Remote work still has problems. Can Webex fix them?

Virtual collaboration tools have come a long way since the pandemic started, but Cisco exec Jeetu Patel says we're still in the "first inning" of figuring out remote and hybrid work.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer
A middle aged man in casual attire sat at his computer desk speaking to colleagues via a split-screen video chat application
Image: Getty

Years after the pandemic forced knowledge workers to sign into their jobs from home, most CEOs are ready to bring people back into the office – even if their employees aren't interested in returning. 

The result, said Cisco's Jeetu Patel, is "there's a lot of experimentation going on right now. Do you work from home, and two days a week you come into the office? Do you have a completely distributed workforce? How are you going to go out and engage with people who are not in the office physically?"

The technology that enables remote and hybrid work has come a long way in the past two years, "but we are still in the first inning as far as all the things that we need to do for this next wave of how people need to operate," Patel, EVP and GM of Cisco Security and Collaboration, said to ZDNET. 

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Last year, Cisco made an aggressive push to win the business of remote workforces with a major revamp of its video-conferencing platform Webex. The company continues to make serious investments in Webex, Patel said, with the aim of helping companies embrace hybrid and remote work arrangements permanently – while doing it the right way. 

"We're providing tools and technology to make it easy for companies but also providing guidance on how their culture should shift," he said. 

The company is making several announcements at its WebexOne conference, but fundamentally, the Webex innovations focus on a few key areas. The first is reimagining the workspace itself. "You have to optimize not just for people in the room," Patel said. 

To that end, Cisco is partnering with Microsoft, enabling the Microsoft Teams Rooms experience on Cisco's collaboration devices. In other words, you can use your Cisco conference room hardware with Webex, Teams or other major video-conferencing services without having to reboot the system. 

"That's a huge leg up over anyone else," Patel said. He noted that around 85% of Cisco Webex customers use two or more platforms in one day. "The way you equip your workspaces can't be tied to just one platform." 

Cisco is also for the first time offering a Hybrid Workspace Design Guide, based on its NYC office deployment, to help customers design hybrid workspaces. It includes Cisco's Smart Building Solutions, collaboration, networking and security technology, and more. 

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In addition to reimagining the workspace, Cisco is also focused on how to accommodate flexible workstyles. For instance, Webex has a new Whiteboard app in the Webex Suite that lets remote users join a whiteboard from the app, a Cisco device or a browser.

"When people are hybrid, the person in the conference room starts drawing," Patel said. "Now you don't have to worry about that – you can literally have a digital whiteboard and the people outside the room can start drawing with you." 

Cisco is also making Vidcast generally available. The asynchronous video tool was developed last year as part of Cisco's Webex Leap accelerator program, with the intent of designing sleek, simple tools specifically for geographically dispersed teams. 

Simple, asynchronous video tools can help organizations build rapport and a strong company culture, even when teams can't meet in person, Patel said. 

"In the future... effectiveness will be defined by how deep of a relationship can you build with someone without having ever met in person," he said. "We're building a bunch of tools to make people get really good at building these relationships."

Lastly, Webex is investing in new security capabilities. Among Webex's new security features is audio watermarking. The feature gives every participant in a confidential meeting a unique audio tag – that cannot be heard by the human ear. If one of those participants were to leak a recording of the meeting, the company could trace that recording back to the individual, regardless of how the audio was shared.

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