Everything Old Is New; Everything New Is Weird

In physical office spaces, hybrid meetings—those with some people around the table and some remote participants—will be "the new normal."

This past April, I, now fully vaccinated, returned to travel. It was a chance to head to my new employer’s headquarters, finally meet my coworkers and connect with the team in person. As I entered the airport, the feeling was surreal. Although many aspects of the familiar routine remained the same, there was a laundry list of subtle and not-so-subtle differences. There were no skycaps to check your luggage, restaurants were half staffed, and most stores were closed. The theater of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) remained the same, but you had to lower your mask for the agent to confirm your identity. Ultimately, travel happened and business got done—it was just weird.

The experience was a stark reminder that, as we navigate toward our new normal, we might still have the same business objectives as before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but our approaches to meeting those objectives might be drastically different.

Our Bread & Butter

The commercial AV industry’s bread and butter has always been the conference room. Prior to COVID-19, we had already been pivoting to huddle spaces. (That itself was quite a leap for an industry built around boardrooms.) There were always good intentions centering on “collaboration,” but the focus remained on people sitting around a table. Then, COVID-19 hit…and everyone went home.

Suddenly, every meeting was a remote meeting. That left people scrambling to connect by any means possible. “Zoom” became a generic term for videoconferencing. The term became so pervasive, in fact, that even grandmothers used it (usually when calling on FaceTime). On any given day, you might have had meetings on three to four different platforms, and tech tips were freely traded as if they were recipes. Through it all, business went on, meetings occurred and people adapted. The corporate world found out what every young parent knows: You don’t necessarily have to be in the office to do your job.

I learned that lesson personally, as well. I accepted a new role with a new employer just before the pandemic forced lockdowns upon us. The week before I was scheduled to go to my firm’s US headquarters in New Jersey for training, everything locked down and my trip was cancelled. I was lucky to have joined a great team, including some colleagues I knew from before I joined. But even now, approximately 17 months later, I still haven’t met all my peers and coworkers in person. I was the first employee at the company who went through a completely remote onboarding.

Diving Into The Fire

During the first six months of lockdown, all my meetings—with clients and potential clients alike—were virtual, occurring over video. But I had to face the reality that AV employees were considered “essential workers” during the crisis; as such, dealers and integrators were reporting to work and to job sites. Accordingly, I felt I had no choice but to venture out and do the same. I restricted my meetings to local venues. I was not going to get on a plane at that time. If the client or project was within driving distance, however, I was willing to dive into the fire.

Although it was great to see people in person again after six months of seclusion, I still was worried. None of us was vaccinated at the time. Masks were correctly used only sporadically. (I mean, cover your noses, people! You all know better.) I had to take clients out for meals; these were, of course, limited to outdoors only. When I look back at that time, I’m more frightened about it in retrospect than I was in the moment. As the headline says, it was all just weird.

This whole experience has not only changed our world; it has also changed me. I now realize that I won’t ever have to go back 100 percent to the way things were before. I now know that I can do a lot of my job remotely, while still delivering excellent results. (Not all of it, mind you, but a lot of it.)

Genie’s Out Of The Bottle

As COVID-19 restrictions wind down, it will be interesting to see how others feel about the remote work they’ve experienced. No one really thinks offices will disappear, but the work-from-home (or work-from-the-beach) genie is clearly out of the bottle. In physical office spaces, hybrid meetings—those with some people around the table and some remote participants—will be “the new normal.” AV and IT professionals will have to support this collaboration requirement. Adapting tools and workflows optimized for one person (with a headset) to a group setting, while also making it supportable, is not an easy task. It’s especially difficult now, with the days of supporting only one platform long over. Just try telling your biggest customer that you won’t attend their Webex meeting because you use Zoom instead!

Changes in the way the AV industry delivers these solutions might not all be about the technology, either. Instead, changes often center on how we choose to interact with the technology. Prior to COVID-19, touchpanel graphical user interfaces’ (GUIs) hot style featured flat designs with simple, two-dimensional elements and bright colors. This was quickly coming to replace the skeuomorphic style, where the illusion of 3D buttons and representational icons resembled the target function (i.e., the lighting control looked like a light fixture).

Then, when COVID-19 hit, the buzzword became “touchless.” The thought that a touchpanel might have more germs on it than a toilet seat does sent everyone into a do-not-touch frenzy. As the frenzy dies down, calmer heads will remind us that things like voice control work well when you have one user and a simple, repeatable set of tasks. However, voice control quickly breaks down when you have changing context, as in a conference room. For example, how do I tell the system to put Bob’s computer up on the screen? It doesn’t know Bob, nor where he’s sitting today. I could use specific language to accomplish the task, but then issues centered on training all potential users in the specific language to use quickly start to mount.

Craving The Familiar

This doesn’t mean the world will jump back to flat design. After a crisis abates, human beings crave the familiar as a comfort. Skeuomorphic design was initially conceived to make the computer GUI comfortable to people through the familiar. The trashcan icon for deleting files traces back to the early 1980s, when most people thought computers were for engineers. The trashcan icon was not only familiar, but also allowed for the adaptation of natural human behavior to a new context, such as digging through the trash for something you shouldn’t have discarded. The design industry is seeing a trend back toward a softer skeuomorphism. Coupled with that, nostalgia for the tactile physical buttons and knobs—updated to modern control interfaces—is seeing a resurgence. Even touchpanels are getting tactile, with haptic feedback so the user can feel the click when he or she hits a virtual button.

The nature of our industry lends itself to solving problems with tools and techniques that have evolved over decades of working with active electronics. If we want to evolve and survive as an industry, we’ll have to keep an open mind, look around, and pick and choose the best of the old and the required of the new. Firms that plan to stick around for the long haul will work to accommodate the subtle changes to the old solutions so they can meet the new normal’s needs and requirements.

As others have said in Sound & Communications and IT/AV Report, it’s evolve or die. Although the changes might be weird, shutting down your AV business would be even weirder.

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