Virtual Collaboration Tech 2.0: Zoom Rooms, Employee Avatars

By Tam Harbert March 16, 2021
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​As companies plan to accommodate a hybrid workforce, vendors of communications and collaboration products are adding features to keep onsite employees safe and healthy and help remote and office-based colleagues work together.

Zoom recently announced such features as part of its physical, enterprise conference room product, called Zoom Rooms. The new features can monitor the number of people in a workplace's conference room and display that information on a monitor outside the room, so people know if it's at capacity before going in. Zoom also introduced an appliance that monitors the room's air quality, humidity levels, carbon dioxide levels and temperature. Users in the room can control videoconferencing through their personal mobile device and voice to minimize touching common surfaces.

As employees return to the office, it's important to "not only enhance the productivity and well-being of the employees but also reinforce the perception that the company is providing a safe work environment," said Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms.

In a December 2020 survey of HR leaders by Gartner, 90 percent of respondents said they intended to allow employees to continue to work remotely at least part of the time. This has opened up a new wave of competition among existing videoconferencing, communications and collaboration vendors and has spurred a raft of startups as well, according to analysts.

"We don't want to go back to where we were before, where the people who were calling in to the conference remotely may as well not have been there," said Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of research in Gartner's HR practice. "The people in the physical room were empowered [throughout the meeting], but then with two minutes left in the meeting, someone would say, 'oh Bob on the phone, do you have anything to add?' "

Microsoft, Cisco, Google and Zoom have between 80 to 90 percent of the share of the videoconferencing market, said Craig Durr, senior analyst at Wainhouse Research, a market research and analyst firm in the Boston area. Although Zoom is particularly well-focused on ease and simplicity for end users, other vendors are developing similar features, he said.

Kropp pointed out that the pandemic gave Zoom a competitive boost—as employees and even the general public suddenly were using its product—to the extent that the term "Zoom" became a verb. "Their brand has now been established as an institution, kind of like Kleenex," Kropp said. Yet, more traditional enterprise companies like Microsoft may have an edge in that their various software products are already firmly embedded in corporate America and could be tied together as a platform, Kropp added.

What's more, new vendors see the emerging hybrid, distributed workforce as a way to break into the communications and collaboration market. "The amount of money that's going into this from venture capitalists is enormous," Kropp said. "There's a whole new wave of companies that are trying to optimize the conferencing experience." One startup, called Teamflow, recently announced $3.9 million in seed financing. The company creates a virtual office space, with each employee represented by their own icon, or avatar, in a way that encourages spontaneous interaction. As the icons move around the virtual office, they can "talk" with co-workers just as if they'd stopped them in the hallway. According to TechCrunch, people can "hear" each other when close together, but can't necessarily be heard by icons further away.

"These new products are the next generation in terms of interaction in a hybrid environment," Kropp said. "This whole next generation of technology is not going to be just a bunch of boxes on your laptop screen."

Emerging products may also be able to monitor certain factors that could be analyzed and used in new ways. For example, Durr foresees enhanced audio capabilities that could detect when people are not adequately social distancing. Kropp said one vendor sells a conference table embedded with speakers that tracks who's talking. It can even provide a visual cue—such as a light—to signal that one person could be dominating the discussion.

Add artificial intelligence to the mix, and HR could learn a lot about employees and how they work together. Tracking and correlating temperature and air quality, along with video and audio of attendees, may show how certain environmental factors affect attendees' levels of engagement, for example. While monitoring and tracking of employees is nothing new, "as we move into this virtual environment, companies are trying to understand employees to a much greater degree than ever before," Kropp said. Some of that could be all to the good, he added, but "some of it runs the risk of feeling a bit creepy."

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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