Synopsis: In this Leadership interview, Mike Vizard talks to Jeetu Patel, executive vice president and general manager for the Security and Collaboration Business Units at Cisco, about how artificial intelligence (AI) will make it simpler to strike a balance between working from home and overly restrictive policies that are forcing employees to return to the office now that the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

Mike Vizard: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the Techstrong AI Leadership video series. I’m your host, Mike Vizard. Today we’re with Jeetu Patel, who is executive vice president and general manager for the collaboration and security business unit at Cisco. And we’re talking about, well, how AI is going to change the way we all work in an era where we’re already working everywhere, here, there and any place we can find a spot these days with a wireless connection. Hey Jeetu, welcome the show.

Jeetu Patel: Hi, thanks for having me. It’s good to see you again.

Mike Vizard: I think right now there’s this raging argument going on about whether or not we need everybody to go back to the office or not and some folks want to work from home primarily, and other folks are just as happy to go back to the office. I think on a practical level, many folks have been working from home anyway during the day and they still go to the office and we all travel more these days, so everybody’s kind of working all the time one way or another, but now enters AI. How do you think this is going to change the way we work and what are the implications?

Jeetu Patel: Well, the future of work, in my opinion, I very strongly believe in this, is going to be hybrid where people are going to work in mixed mode. There’ll be times that they go into the office that there’ll be times they want to work from home. There’ll be times somewhere in the middle. I actually think it would be, Mike, very regressive for society if we required everyone to be back in the office five days a week because what that does is makes geography such a disproportionate prerequisite for economic participation and economic success. So I actually don’t think it’s a healthy thing to go back to pre-COVID days and everyone worked from the office five days a week. I think the next generation of leaders need to figure out a way that they can build strong bonds and relationships and serendipity while never having met someone in person.
The speed at which you establish trust has to get compressed so you do it without having met someone in person. Now where does AI help? I think AI helps tremendously in a lot of different areas to get you caught up if you miss something, to make sure that the distance that you feel when you’re on video versus being with someone at dinner, that distance starts to fade away and that you can’t even remember the last time you met someone in person versus met someone on video. And that’s actually the state that we need to strive for and I think AI can help quite a bit in that particular state. So you think about things like intelligent video so that if you’re in a large conference room, how can you use AI to make sure that the system automatically detects the humans and gives you a closeup view so that you can see people’s facial expressions. That’s a classic example of where AI is used to go out and make sure that the configuration of the room doesn’t become a barrier to having the right kind of communication.
And then what we’ve been working on long and hard is a lot of areas around AI which are augmenting generative AI with realtime media models. And so just like you have a large language model, we introduced this concept called realtime media model, which could allow you to take nonverbal cues and actually hydrate the verbal cues so that the combination of those two get something very potent out there. So let me give you an example that’s very simple. Let’s say that I have a doorbell ring because the delivery guy is there to drop off some package and I’m in a meeting, eight people in a meeting. Wouldn’t it be great if I got up and walked over and when I walked over, the system was smart enough to automatically blur my camera, put me on mute, and when I came back the system was smart enough to know, “Oh, Jeetu is back. Un-blur the camera, take him off of mute,” without me having to do anything? But more importantly, let me know as soon as I come back saying, “Hey, it seems like you had stepped away for three minutes. Here’s a discussion that happened while you were gone,” so I don’t have to interrupt the team to say, “What did I miss?”
And so I think what we will have is a lot of these sophisticated capabilities that’ll be in these systems as we move forward, but the key big milestone that we have to reach is this mission that we have called distance zero. You should not be able to feel the distance when someone is 10,000 miles away. Today, you definitely do. You feel it because of the absence of serendipity because you can’t run into someone in a coffee room or you … And that’s why people get really adamant and particular about saying, “We have to meet in person.”
And I think it’s great to meet in person. I don’t think there’s going to be everything that’s going to be done asynchronously or I’m sorry, virtually through video. But when the requirement is you have to be in person all the time, you will make for a less inclusive society. You will make for a society where not everyone can participate equally in a global economy. You’ll make for a society where a few privileged people in certain geographies will have an unfair advantage of everyone else. And I just don’t think that’s how we want the world to evolve in the next 20, 30, 40 years. And I think AI will have a huge effect on that in removing that distance from people.

Mike Vizard: Do you think that organizations that embrace this hybrid model will be more competitive? And I asked the question because a big part of the reason some leaders are pushing back for the office is that a lot of them manage by walking around and they feel like there is that inspirational moment where people come together and talk in the hallway and some great idea gets moved forward. But ultimately I’m not sure that that makes a big difference if everybody who’s having those conversations is pretty much, to your point, the same kind of person.

Jeetu Patel: Yeah, I think the thing that you have to think about is what is the organization’s communication framework and how is an organization disseminating information to its employees so that, one, everyone’s aligned and marching in the same direction, two, there’s a forum for having very good idea-based debates, not personality-based debates? But I think conflict is a necessary condition of business. People have to debate ideas and people have to have forums to debate ideas. And I think it’s inevitable to have a future where it’s going to be hybrid. I think there’s going to be certain things that are just simply going to be better in person. You have to do those things in person. And there are certain things, frankly, that are better not in person and they’re more productive. And I think we just have to make sure that there’s a level of open-mindedness and the next generation of leader, I strongly believe this, the next generation of leader will know how to establish trust in the very compressed timeframe with people that they have never met in person.

Mike Vizard: How much of this do you think is simply a generational issue in that there are folks who grew up as managers pre-COVID and this is kind of the only way that they know how to cope and this is just their reflection of where we are in a moment in time in society?

Jeetu Patel: Look, frankly, I think the people that I believe that need to be more in the office is the early in career generation. And the reason for that is because if you don’t have them being mentored on what the fabric of a culture that gets created, which is the norms of how people work together, that can be done through moments of clarity that get brought up through a small conversation that you have in the coffee room, I think they suffer the most. The people, Mike, like you and I been in the industry for a while.
COVID, it was work-wise, not that hard for me because we had a lot of luxuries. You had video conferencing, high bandwidth, a dedicated office, all of those things. But when those things aren’t there … But the most important thing was if I’m early in career, let’s say I just graduated from college, I have never been at a job before and I started my job during COVID. I don’t have any feel or texture of what a culture in a company looks and feels like because all I’ve seen is video boxes on a screen and I think there’s something that gets missed in there. So you do have to create forums where people come together more, but I don’t think mandates work. I think you have to create magnets in the office where people can come in. You can’t just say, “You must be there.” I just think the greatest people will leave and go someplace else.
But there is a demographic dimension to it, which is there might be people who are more inclined to being virtual, but I actually have found it exactly the opposite. The people that I mentor, I try to mentor a lot of kids who are not my kids, but a lot of people who are early in career and I found that they find a lot more value in actually the social aspects of work and wanting to go into the office and they go into the office more frequently than the ones that are people like me who might not. I might go into the office a couple of times a week, but some people go into the office four times a week or five times a week. But I do think you have to give that choice to the teams. But there is a demographic issue, but exactly the opposite of what you might be thinking. You might’ve said, Hey, younger people are more open to being remote. I think younger people actually yearn more being together at times.

Mike Vizard: That is true. Let’s just say for example, I’m a 20-year-old and I’m living in Brooklyn. The work environment is a big part of my social life. It’s the people I hang out with. It’s the people that I go to restaurants with in the evening and they become part of your extended family. I think if you’re in your thirties and forties and fifties and you’re living in the suburbs and you’ve got a family and you’re wasting two hours a day on a commute, you start to resent that commute after a while.

Jeetu Patel: That’s right.

Mike Vizard: Will we see something of a brain drain because a lot of the middle level folks who have that experience today are going to opt to work for a more flexible startup?

Jeetu Patel: I think there is a risk of people in your and my years of experience in the industry not taking the time to go into the office to mentor people who are early in career. We have to do that to make sure that the others are able to learn from us, right? One of the big objectives when you get to our stage in our career is we’ve been very blessed, we’ve actually had a good career. We’ve actually done some very interesting things. And when you talk to the generation that’s entering the workforce, they can benefit a lot from those stories, those experiences, those scar tissue that we’ve actually gained.
And by the way, what it also does I’ve found is I learn as much from that generation because the value system shifts a little bit and they get motivated by different things and I learn and get texture of that. And that’s important to make sure that that happens in a non transactive medium. The one thing, as much as I love WebEx and we do it, the downside of video right now is humans have been programmed to think of us as a transactional medium of communication. What do I mean by that? There is a 30-minute meeting, there is a definitive agenda. If on minute 22 you have a seven-second lull, immediately someone says, “Well, is there any other questions or should we give you back eight minutes?” If you contrast that to an experience you have at dinner, an appetizer comes out and there’s a seven-second lull, Mike, you’re going to probably ask me, “Hey, Jeetu. What do you do for fun? Do you have a family? Do you go hiking? Do you like doing X, Y, Z?” And what that gives us then with that is a level of context on each other. That context builds familiarity. That familiarity builds trust. That trust allows us to engage in conflict without taking a personally and conflict is a necessary condition of business.
And so that is the piece that gets lost when video is looked at because it becomes a transactive medium. It’s actually got nothing to do with the shortage of anything that video doesn’t provide. It’s just that we’ve all been hardwired to think this is going to be efficient. I’m going to do 30-minute meetings. I’m going to boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And if I can get a meeting done early, great, I’ll move on to the next thing. It is not a social medium yet as it would need to be. And that’s the one thing that actually video has to evolve into. I don’t think we’re quite there yet as society.

Mike Vizard: I’m not entirely sure whether it matters whether a 20-year-old says to a 40-year-old, “Hey, boomer,” in person or over video, but it doesn’t much … The point is made. But I wonder if companies, to your point, are not creating the event that brings everybody into the office often enough to have those meetings in that mentoring without being heavy-handed about it.

Jeetu Patel: I totally agree. I think one of our chief people, policy and purpose officer, Fran Catsuto, who’s a great friend of mine, she always says she’s like, “All of us are now event managers as leaders, because we are going to host events. Whether those events are virtual or whether those events are in person, we’re going to host events to make sure that people can come together because left to its own devices, you will over time lose that familiarity of a culture and a bond that’s created with a company coming together and you have to make sure that you maintain that.” And so in a world where people work in a distributed fashion onsite/offsites are even more important.
The offsite is actually being onsite in the office and the role of the office changes where what you might configure the office to be is not to have someone just come in and work at their desk and go home. It’s to come into collaborate so that people can actually engage with each other, which there is no question that in some cases collaboration is way better done in person and the bandwidth is way higher than what you would do in video. On other scenarios, it actually makes sense not to go out and have that be the case. So I do feel like we will all in some way form need to be more coordinated in the kind of events we set up and without being heavy-handed, give people a reason to come into the office so that they can engage with each other, but not have that be a way of life five days a week, because that’ll make the world an all-inclusive place.

Mike Vizard: All right, folks. Well, you heard it here. Management, it’s more art than science. And throwing a bunch of people in a room and locking the door does not necessarily guarantee a great outcome. So figure it out. Use all the tools you have at your disposal and good things will happen. Jeetu, thanks for being on the show.

Jeetu Patel: Thank you for having me, Mike.

Mike Vizard: All right, and thank you all for watching the latest episode of the Techstrong AI video series. You can find this episode and others on our website. We invite you to check them all out. Till then, we’ll see you next time.