Collaboration for a remote workforce


Published: August 2020

Collaboration is to working at Cisco what spices are to cooking. Throughout the day, we’re meeting, messaging, calling, white boarding, virtually and collaboratively editing documents—with coworkers, partners, and customers.

“When the Cisco workforce went home to work in March 2020, we could collaborate online exactly the same way we did before,” says Kieran Higgins, head of digital workforce collaboration at Cisco. People use the same collaboration applications at home that they use in the office, and can work on company-owned laptops or any personal device registered with Cisco IT.

All Cisco employees have accounts for collaboration and productivity applications like Webex Meetings, Webex Teams, and Office 365, which are seamlessly integrated. 

Webex Meetings brings us together, wherever we are

Our company’s internal use of Cisco Webex Meetings held steady at 1 million meetings a month during 2019 and the first part of 2020. In the first month after the pandemic lockdown, Cisco’s own Webex Meetings volume shot up by roughly 65%. In contrast, the total Webex volume—for Cisco and other organizations—was 25 billion meeting minutes during April 2020. Email volume did not change. Companies that weren’t already heavy Webex Meetings users, as we are, experienced triple their Webex Meeting capacity.

The surge in Cisco Webex Meetings for Cisco employees coincided with several changes during the pandemic. “Eliminating commutes and business travel frees up calendars,” says Mwiza Munyandamutsa, Cisco IT manager. “And certain types of meetings that usually were conducted in person, like customer sales presentation, are now held via Webex Meetings.”

Cisco has recently added intuitive productivity features in Webex Meetings. Webex Assistant provides closed captioning so you can easily follow the conversation, and recorded meetings will deliver a searchable transcript of what was said. Keywords, or voice commands beginning with “Ok Webex” allow you to create meeting highlights, such as action items, notes, decisions, and summaries. Also new to Webex Meetings is the use of blurred or virtual video backgrounds, which can remove distractions from video.

Webex Teams centralizes your collaboration

Webex Teams provides a single location to collaborate from, whether you’re messaging, calling, meeting, or sharing. From within a space, you can send messages, start voice or video calls, and share and collaborate on documents stored in Microsoft OneDrive or SharePoint. Messaging and content are persistent and easy to search for, so you can rest easy that you’ll never miss a beat. “Someone in another time zone can see everything that happened while they were asleep and take up where their team members left off,” says Kris See, IT manager. From mid-February to mid-March, Cisco employees shared 35% more files in Webex Teams, and 45% more instant messages (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Webex Teams file sharing and instant messaging rose as building badge-in rates declined

For more information on Webex Team’s possibilities, read the blog about Webex Teams integration with Office 365 here.

Single Sign On

We use Cisco Duo for multi-factor authentication. Before the pandemic lockdown, people were required to re-enter their PIN multiple times a day, depending on their role. During the pandemic we changed the policy to require authentication just once, at the start of the workday.

To VPN or not to VPN

When our global offices closed in March 2020, our VPN changed from backup access during regional events (snowstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, building fires, etc.) to primary access for tens of thousands of employees, contractors, and partners around the world. Read how we scaled the VPN here, and how Cisco scales the secure remote workforce here.

We configured the Cisco AnyConnect VPN client to connect to our cloud collaboration applications directly over the Internet instead of VPN. The technique is called split tunneling. “Why connect from home to a VPN hub in a data center only to be directed over the Internet to the cloud?” says See. “Connecting directly over home Internet to a cloud service like Webex Meetings or Office 365 saves VPN capacity for applications hosted in our data centers, improving the experience.”

Work-life balance

The flip side of having the network “stop at your front door”—our motto in Cisco IT—is that it’s easy to blur the boundary between work life and personal life. When the office is always in view, it can be tempting to check email during commercials, or message a coworker about progress before heading to bed. “One part of our job is making collaboration technology work—and the other part is making it work for people,” Higgins says.

To this end, our collaboration team reminds employees that it’s important to put spacers in the day for personal health and family. We encourage people to make sure they don’t attend more meetings at the cost of exercise, spending time with family, or other activities important to their wellbeing. “We ask employees and managers to focus on outcomes—not hours,” Munyandamutsa says. “If you can get a job done in four hours instead of eight, that’s great.” We don’t use activity-monitoring applications.

An internal website offers tips for collaborating from home, including:

  • Set a custom status to give others more context to your work or set your status to Do Not Disturb when you need uninterrupted focus.
  • When participating in meetings, mute yourself and use Cisco noise-canceling headsets so that background sounds—children, dogs, etc.—don’t distract you.
  • If you find yourself taking on too many meetings, it’s ok to block an hour or two on your calendar for hands-on work.

Planning a return to the office

Our return to the office as pandemic restrictions ease will bring new challenges. For employee safety, we plan to bring back the workforce in phases. Some new behaviors adopted during the pandemic will likely endure when the crisis resolves. For example, working from home has spurred people to re-think the need for travel. “It’s natural to ask, ‘Online collaboration works well, so why should I be on a plane 16 hours a month?’” Higgins says.

We’re also re-thinking the role of the physical workplace as the lockdown eases. Check back as we share our evolving plans and the evidence behind it.

For more information

Welcome to my virtual office – Webex Teams and my workstreams

Q&A: How we scaled VPN when the global workforce moved home

To read additional Cisco IT business solution case studies, visit Cisco on Cisco: Inside Cisco IT