While we saw last week that the metaverse and its use in the digital workplace will be one of the major discussion points over the next year, another hot chestnut will be the return — or not — to the physical workplace.
It appears to be widely accepted now that there will no rush to return, especially as many enterprises are committed to hybrid workplace strategies. Many workers are comfortable at home and, according to recent research from Morning Consult, 55% are prepared to leave their jobs if they were forced to go back to the office right now.
The research, which is part of a series of trackers that aims to gauge how workers and consumers are responding to the COVID pandemic, found that the number of people expressing reluctance to return to the physical workplace has risen steadily since the end of December.
On Dec. 30, the tracker showed that 35% of workers would not return to the office unless they felt safe in doing so, a figure that rose to 45% and then 55% this week. The caveat here is the "feel safe" factor. What exactly that means in terms of the workplace seems vague.
Employees appear to be driving a lot of the decisions about remote working. Many US companies are listening, and have postponed their planned January return to the office until later in the year.
The big tech companies are among those that are pushing their return dates out. Facebook's parent Meta said this week that it is delaying employees’ return to offices across the US until March 28. It had originally hoped to get everyone back by Jan. 31. If workers want to continue to stay working remotely after March 28, they might be able to get a deferral, but these will only last for five months.
Apple already told employees last month that it did not have a firm date to be back in the office. In December, Google's parent Alphabet pushed back its Jan. 10 return date indefinitely until a “stable, long-term working environment” could be assured.
Microsoft is sticking to its guidelines that were published in October which said workers could return as soon as local health guidelines have been met. This would be followed by a 30-day transition period to give workers the time to prepare for a return.
Amazon, for its part, has said it will leave guidance to individual team leaders, but further information on its longer term policies is expected later this month. Outside of tech, a large number of companies are deciding as the situation develops, but hybrid strategies rather than a full return are all the flavor of the moment again.
Google Invests Heavily in Hybrid Workplace
Google is not just talking big about hybrid workplaces. It is also investing big to make it a reality. Its latest real estate move is a case in point. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced that it has paid $1 billion to buy a central London building where it is currently a tenant, showing its confidence in the future of the office as a place to work.
According to a statement from Google, which employs 6,400 people in Britain, it plans a multi-million pound refurbishment of its offices within the Central Saint Giles development it is buying in central London.
"We have been privileged to operate in the UK for nearly 20 years, and our purchase of the Central Saint Giles development reflects our continued commitment to the country's growth and success," said Ruth Porat, CFO of Google's parent company Alphabet, in a statement.
She added: “We believe that the future of work is flexibility.” What this means is that Google is creating a physical space that will enable employees to work for home for part of the week. The statement also explained that "hybrid" means working from home a couple of days a week.
Google also envisages a workplace that consists of three different types of workers: fully remote, fully on-site and hybrid. “Our future UK workplace has room for all of those possibilities,” the statement added.
To enable this, the company will be developing new types of collaboration spaces for in-person teamwork, as well as creating more overall space to improve well-being. It will introduce team pods, which are flexible new space types that can be reconfigured in multiple ways supporting focused work, collaboration or both, based on team needs. The new refurbishment will also feature covered working spaces outdoors to enable work in the fresh air.
The statement also outlined how the company is working to upskill people generally, which will have the knock-on effect of providing people that can fill the skills gap that many tech companies are experiencing at the moment. "Since we launched our Digital Garage programme in Leeds in 2015, we have provided free digital skills training to more than 700,000 people across the UK," the statement said.
At the beginning of 2021, Google said it would spend $7 billion to expand its footprint of offices and data centers across the US. It had also indicated that it would do the same outside the US. The UK is showing how it is likely to develop elsewhere, too.
Facebook Faces $3.2 Billion Suit
It's not all good news from the UK for Big Tech this week, though. Facebook – or Meta — is in the crosshairs of data regulators again, this time in the shape of a $3.2 billion class action suit over allegations it abused its market dominance by exploiting the personal data of 44 million users.
Liza Lovdahl-Gormsen, a senior adviser to Britain's Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) watchdog and a competition law specialist, said she was bringing the case on behalf of people in Britain who had used Facebook between 2015 and 2019.
The lawsuit, which will be heard by London's Competition Appeal Tribunal, alleges Facebook made billions of dollars by imposing unfair terms and conditions that demanded consumers surrender valuable personal data to access the network. According to Reuters, Facebook has refuted the claim because its services delivered value to consumers and "they have meaningful control of what information they share on Meta's platforms and who with."
The case comes days after Facebook lost an attempt to strike out an antitrust lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of the biggest challenges by the US government against a tech company in decades.
"In the 17 years since it was created, Facebook became the sole social network in the UK where you could be sure to connect with friends and family in one place," Lovdahl-Gormsen said in statement. "Yet, there was a dark side to Facebook; it abused its market dominance to impose unfair terms and conditions on ordinary Britons, giving it the power to exploit their personal data."
Lovdahl-Gormsen alleged Facebook collected data within its platform and through mechanisms like the Facebook Pixel, allowing it to build an "all-seeing picture" of Internet usage and generate valuable deep data profiles of users.
Lucidworks Launches Connected Search
Elsewhere, San Francisco-based Lucidworks announced the release of a new SaaS platform called Springboard as well as a roadmap for a bunch of new applications and updates for Fusion. Connected Search is the first application now publicly available on Springboard.
According to the company, the new application makes site search more effective for those who want relevant, cost-effective on-site search at scale without having to manage the technology. Springboard is a multi-tenant SaaS platform that powers applications for search, browse and discovery.
As the first application available on Springboard, Connected Search offers a search and insight engine with push-button AI, guided workflows and optimized analytics. Early access customers span a wide range of industries including healthcare technology, public services, utilities and software. These early access customers report improved relevancy and increased clickthrough rate with Connected Search.
Lucidworks’ product roadmap also includes its cloud-ready flagship product, Fusion. In the past year, the number of customers using Lucidworks’ Fusion cloud offering grew by almost 200%, the company claims. Highlights flagged on the roadmap for next year include:
- Guided workflows for relevancy optimization.
- Push-button AI for relevancy optimization including synonyms and facet management, and audience personalized experience.
- Additional machine learning capabilities that will allow customers to use modeling to expand results and drive conversions.
- Availability of Connected Commerce as a search, browse and discovery solution built for e-commerce use cases.
Connected Search will start at $600 per 1 million requests and 100,000 documents per month for early access customers.
BlueJeans Returns With Studio
Finally today, while it is probably hard to remember all the way back to the beginning of the pandemic, you might recall BlueJeans, a video conferencing service that rode the first wave of remote work until it was finally bought out by Verizon for $500 million.
BlueJeans Network offered an interoperable cloud-based video conferencing service that connects participants across a wide range of devices and conferencing platforms.
It's not unusual for a smaller company to disappear or re-appear a couple of years later in a new form in the aftermath of an acquisition. And so it is in this case. This week, Verizon announced the release of BlueJeans Studio that will enable producers to launch a livestream using the app and share it on social media platforms including Twitter and YouTube.
The new launch comes with easy video feed mixing, custom branding and endless streaming capabilities, enabling companies to develop TV-quality content for virtual events. Creators will also be able to host virtual events with people, such as those who register for an event through the platform. It will cost $42 a month. Some of the capabilities include:
- No technical integration: BlueJeans Studio is web-based and built into the Events platform to enable anyone to host, manage and create events without any technical or AV support.
- Ease of use: No production expertise required. A few simple clicks create engaging video streams.
- Cost effective: Companies can save money compared to hiring production and AV support to improve the visual appeal of any event.
- All-in-one event platform: Send invites, secure the event, get post-event analytics and save unlimited recording hours.
It is hard to know how this will work out for Verizon. When it bought the San Jose, Calif.-based company, BlueJeans had 15,000 paying customers. What happened since then is well known, with the likes of Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom and Google taking the lion’s share of the video communication market as remote working and the need for virtual communication grew.
That is not to say that there is not a place for it, but for the moment it is not exactly clear where that might be as the major players add functionality and new offerings practically every other week.