UC and Workplace Transformation - the Technical Nuances of Audio

20 Oct 2015

I recently had coffee with Kevin Sauer, a workplace strategy leader at GE who had similar roles at HP and at Microsoft. One of the things Kevin emphasized that I agree is critical to a successful workplace transformation is ensuring that the right technology is used to enable people to be more productive, regardless of where and how they work. Kevin should know - he was instrumental in using UC and Lync in Microsoft's redesign of its international offices to support a number of new and evolving workstyles.

Workplace transformation is a hot topic today, and dedicated practices addressing this have sprung up at Accenture, Deloitte, Cisco, Intel, Atos, and a number of other vendors and service providers. Similarly, consuming organizations like the federal government's General Services Administration (GSA) and, where Kevin has worked, Microsoft, HP, and GE, are also standing up teams to tackle new ways of work.

UC is one of the key enablers of workplace transformation. The whole idea of "going to work" has morphed dramatically, and for many knowledge and information workers the concept of a "workplace" is now flexible - it can be your office, their office, a partner's office, a coffee shop, the kitchen table, onboard an airplane, or sitting lakeside in an Adirondack chair. Few people are tethered anymore to copper, and WiFi, LTE, and 3G are providing connectivity to mobile devices that support the flexible office.

One common problem with hot-desking, hoteling, WeWorking, activity-based workplaces, coffeeshopping, and many of the new collaborative environments is noise. Background and environmental noises can negatively impact the hearing side of a UC communication as well as the speaking side. It doesn't take long to realize that those iPhone earbuds are not providing a great UC experience and that my "last mile" solution is not working.

With bad iPhone earbud experiences making me crazy, I spoke with Sennheiser Electronics' Bill Whearty about the importance of the audio components in delivering a successful UC experience in these new workplaces and why the iPhone earbuds are not really sufficient. It turns out that audio engineering is really complicated, and low-end solutions like my iPhone earbuds do not provide the right solutions for the sound enhancement and noise cancellation needed for a good UC experience. Most UC endpoints use Bluetooth, which adds engineering complexity. And human factors engineering, for comfort, longevity, and effectiveness of the headset, also have to be factored in. Various UC platforms put different demands on devices, so being platform certified is critical. iPlone earbuds and generic headsets just can't do the job, and, as I've also discovered at Starbucks, talking through your laptop / iPad microphone is typically even worse.

There are a number of pretty good certified Lync / Skype for Business vendors out there, but I knew Sennheiser best from their invention of the shotgun microphone used in motion pictures and television, and was curious about how much of that engineering experience, which has won Sennheiser an Academy Award and an Emmy Award, goes into their design of their UC headsets. Bill basically said "all of it." But a TV set or motion picture studio aren't places full of distracting background chatter. Turns out Sennheiser also leverages the engineering knowledge they've developed for making avionics headsets and concert headsets in designing their workplace headsets. And they have a team of audio engineers who actually study workplace noise in order to design their UC products.

I expect all of the top UC headset vendors have similar engineering stories, but the takeaway for me is that when I am doing a workplace transformation project I need to make sure the customer doesn't try to cut costs on their enabling UC implementation by skimping on the headsets. If people are going to work effectively and productively in shared spaces they need to have equipment that that provides them with a quality experience. And for that you should really be investing in quality technology.

This paper is sponsored by Sennheiser.


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