Collaboration in 2018: Trends We’re Watching

I’ve been working with the collaboration technology team at Cisco since 2012, and the job just keeps getting more interesting. Especially lately. There are technology and market forces converging right now that are radically changing the way we all work. In the next year, we’re going to see fundamental shifts in collaboration technologies. Here are four in particular:

1. Workers’ comfort with voice-based virtual team members will increase

One of the most important changes in how we work is happening faster than I thought it would: People are getting comfortable talking to machines. We already talk to our phones, our cars, and our houses. In 2018, we’ll start talking to our conference rooms. And soon after that, to artificially-intelligent team members.

According to our research, 95% of white-collar workers (of 2,270 surveyed) say “bring it on” to the idea of having AIs assist them with basic meeting mechanics; 57% said AI would increase productivity.

Growing end-user acceptance will pull AI innovations into teams quickly. We’re releasing team-focused AI products in 2018, and other companies large and small are as well. The worker who is comfortable with AI is going to have a very interesting year.

The near future also includes ambient AI technology. New meeting-focused assistants will soon work in the background, learning how our teams form and work together. This type of technology is still largely experimental, but it appears like people are ready for it. If, that is, security and privacy issues are handled properly.

2. “Working from home” will become just “working”

Every once in a while you see a company try to bring its entire workforce together into traditional centralized offices, but the trend towards people working from home or other locations is unstoppable. It’s driven not just by the rapid evolution of team-focused tools like work chat and video conferencing, but by social and economic forces like the increasing time and resources required for commuting, and the leveling of skills and expertise across geographies.

In 2018, we’ll see the rapid decline of “place-ism,” the discrimination against people who aren’t in a central office. Technology is making it easier not just to communicate with distant colleagues about work, but to have the personal interactions with them that are the foundation of trust, teamwork, and friendship.

Of course, people will always need — and want — to spend time together. But constant in-person interaction is simply not required in the current era of work. In 2018 and beyond, it will become much less of a stigma to not be co-located with your teammates.

3. Meanwhile, the conference room will become the living room of the office

Once we realize that offices are special places because they’re primarily where people gather to be with each other and not for any other functional reason, we’ll start treating them differently.

For years, the percentage of office team spaces that have modern collaboration technology (something more than a speakerphone), has hovered at a very low number. Frost & Sullivan says that of the 45 to 50 million conference rooms worldwide, only 4.1% have video conferencing capabilities.

As more people and companies become comfortable with workers spending time at home or away from the office, those same workers are going to see the office space as a place for a particular kind of work: Teamwork.

They’re going to need tools for working well together both with in-person people and with remote workers. Pulling in to a conference room with a few co-workers and huddling around a laptop to connect a remote worker isn’t a good experience, so people will begin to ask for more team-friendly tools in more work spaces.

I expect that offices will evolve to contain team-focused open areas, which will be reinforced with technology. These spaces, like our living rooms at home, will be designed to be comfortable zones for people to gather and for them to interact with media, data, and remote co-workers.

There is no one secret to building a great team space. Look for businesses to start with a physical space that encourages team collaboration and add in video technologies that support high emotional fidelity (high-frame-rate, high-resolution, low-latency audio and video) plus AI-based ambient technology to assist in its use.

4. Security: A cloud breach will lead to a sea change in collaboration architecture

The rise in consumer-driven, cloud-hosted teaming tools has been great for collaborating. It’s never been easier to bring people together to get work done. But not all of the tools these teams are using are fully secure, and those that aren’t expose businesses to serious losses.

It is only a matter of time until one of the new cloud-based systems is compromised.

IT managers know this, so in 2018 they’ll look at hardening the tools workers bring in to teams. They will begin to demand that business tools employ end-to-end security and support standards like ISO 27001 certification at the app level, not just in the data center. To take control of security, businesses in 2018 may look harder at hybrid cloud/on-premise collaboration solutions. (At Cisco, this was one of the driving forces behind getting Cisco Spark ISO 27001 certified.)

There is no turning back from end users bringing their own apps, services, and devices to work with them — and that’s a positive trend for innovation. But more business products in 2018 will have to provide security professionals with audit and data control tools that add security to these BYO products, without requiring the complete control or lock-down of devices that the first generation of security tools imposed.

Beyond 2018: VR and AR changes the shape of meetings

If you’ve been using a video meeting technology for the past few years, you know it keeps getting better, allowing increasingly natural interactions with co-workers. But there’s more to remote collaborating than video. Virtual, augmented, mixed, and extended reality will eventually bring people and teams and information together in radical new ways.

I’m putting this trend here because it’s exciting, although it’s not something that the typical worker or IT manager will experience in 2018. Over time, I agree with Forbes writer Charlie Fink that for VR, “the killer app is… people.”

The technology bringing natural-appearing “volumetric VR” to the meeting room isn’t ready for the masses just yet. But when it is, meetings could resemble the “Jedi council” scenes from the Star Wars movies. In 2018, you may have a chance to try an early version of meeting enhanced with augmented or virtual reality. If you’re at all curious about the future of work, I encourage you to dive in and see how it might look.

Companies like mine are working on all these tools now: Better video and chat tools for teams; enhanced security for IT; AI to boost productivity; and, yes, deep in our labs, on VR and AR for conference rooms. The more of these technological tools we can create, the more natural and human it’s going to be to work with connected teams.