Pandemic Pivot

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many businesses to implement dramatic changes, including making some or all of their workforce work remotely. “Flex working” and flexible policies have been practiced for years, but the swiftness and scope of this shift took many companies by surprise, and the transition to remote is expected to influence the corporate sector after the crisis concludes. An April 2020 survey by Gartner reveals that at least 41 percent of employees are “likely to work remotely at least some of the time” post pandemic. How are integrators pivoting to meet user needs? What value can pro AV vendors bring to wholly remote or hybrid environments?

Remote Operation Needs Good Audio

Mark Donovan

Mark Donovan

“Now, more than ever, it’s vital that people can understand you on the other end of a call, remote conference, webinar, or online training,” said Mark Donovan, CTS-D, CTS-I, applications engineering manager, professional markets, Audio-Technica U.S.

Pro AV specialists can be instrumental in satisfying this urgent need for audio clarity, said Donovan. Firms with both commercial and residential expertise are well-suited to this new normal—assessing and meeting users’ needs for better audio, video, collaboration, and connectivity. Home upgrades might include secure, soft-codec-based collaboration solutions, higher-quality webcams, acoustics consultations, failsafe routers, and/or new microphones.

Leverage Your Expertise as an Adviser

Mike Harmon, New Era

Mike Harmon

“We’ve tried to let people know how we can help them,” said Mike Harmon, vice president, sales, U.S., with New Era Technology. “We have been trusted advisers for all kinds of technologies for decades with many of the long-term businesses that we’ve acquired. We are now reaching out to provide insights and offer our help.”

Working with its marketing team, New Era has launched various webinars around its capabilities to support today’s needs and, going into the future, to showcase the breadth of products and solutions on offer.

“We come at it with a product-agnostic approach to try to uncover a problem and put the right best-of-breed technologies together to fit a client’s needs and their budget,” said Harmon.

During the pandemic, many pro AV firms report being remarkably busy, especially as people juggle work and family care or childcare. There are also significant slowdowns, and firms large and small have applied for government loans to ensure operational continuity. If there is a significant pause, this might be a good time to explore new revenue streams that address current pain points, such as collaboration for distributed teams and home office AV consultation, design, and integration.

Security of home systems is another matter, with some hackers taking advantage of at-home workers during the COVID-19 crisis. AV/IT firms that partner with networking specialists like Netgear may be poised to help improve residential security.

Enhance Home Setups

New Era’s collaboration business has sold many webcams, said Harmon. “What you use today in your home office isn’t all that different from what you might use in the huddle space in the office.”

[The Integration Guide to Collaboration]

Instead of “truly pivoting” during the pandemic, though, New Era is finding practical ways to complement traditional corporate AV offerings.

“I’ve had conversations with some executives around bandwidth,” he added. “There are routers designed to prevent downtime, automatically switching over to LTE cellular. A major sports team had a draft recently—completely remote—and we’ve had conversations with clients along these lines, helping them to prepare and deliver big events, like drafts, remotely.”

Keep Nurturing Relationships

To weather this storm, AV firms should endeavor to be good partners, but what does that mean? Maintaining business continuity is key. Check in with clients to gauge their evolving needs. Can a support contract be renegotiated? Can you ship out hotspots to distributed teams? Can you move an on-prem system to the cloud? Is now the right time to introduce remote management systems for an AV-over-IP design in essential facilities like police departments or hospitals? Does a project timeline or rollout plan need to be revised?

Bottom line: Keep nurturing relationships. It will take time, but global markets will open again. The agility and care you demonstrate now might create new opportunities down the road.

Product Diversity Proves Beneficial

Donovan explained that the diversity of Audio-Technica’s audio offerings has helped the company service new and loyal clients during the pandemic. “We have such a wide variety of products, and we were always popular with podcasters,” said Donovan. “With so many more people now operating as home office workers, a little like podcasters, Audio-Technica was already in a good position to support them and pivot to make sure new [home office] use cases were taken care of.”

AV Makes (or Breaks) First Impressions

First impressions can be decisive—working from home doesn’t change that. When a consultant returns a call or meets with a potential client on WebEx, the first impression now takes place in a new venue: the home office.

“If a potential client hears terrible audio or sees terrible video, it sends a message,” said Donovan. To that end, Audio-Technica is leveraging its successful solutions, particularly the AT2020 USB Plus microphone, to improve the audio quality of meetings. “A large-diaphragm mic, the AT2020 USB Plus was built for home studio applications with a USB output. It has a high-quality element on it, and it lends itself really well to remote office issues,” he said.

The Audio-Technica team is finding that the home office—which can be a dedicated space or a makeover of a guest room or multipurpose room—is really where users need to have some isolation. “You need to have good-quality sound, not just these omnidirectional microphones that are built into whatever device or whatever laptop you have,” Donovan said. Besides the AT2020 USB Plus, he pointed to the AT2005 USB as a solution that is doing well now—an established audio product solving new problems in new spaces.

Huddle Room Deployments Will Grow

After the coronavirus crisis concludes, will the demand for huddle rooms increase? Many say yes, as the value of small, versatile spaces for impromptu in-office team meetings becomes evident.

Most corporate headquarters are already outfitted with smaller boardrooms and huddle spaces, but the pandemic will underscore the operational relevance of smaller, AV-rich spaces. Huddle rooms might viewed now as essential requirements or core elements of specifications. The AV specialist who can design and deliver huddle spaces with excellent audiovisual quality and instant connectivity will have an advantage.

Adaptability Defines AV Pros

“We’re people with unique abilities to adapt, improvise, and overcome challenges,” said Harmon. “It’s just what we do. I’ve been really impressed with our team and their attitude and ability to change. We’ve changed how we work, how we interact with one another, from our sales team meetings to engineering teams, and it’s all been remote and very efficient. Business is slow in some places—when there is such a profound impact to the economy, things will naturally slow down—but for the most part, we are staying busy and very productive.”

This Crisis Will Help Us Work Smarter

What’s also clear is that, just as technology systems iterate, people can evolve, too. “This crisis is going to allow us to work differently and more efficiently in the future,” said Harmon. It’s smart to invest in a video-first culture. As millennials and Gen Z join the workforce, companies that can provide flexible environments will attract top talent.

Staying Hopeful

While profoundly disruptive to almost every aspect of the economy, with more than 30 million Americans filing for unemployment in March and April, there are bright spots in this crisis. The pandemic has forced AV professionals to engage in new ways.

[Finding the Good During the COVID-19 Pandemic]

Brandy Alvarado, Mad Systems

Brandy Alvarado

“I’m staying optimistic,” Mad Systems’ business development manager Brandy Alvarado said. “Our team connects remotely, face to face, every day, and the consistency is really important for us. We’re brainstorming in new ways. We’re taking care of each other and our clients.”

The abrupt shift to remote working has also inspired the industry “to do what they’ve been talking about forever, which is to improve the audio for every meeting,” added Donovan.

He is also hopeful about the future. “All the people I’ve been talking to wish they could go to InfoComm, and, of course, go to restaurants. But everybody’s maintaining a positive outlook. We will get through this. When it’s all over and everything’s good to go, we will meet up in person. There will be so much to celebrate.”

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D., is a lecturer at Franklin Pierce University.