Jobs and opportunities for development are not evenly distributed in the world, but human potential. We must use technology to help people and businesses solve problems.
That is the vision of Jeetu Patel, executive vice-president and general manager of collaboration and security at Cisco, who, in an interview with Computer Weekly, shared his thoughts on the future of collaboration and the hybrid work model.
Patel is passionate about the opportunities that technology offers for inclusion. He reviewed the main challenges and discussed how to manage them. He also spoke out to encourage a culture of change and a mindset that aligns with the benefits of the hybrid model. This will allow us to work towards a future where immersive virtual meetings are the norm and geographical distance does not matter when we work as a team.
Patel also spoke out about the importance of not losing sight of privacy and security in the development of collaborative technology.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Computer Weekly: What do you think are the main challenges of the hybrid work model right now, considering both technological and cultural aspects?
Jeetu Patel: If you look at what the future is going to be – and we definitely think it’s going to be hybrid – people will sometimes choose to work from home, sometimes they’ll work in the office, sometimes somewhere in between. But while everyone wants to work in a hybrid model, this model has a lot of challenges and it doesn’t work as fluidly yet. It is therefore more difficult to work in a hybrid structure than when everyone was at work.
I’ll show you some quick examples of the challenges that hybrid presents. Imagine you are in hybrid mode. This means that four people are present in a conference room while three others are at home, or remotely. With people sitting together, one of the problems is that it is very natural for them to get up and draw on the whiteboard. People who are far away don’t know what’s happening. If they point at something and you don’t know the actual object, it can be difficult to follow their conversation.
Another challenge is if people are sitting at a long table and there are a couple sitting at the back of that table. If you have a long table with someone at the back, it may be difficult to see their facial expressions and body language. You don’t feel connected to them. The people around you feel excluded, and those who are far away feel marginalized.
Another problem you might have is audio. Audio is another problem. You can’t have a great meeting if you don’t have good audio.
These are just a few examples of the practical problems people face in hybrid [models]. These are just two examples of practical challenges that people face in hybrid [models] all the time. Either they feel second-class participants, or they don’t feel included. Or, they will be the ones who fail to realize the true meaning of success.
Both of these outcomes are detrimental to society. What you want is an inclusive world where everyone can participate in a global economy, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic status. What you want to have is: “Hey, it doesn’t matter if I’m at home or at work – work is not where I am, work is what I do.”
These kinds of challenges must be solved, as the consequences of not solving them are often far more severe than we may think. People start to say the same thing over and over again: “Hey, everyone, we need each other, otherwise we can’t be productive.” This is true even for many jobs where you can travel anywhere in the world to participate. It would be wonderful if you could live in a village in Bangladesh with the same opportunities as someone living in Silicon Valley.
I believe that the future is something we as humans owe it. And hybrid is the first step in creating that future, but you can’t make it happen if you don’t overcome the challenges. As technology providers, our job is to solve these problems.
If you decide to draw on a whiteboard but don’t have the space, you can use a digital whiteboard so that everyone can join you. The camera can automatically create a video stream with you if there is no way to see someone in the back. The system should be able to adjust voices if you are unable to hear someone clearly because they are far away from the microphone. These kinds of technologies are difficult computer science problems that Cisco has solved, so we are excited about the possibilities.
Do you think companies that aren’t taking these steps towards that goal don’t feel they need to invest as much in that kind of technology to create these kinds of environments? Do you feel they lack culture or a different mindset?
Patel: Well, for any technology to go mainstream, there are a few things that have to happen. The first is that the technology must work. The first is that it must be easy to use. It must be affordable. As you do it, it cannot cost too much. The return on investment and cost must be clear. Lastly, and most importantly, change management and cultural readiness must be implemented within the company.
The first two are obvious. Technology has to work, and it must be affordable. The third is more complex. And what I mean by that is you have to get people to overcome the mental model that says: “Geography does not determine someone’s contribution level, but output determines someone’s contribution level.”
Ideally, geography should not be a limiter for output. It should actually be an accelerator for output. So that you can contribute the right amount of work wherever you are, and where you feel most at home, wherever you may be. This requires you to get managers to think this way and that employees who participate from different locations don’t feel guilty. It takes time to get those things done.
“You fundamentally do not create an inclusive world if you mandate and require that people have to be in a certain location to get the job done”
Jeetu Patel, Cisco
It is fundamentally impossible to create an inclusive world when you require people to live in certain places to do their jobs. I could be single and take care of my child, but I still want to be able to contribute to society and work. It is something I should be allowed to do today. However, it creates many constraints for people and forces them to make choices between working and taking care of their children. Both should be possible.
We have to ensure that culture is prepared and that cultural shifts are taking place. We all have to fight for this, but technology must work flawlessly and be affordable. People have now tasted honey. This has been proven to be the truth.
There are two types of people: some like to work together and some like to work at home. Having that flexibility will allow you to attract the best people. Business is ultimately a reflection of one thing: Do you have the best people in your company? If you offer your employees the freedom to work anywhere, you will attract the best talent.
Following this idea, how do you see the future of collaboration in this hybrid work model with all the advances in tools, such as using the cloud, having natural speech recognition, speech-to-text conversion, noise reduction technologies and artificial intelligence?
Patel: If you think about the last two years, we have made a tremendous amount of progress. It’s like night and day. Imagine if the pandemic had happened 25 years ago. It would have been a painful experience. It was painful right now, but life would have been much worse 25 years ago, because it’s not just about the productivity of people being able to get stuff done, it is that people have an intrinsic need to feel connected and video makes people feel connected because I can see you, I can talk to you, I can see your expressions. Although I can feel and see the emotion, that is only a small part of it.
If you fast-forward 10 years, I don’t think people will collaborate just by looking at two-by-two boxes on a two-dimensional screen. This is not the way people will interact with each other. This will be a more sophisticated way to interact with each other. The human brain will not be able distinguish between sitting in front a person in real life and sitting in front a virtual counterpart. Technology will fade away and the brain will forget. This makes the future extremely exciting.
The basics are going to be there – people will trust the system, so that no one is going to feel their security will be compromised or their privacy will be compromised. This is something we all have a responsibility for as privacy is a fundamental human right. For people to live in a peaceful world, they must feel secure with their intellectual property and with their identity. Security and privacy are very important.
But the immersiveness of your experience will be equally important. You won’t feel restricted. Right now, I don’t feel as free in the virtual world as I do in the real world, and that freedom should not only be as good as the real world, but we should actually make it 10 times better than the real world. It is possible to make people feel more free than just walking around with cameras following them. They can also think of objects and then pull it virtual. Then, both of you can manipulate the object. It is an immersive experience.
So even though we’re 10,000 miles away from each other, we’re designing a car together and the model of the car is something that both of us can edit in 3D space, and move it around, and that’s happening together. It’s quite magical.
Sometimes I don’t feel like talking to you in synchronous communication. Sometimes, such as in business, you may just need to update someone. This can be done asynchronously. Collaboration will be not only synchronous but also asynchronous.
Artificial intelligence will be embedded into everything you do, so language will not be a barrier. Although I speak English, you can hear me speaking Spanish. The system should automatically translate what you see into Spanish. You are correct! We do that today, so you can see the subtext right now on speech-to-text conversion and real-time translation in 108 languages.
These are the things I believe make these experiences infinitely more enjoyable. These are just a few of the many small things we can do and keep improving on. The end goal is to ensure that the virtual world doesn’t cause cognitive overload. That is the ultimate goal.
If you don’t feel the cognitive load, then distance and geography won’t be a factor. Because geography and distance are irrelevant, everyone can take part in the global economy. This opens the world up to three billion digital workers.
Anyone who has an idea can solve a problem. However, opportunity is unevenly distributed right now. Human potential is not. The human potential is unevenly distributed. We should therefore follow that potential and ensure it follows the opportunity.
Security is an important part for the hybrid and collaborative environment. What are your thoughts on the most important security issues enterprises should address or be aware of? Is the human factor still the weakest link in security.
Patel: This is a very important issue for society to handle because there are a few things that are happening in parallel that are compounding the problem. People are now working anywhere. Number two, they are working with applications in the cloud. Third, threat actors are becoming more sophisticated. They are now working with applications in the cloud.
And the consequences of these threats are far more severe than they were before. Before, it was just a virus that infected your computer and caused some problems. But now, you can lose trade secrets, financial systems, transport networks, life, health, or even death. The water supply, power grids, and water supply can all be shut down.
When you think about it, the implications can be very large. The scary part is, while the attackers and adversaries have to do it once, the good guys protecting the environment have to do it every time. It’s vital that we do this in the current climate. There are few issues in the world more important than cyber warfare and cybersecurity. Even though cyber warfare is a precursor to warfare on land, sea, and air, it can be prevented.
We know the threat landscape is becoming more complex. The threat landscape is becoming more complex. There are also four million unfilled security jobs per year. There is a shortage of skilled labour.
What should you do in such a situation? Well, security has to become more of an automation and data problem, rather than a people problem. You need skilled people. But security must be built so that there is a network effect.
What does a network effect mean? This means that I am able to detect threats more effectively if I have more people. The more threats I can detect, the easier it is for me to remediate them. Security will be more accessible if I can identify and remediate all threats. The cycle continues.
This is a network effect. The more people use a security system, the more valuable it becomes for everyone. Security is a game about scale.
The more you can get out there and protect the world using automation, machine learning, proactive detection and remediation, and prevention, then the better you’ll be. In the next decade or so, I believe there will both be great innovation in security.
We must out-innovate attackers. This can only be achieved if we are adamant about building technology. This problem can only be solved by technology. Technology must be able to detect and react quickly to threats.
Security is about preventing threats but detecting them quickly so that you know there is something wrong and responding in real-time or near-real-time is your goal. This is what the industry will become.
If you do this right, people will be spared. Every security provider is responsible for the welfare of society.
Sometimes, small companies think they are not important enough to be attacked, but they are also suppliers or part of the supply chain of a larger company, or a public organisation and they are the gateway that allows attackers to access.
It’s the lowest common factor approach. It’s the lowest common denominator approach. You can’t deny that there will be companies that aren’t sophisticated enough to protect you. Security must be accessible to all individuals and not intimidating. It shouldn’t be frightening. It must be easy to understand and comprehend. Most of the attacks and breaches today are not the result of malicious behavior by employees.
No one walks into the office claiming that they are going to be negligent. But the truth is that technology can be too complex and people make mistakes. The complexity of the system makes negligence inevitable. You need to simplify security so that negligence doesn’t compromise the company or the individual, nor the data.
Do you think security needs to be embedded into technology products by default?
Patel: Security has to be integrated, transparent and intuitive. Today, it is not all of these things. It is complex, opaque, and completely unintuitive. That’s what we need to do as an industry.