Office Technology Trends in the Post-COVID Era

In the April 2020 issue of The Imaging Channel, I wrote an article titled “Office Technology Trends in the Smart Office Era.” It examined the evolution toward the smart office, all the advanced technology that was driving trends and how digital transformation was changing the way we thought about hardware. It sounded very forward thinking. Except, of course, for the fact that it was written prior to the week everything changed. March 11, you may recall was the day the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the NBA suspended the season – the latter being the thing that really made most people take notice (and if that didn’t do it, Tom Hanks’ March 12 announcement that he had been diagnosed with coronavirus probably did). The March 13 declaration of a national emergency sealed the deal. By the following week, offices and schools were closing, travel was restricted, and anything that had been “forward-thinking” in the weeks prior was yesterday’s news.

workplace trends 2021

The trends addressed in that 2020 article are still valid and topical – the increase in remote workers, the need for cybersecurity, the smart office. What has changed is the context. Just as surgical masks and hand sanitizer existed pre-COVID but our experience with them has shifted completely, our perspective on office technology trends like collaboration and security has changed. What happens when we look at 2020 trends with a 2021 perspective? What’s still trending, and what new trends have arisen?

Remote work and the hybrid workforce

The last year has pretty successfully debunked the myth that workers cannot be productive if they work remotely (all it took was a global lockdown to convince most business leaders that we can at least try remote work). As offices reopen, remote working will transform into hybrid working, and for some it already has. Workers may spend a few days at home working on independent tasks that require a lot of focus, then come to the office for a few days to collaborate with colleagues. 

Market research suggests that the hybrid workplace will be a mainstay in the future, even after the pandemic has finally passed. In a survey from Gartner, 82% of business leaders polled said they will allow employees to work from home some of the time. Pew Research shows 54% of respondents want to work from home after the coronavirus outbreak ends, and of all the obstacles to doing so, technology was the least problematic – 87% said having the technology and equipment needed to do their job was “somewhat easy” to “very easy.” 

The technology, such as interactive meeting platforms and smart meeting rooms, was in place, but what was missing in some cases was the infrastructure to handle it when the workers left the building. Regardless of where they were in the digital transformation journey pre-COVID, most organizations have upped their investments in the technologies and infrastructure that make a distributed workforce possible. Gartner projects cloud spending to comprise more than 14% of IT spending in 2024, up from just 9% in 2020, and their research shows almost 70% of organizations using cloud services in 2020 planned to increase that usage in the wake of COVID’s disruption. This focus on cloud is critical to enabling a workforce that can connect and collaborate seamlessly and securely from any location.

Security

Cybersecurity and the risks of unprotected networks and devices were certainly on everyone’s radar pre-2020, and it was a commonly discussed topic even before the pandemic. However, as is so often the case, bad actors were more than happy to take advantage of a crisis and make a bad situation worse. VMware conducted research between March 2020 and April 2020 to determine the impact of working from home on cyberattacks — 88% said they had seen an increase in overall cyberattacks as a result of work-from-home employees. When it came to disaster recovery plans, one-third said COVID-19 revealed very significant gaps in their planning. When it came to IT operations, just under a third (31%) felt there were very significant gaps in their visibility into cybersecurity threats, and 84% overall felt there were at least some gaps in their planning when it came to enabling a remote workforce. 

This does translate to one potential path forward when it comes to dealers seeking revenue opportunities. A recent Imaging Channel webinar cited statistics from BPO Media’s Industry Trends survey of dealers. When asked which product categories they wanted to add, network security applications were No. 2 product category (behind only MPS), up from No. 4 the previous year. With customers increasingly aware of and concerned about security threats, a trusted technology partner can be an ideal resource for security solutions, which can be offered a la carte or as part of a “work from home” bundle – the latter of which is becoming more popular and leads into the next trend.

Hardware and technology consumption models

One of the struggles for organizations and technology providers alike over the last year was equipping remote workers with the necessary equipment and then managing it. Computers are probably the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the remote worker’s needs, but of course, there is much more than that – monitors, keyboards and mice, headsets, cameras, modems, and of course, printers. No, not all remote employees need to print, but many do. 

Dealers with access to diverse product lines were able to create these work-from-home bundles consisting of everything from the laptop and accessories to the software, modem, printer, and IT services that tie it all together. Not only is this an additional revenue opportunity, it creates the ability to expand managed print solutions (MPS) to encompass home office devices. Capturing clicks, vital to office technology dealers, doesn’t need to stop at the office wall. And printers and MFPs, even those for home use, are still sophisticated network devices susceptible to cyberattacks, so the ability for an organization to protect its hardware and data in employees’ homes is essential.

Another hardware topic that’s getting a lot of buzz in the wake of the pandemic is the shift from A3 to A4. Is there one? Well, A4 is certainly the footprint of choice for home use, and manufacturers are making the shift accordingly – certain forward-thinking manufacturers well known for their A3 lines launched several A4-sized devices over the last year, which is also good news for dealers who may have found themselves increasingly in competition with retail or online outlets for the home-office market.

The work-from-home model isn’t the only thing driving A4 usage in the post-COVID workplace, however. Centralized printing hubs with large A3 devices aren’t very conducive to social distancing, which means a trend back to, if not individual printers, smaller pods of A4s. It won’t necessarily be a shift back to the old days of non-networked, off-the-grid devices that MPS programs worked so hard to get rid of, but it will mean a greater proliferation of smaller devices.

The decentralization of print does claw back some of the economy of scale benefits that we have enjoyed with centralized printing hubs in the office, since one A3 device can support the print needs of a large department at a lower cost and with less attention from the IT department than several A4 devices. But the higher costs associated with decentralization of print can be cancelled out by increased productivity for hybrid workers and the ability to enforce smart print policies with print management solutions.

Touch-free everything

Since kindergarten, we’ve been taught to wash our hands often and well. But, let’s face it, how many people out there actually spent two minutes washing their hands before COVID? The fact that Apple hadn’t felt the need to add a handwashing timer to its WatchOS software before COVID probably tells you what you need to know there.

The ability to not touch things was elevated to an art form over the last year (raise your hand if you’ve pressed an elevator button with your elbow). The first indication of this was contactless payment. Prior to COVID, a few progressive retailers had enabled Apple Pay, Google Pay, or other forms of contactless payment. By about mid-summer, it was standard.

What does this mean for office technology? In offices where workgroup print devices are in place, whether A3 or A4, the ability to print and scan without coming into contact with the touchscreen is a matter of health. Sure, touchscreens can be sanitized, but some of us just feel better not touching at all. wouldn’t it be better to not touch it at all? There are a couple of ways to make this happen. Some devices can be controlled through voice command, using smart assistants – simply telling an MFP “copy document double-sided” saves a lot of soap and sanitizer. There are also smartphone apps – since everyone now carries a personal touchscreen interface in their pocket, it’s easy to release print jobs or scan a device to a network location using a smartphone app. These technologies, of course, existed pre-COVID, but their applications changed drastically.

The need for signage and single-use prints

As offices, retail outlets, supermarkets, restaurants, churches, schools and other locations reopen, they are putting up a lot more signage to keep people safe. Light production print can be game-changing for some of these establishments. Safety protocol posters are now required for many establishments – and as regulations and protocols change, so does the signage (do we still need to stay six feet apart, or is it three?) And although it’s been very easy to point a finger at the accelerated digital transformation caused by the pandemic as the reason for a decrease in print volumes, in some cases there is more need for print – restaurants, for example, which in theory are using digital menus accessible via QR codes, are in reality printing a lot of single-use menus. Print is happening for new and different reasons in scenarios we couldn’t have imagined last year.

Hindsight may be 2020, but when looking back on some of the predictions from last year it seems like we weren’t all that poorly prepared for what happened. The technology was available and the industry, me included, certainly talked a lot about transformation. 

However, as they say, talk is cheap — it was those who were ready to act who fared best in a year unlike any other. 

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Bob Madaio
As vice president, Marketing, Bob Madaio leads the marketing team for Sharp Imaging and Information Corporation of America, the B2B arm of Sharp Electronics.
Bob Madaio

Bob Madaio

As vice president, Marketing, Bob Madaio leads the marketing team for Sharp Imaging and Information Corporation of America, the B2B arm of Sharp Electronics.