Zoom Rooms Head Jeffrey Smith on Hybrid Workplaces as the Future

Zoom Rooms Head Jeffrey Smith shared his thoughts on remote work, and why we’re not going back to our offices the way we did before, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. That question pits the cost-effective convenience of working from virtually any place with a stable internet connection against the merits of working side-by-side with your colleagues in a dedicated physical space. For employers, it all comes down to choosing the model that maximises the productivity of their employees. This is where Zoom sees an opportunity.

Zoom has gone from being one of the many video conferencing solution providers roughly a year ago to becoming synonymous with remote working today. Its revenue grew 369 percent year-on-year in the quarter that ended January 31 to $882.5 million (roughly Rs. 6,400 crores), according to a company statement, despite slowing user adoption.

It now sees a rapidly approaching future filled with hybrid workplaces. Zoom believes that while modern organisations will continue to invest in a physical office space, remote work that translates into reduced infrastructure costs and a wider availability of talent, won’t be abandoned. And it’s pitching Zoom Rooms, its software-based conference room service that brings smartphones, computers, and video conferencing rooms onto a single, collaborative interface, as a key ingredient for modern workplaces to fully embrace the hybrid model. Unlike the Zoom app, it’s a paid service starting at Rs. 4,300 per month for every room, over and above the cost of video-conferencing hardware.

Jeffrey Smith, Head of Zoom Rooms

Gadgets 360 spoke to Jeffrey Smith, Head of Zoom Rooms, to understand what Zoom’s cloud-based solution when paired with recommended hardware offers over traditional video-conferencing systems. We discuss how employees stand to benefit from its collaborative tools such as whiteboarding and co-annotation, and how the company plans to tackle user data privacy concerns. Smith also talks about some new features introduced by Zoom Rooms recently, which includes a virtual receptionist for offices, automatic headcount of participants on a conference call, and real-time air-quality monitoring in a room.

Edited excerpts below:

Gadgets 360: Give us an overview of what’s new about Zoom Rooms that support a hybrid workplace model?

Jeffrey Smith: Our focus was on how we can help customers return to offices in a secure way. Some of the top concerns were around touching of shared surfaces in conference rooms, whether there would be adequate ventilation, and will people be in close proximity with other people. Very obvious concerns that one might have when getting back into an office.

First off, we introduced the ability to pair a personal mobile device with a Zoom Room to avoid touching shared surfaces as much as possible and still have control of the room equipment. In addition, we launched the ability to, in real-time, count the number of people that are in a conference room and then publish that data to the Zoom Rooms scheduling device that is mounted outside the (video conferencing) room. We can also put that data on the dashboard for the IT administrator.

For the end-user, it gives real-time information to know things like ‘am I going to enter a crowded space?’ It helps the IT group to understand ‘are my communications policies effective in telling people that this 10-feet conference room should only be used by two or three people?’ In addition, we can monitor, in real-time, the air quality — a couple of different metrics like temperature, humidity, CO2 levels — in a room, specifically powered by Neat Bars from one of our hardware partners. And this data can again be viewed in the Zoom Rooms dashboard as well as the scheduling display. It gives feedback to the end-user about how adequate the ventilation system is, and to the IT group about their facilities planning.

Another cool feature that we have is a virtual receptionist and this is for a Zoom Rooms for Touch (large interactive displays with video conferencing) device. It also has a programmable action button that can either call an actual receptionist or help someone join a meeting. This is to enable companies to limit the amount of contact their lobby personnel has with guests as they enter a building. A productivity feature that we recently introduced is the ability to control your desktop device from a Zoom Rooms for Touch. So now I can open a presentation and control my desktop from the large touchscreen.

Gadgets 360: How do you see office spaces shaping in the near future? Do you see more face-to-face meetings happening whenever things go back to normal or more efficient remote work?

Jeffrey Smith: I can tell you that, from the perspective of customers that I interact with, there’s a huge spectrum where there are some companies that look at it as ‘we are 100 percent remote and we are going to stay that way and never see an office again’. But there are also companies that can’t wait to get to office exactly as it was. And then there are companies in between. I do believe that we have shifted the midpoint further towards work from home more than it ever has been in the past. Rich tools like Zoom that enable productivity wherever you are have really empowered the workforce to be more distributed than it ever has been.

Gadgets 360: Have the hiring patterns also evolved in favour of a remote workforce?

Jeffrey Smith: Free and open communication empowers the workforce to be wherever they want to be. And so, that opens up all kinds of opportunities for companies to search for talent from wherever. The employee can then do their most productive work from wherever they want to live. It absolutely is a new era of individual empowerment that we are starting on.

Gadgets 360: Have Indian companies responded any differently to the pandemic in your experience?

Jeffrey Smith: I haven’t observed uniqueness in terms of where Indian companies stand on the hybrid workplace spectrum. It’s pretty consistent with the global response.

Gadgets 360: What’s your plan for the India market in the near future?

Jeffrey Smith: Our focus is to deliver a consistent experience across globally distributed companies. So, we are definitely looking at delivering a high-quality experience in the India market that is consistent with other regions. Some of the things that we specialise in, like being robust to network degradations, has greater applicability in some areas of the Indian market. But outside of that, we are focused on consistency across regions.

Gadgets 360: Do you think internet bandwidth is still a challenge in India? Anything we can do as a workaround at the product level?

Jeffrey Smith: It’s constantly a concern in a number of areas. And from a Zoom perspective, we try to be as automatic as possible so that the user or the enterprise doesn’t need to concern themselves with network as such. The challenge is that there is always a floor (with bad connectivity) where it’s not possible to have a (video conferencing) interaction at all, but that’s always the case. We do as much as we can to make it as automatic as possible. But with the Zoom Rooms client and the interface, the IT team doesn’t have to do anything differently to get the best possible experience out of what you are capable of (in terms of network speeds).

Gadgets 360: A lot of people are on Zoom because, up to a level, it’s a free-to-use service. What makes the transition from a free to a paid user easy in terms of value additions?

Jeffrey Smith: In general, the value of all of those free customers to Zoom is huge. (It’s about) the familiarity that they have with the platform when they come into the enterprise. And becomes the best training tool in the world for people who have already used the tool. So, the onboarding that customers have when they are bringing their workforce to Zoom becomes so much straightforward. We look at this as a great differentiator for Zoom has a platform that we have so many users that are familiar with it.

Obviously, the 40-minute (meeting) limit is a challenge. Some companies have come to say, ‘well, we are going to just have 40-minute meetings’. But you know that’s not feasible for a lot of organisations. So, as they come on (to the platform), they have greater needs that make the transition worth it.

Gadgets 360: Against the audio-video conferencing solutions that have been around for decades, how does Zoom Rooms differentiate itself? I know the key is the software, but what’s more or better in terms of differentiation?

Jeffrey Smith: Looking at Zoom Rooms as a competitive offering, we approach that not as a software company but as an experience. From the procurement of the hardware to the installing and managing of the hardware and software system to the whole lifecycle, become an experience that the company needs to provide to the end-user. So, we look at the IT experience, the installing and managing experience, as well as the end-user experience, and that’s where we differentiate. From the user perspective, it’s a substantially lower cost than competitive video-conferencing solutions, and from the IT perspective it’s the simplicity and ease of use.

Gadgets 360: Does Zoom Rooms work seamlessly with any video conferencing solution that is already in place at an organisation, or is the recommended hardware the best way to go about it?

Jeffrey Smith: There are advantages from that coherent, cohesive user experience. When we partner with a hardware company from Zoom Rooms appliances, it’s all about tightly integrated hardware-software. When we look at customers who need the flexibility to build that hardware system that fits into their physical environments, like a big training room or an auditorium, those are the times when we build a flexible software platform that can leverage third-party hardware to solve any problem.

Traditional video conferencing (equipment) using standards like SIP and H.323 we can bring to the platform. So irrespective of the hardware that a company has, they can use Zoom, and we can elevate that experience when they go for the full Zoom Rooms applications.

Gadgets 360: Zoom is responsible for managing such large amounts of user data. Users rightfully want to know how their data is being managed. Can you tell me what Zoom is doing from a data security perspective?

Jeffrey Smith: Absolutely. Data security, privacy is built into the DNA of the way that we operate, both from product inception; looking at how we develop features, how we implement them, and how data moves, where it’s stored, and who has access to it is absolutely a concern for us. We have to serve some of the largest and the most security-conscious companies in the world. So, for us, it’s imperative that we take that responsibility seriously in everything that we do.

Gadgets 360: Do you think end-and-end encryption will become a standard to ensure data privacy for users?

Jeffrey Smith: It has some advantages in some use cases and some disadvantages in some other use cases. There are features we are not able to enable with end-to-end encryption. Sometimes the more security we layer on to a particular session the less we can be free and open in communications. I am not predicting that all meetings will go one way or another, it’s an evolution as we go on guided by our customers.

Gadgets 360: Let’s assume a future where the pandemic has ended. How does Zoom plan to stay relevant when meeting face-to-face is not a challenge anymore?

Jeffrey Smith: I think our world has changed. About the idea that all of my meetings are going to be in-person, there will be much fewer organisations that choose to work that way. This (pandemic) has opened the eyes of a lot of organisations to the ability to be productive when we are distributed. I don’t know if there will ever be a return to 2019. However, when we are thinking from a Zoom Rooms perspective about how we can be relevant even when all of us are working in the same room — and we do think about that quite deeply — and so, when you’re in a Zoom Room and you need to present material on a large screen, the wireless screen-sharing, the one-touch sharing, the proximity detection, and whiteboarding — all of these are extremely powerful tools. And bringing them into the (office) spaces is quite important for us.


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