As states in the US start to reopen and businesses around the country (and the world) start to plan for employees to return, there’s been a lot of discussion around what the new “normal” in the workplace will be. Of course, we don’t really know what it’s going to be like, but most people are fairly certain it’s going to be different. Whether it’s staggered work schedules, spread out workspaces, plexiglass shield-equipped lunch tables, or other workplace adjustments, many people who start to return to the office will likely encounter different environments.
Of course, many others won’t be returning for some time, if at all—upcoming research data from TECHnalysis Research suggests we could have as many as 35% of workers still working from home even into 2021. Regardless of where people do their work, however, it’s never been clearer that the need for flexible, secure access to work resources is extremely high. In addition, as some people do start to venture back into the office, it’s also clear that they’re going to want/need tools that can help them stay safe while they’re there.
At the Cisco Live Digital event, the networking giant highlighted a number of new and updated initiatives it has been working on to address some of these issues. On the security side, the company’s big news is around its SecureX cloud-native cybersecurity platform, which it is starting to integrate into all Cisco security products at the end of this month. Key enhancements include a single dashboard for viewing live threat data, increased automation of security tools, and enhanced security capabilities that can intelligently leverage analytics data from multiple sources simultaneously.
The company also unveiled a number of enhancements to its Webex collaboration platform, including the announcement that it now has an impressive 3x the capacity to handle more meetings. For those returning to the office, Cisco also made some interesting additions via its Webex Control Hub application. Control Hub lets IT managers quickly install the Webex voice assistant onto conference room devices, which keeps people from having to touch the screens or touchpads in meeting rooms. In addition, Control Hub offers expanded analytics on meeting room usage, which can impact cleaning schedules for those rooms and can manage meeting room locations/configurations to keep people spread out. Cisco also enhanced the support capabilities for meetings that will incorporate both on-site and remote workers.
Another intriguing location-based set of capabilities comes via the updated DNA Spaces offering. Related to the company’s larger Digital Network Architecture (DNA) initiative, which is essentially Cisco’s enhanced version of software-defined networking (SDN), DNA Spaces is an indoor location-based service platform that can leverage data from WiFi hotspots, including those from its Meraki division, to determine how people are moving through or congregating within a location. The company made two additions to the platform, including the descriptively named Cisco DNA Spaces for Return to Business, and Indoor IoT Services, which can use WiFi6-enabled access points to work with Bluetooth LE devices, such as beacons, to do things like asset tracking, environmental monitoring, room tracking, and more.
In a manner that’s conceptually similar to the Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps that have been in the news, DNA Spaces for Return to Business can track the WiFi (or GPS) signals from mobile devices, and then can use that to analyze people’s real-time movement patterns through the office. The resulting data can subsequently be used to do things like limit the number of people in a given building, or section of the office, that a company could define as being at maximum capacity. In conjunction with Indoor IoT Services, which Cisco claims is the first indoor IoT-as-a Service offering, the same data could be combined with other sensor data to do things like suggest alternative places to meet, encourage employees to social distance, and more.
While there are certainly going to be some questions about privacy concerns for any location-based service, companies (and likely a decent percentage of employees) probably feel that the potential safety benefits outweigh those privacy concerns within the limited office environment. Over time those feelings may change—and it will certainly be an interesting trend to watch—but to get people to feel comfortable about returning to office environments, these types of technology-based solutions will likely play an important role. Companies that deploy these solutions will have to make sure employees feel confident that they aren’t being tracked once they leave the workplace, however, otherwise they’ll likely face significant pushback. As long as companies ensure privacy outside the workplace, employees are likely to accept these tracking solutions as just one of the many new aspects of the new normal inside the workplace.