noise cancellation
- meeting analytics
- automated video framing and focus
- virtual video backgrounds
- video background blurring
- meeting sentiment analysis
AI will enhance the meeting experience in physical spaces as well, mainly for the health and safety of on-site participants. Some of those AI features include:
- automated attendance
- room headcount
- social distancing sensors
- air quality monitors
- ‘smart’ booking of meeting spaces
- tracking unused or overused spaces
AI has improved virtual meetings so much that it’s raised the bar for in-person meetings as well. According to panelist Ira Weinstein of Recon Research, people have become so accustomed to virtual meeting features—like live translation and transcription—during the pandemic that they now expect the same experience during office meetings.
But how far should enhancement go?
For videoconferencing, the prospect of bringing touch and smell to the virtual meeting table has been raised. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg recently demoed a beta version of Horizon Workrooms, a VR meeting app complete with cartoon avatars for virtual meeting guests.
Do we really want (or need) to be wearing AR/VR headsets and smelling virtual coffee during a quarterly budget meeting? Kjesbu isn’t entirely convinced that we do.
“I think everyone will continue to push the envelope and try technologies out. But we have to always start with the user journey and make it pragmatic. The right question to ask is not whether we will get (AR for meetings) but what we will use it for,” Kjesbu said.
Snorre noted that during the pandemic, videoconferencing has “democratized the (meeting) experience” for people working remotely. But is that meeting equity sustainable under a hybrid work model?
“When you have people coming back into the office, how do we avoid building a barrier between people working from home and working in the office?” Snorre asked his Enterprise Connect colleagues.
Cisco’s Chris Rowen said virtual meeting tech has improved so dramatically that physical meetings can actually seem like a subpar experience by comparison.
“If you feel like a second-class citizen, you’re not going to bother going to the in-person meeting,” warned Rowen, VP of engineering and collaboration AI at Cisco.
Bukshteyn said AI will play a crucial role in making sure the in-person meeting experience is as good as the virtual one.
“We’re upping the bar on that video room experience … people who aren’t in the room should be able to understand the flow of the conversation as people change who’s talking. They should be able to see the whiteboard, and that should automatically come in as content, not as video,” Bukshteyn said.
4. Ease of use
Buckshteyn said vendors can make their wares more user-friendly by tackling interoperability, and he sees web-based integration as the path toward that.
“A customer is going to choose their primary meeting platform but we know they’ll get external invites to other cloud services and the (external meeting) rooms should just be able to join. So I’m very excited about web-based integration. I personally believe this is the future of interoperability.”
As AI is baked into more online and on-site meeting technology, questions about ethics will inevitably crop up. Panelist David Danto of Poly said the legal ramifications of collecting AI-based data during work meetings are not clearly defined yet.
“Does IT own that data? Do (meeting) facilities own that data? The data stewardship is very important. Could we be sued if we said the CEO’s out of town and he isn’t?” Danto mused, imagining a scenario where videoconferencing AI automatically records and identifies employees or executives during meetings.
With all that in mind, there’s one word enterprises probably won’t use to describe this new journey to adopt (and adapt) technology for their hybrid meeting needs: easy.