The world’s grand reopening is right around the corner and the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to get a lot brighter. Millions of vaccines are being administered every day, and they have held their own against new variants of the virus so far. Restrictions are loosening, and workers will return to the office en masse — at least some of the time — raising the question: What will the world of print look like when we come out on the other side?
No one can tell you exactly what we’re going to see on the other side — only time will tell — but there are several major trends that are going to play a huge role in shaping print’s role in the post-pandemic era: the “grand reopening” and return to the office, touch-free technology, cybersecurity, and print management in the cloud.
All these trends are interrelated and accelerated rapidly once the pandemic began. Prior to the pandemic, the emergence of affordable cloud-based technologies was enabling faster digital transformation. With the cloud, all businesses were able to overcome cost and knowledge barriers that prevented them from using the latest and greatest business software. When lockdowns were announced, cloud adoption and digital transformation exploded, as it went from “something nice to have” to “if we don’t have this, we cannot work.” Businesses needed solutions that enabled remote working, and the cloud scratches that itch perfectly. According to PWC, cloud spending was up $29 billion — 37% — in the first quarter of 2020, and there is no good reason to expect these numbers to do anything but continue their ascent. Of course, as we relegate more of our core business processes to cloud services and embrace hybrid working, we are also taking on the security risks that go hand in hand with remote workforces and connected devices.
The grand reopening and the return to the office
When we do return to the office, you might not recognize it (and not just because you haven’t been there in over a year). Workspaces might be spaced out further than you remember. There’ll be plexiglass dividers and stickers on the floor directing traffic. Some of the appliances that you rely on to get your job done might be in different places (or not there at all: dear office coffee maker, this is not “farewell forever,” it is “see you later”). And in order to promote social distancing and cultivate a safe working environment (among other reasons), we can expect businesses to swap out their larger A3 devices for smaller A4 alternatives.
Some of these changes are more permanent than others. We can expect the plexiglass and the arrows to disappear at one point or another. But as far as device placement goes, it seems likely we will continue to see print hubs decentralized and devices downscaled. There are a few forces driving this trend: office redesigns/downsizing plans are more A4-friendly; A4 devices spread out across several locations in the office helps businesses reduce high-traffic areas and maintain social distancing practices in the workplace; A4 devices are better suited to the home office, which is going to play a bigger role in the hybrid workforce of the future; and as overall office print volumes decline, fewer businesses can justify the cost of A3 devices.
Less touch becomes more necessary
Doorknobs and coffee machines aside, there probably isn’t any other surface in your office that gets touched more frequently and by more people than the control panel of the MFP. But in the post-COVID-19 world, most people aren’t going to be interested in touching any surface, let alone the most touched surface in the office. And even if someone is interested in using the control panel, they are going to have to sanitize the surfaces before and after usage. But prolonged, frequent usage of cleaning sprays on a touchscreen control panel can reduce sensitivity and degrade the image quality of the screen.
Luckily, we all tend to carry a personalized touchscreen in our pockets that no one else ever touches, and can easily connect to and communicate with printers and MFPs. In addition to preventing the spread of germs at the MFP by relegating the UI to individual phones, touchless technology provides users with a consistent, personalized user experience across the different devices they encounter throughout the week. Users can not only release print jobs from their phones, they can preset preferences such as duplex or size. Many print management solutions are beginning to include touchless options in their offerings, and the touch-free experience is being extended to remote devices as well – with some help from the cloud.
Print management in the cloud
The interesting thing about the cloud is, while it makes print unnecessary in many cases (documents in the cloud are everywhere and nowhere at the same time), we still print. Whether it’s a requirement or personal preference, and whether workers are at home or in the office: where there is a business, there is a need for print.
There is not a reason to believe that print is going anywhere anytime soon, either. According to Quocirca, 30% of businesses anticipate printing to be critical to their business in the next 12 months. And once the grand reopening begins, we can expect print requirements to spike. IT decision-makers polled by Quocirca said that they expect print volumes will increase at home (73%) and in the office (59%) when offices reopen. The cloud isn’t going to kill print; it’s going to be the backbone of print in the age of the hybrid workplace. It’s no surprise that half of IT decision-makers in the survey use a cloud print service, and 40% more plan to do so in the next 24 months.
Print in the cloud doesn’t just enable printing in the era of the hybrid workplace. It also makes print more flexible, as well as easier to use and manage. Print management in the cloud helps IT teams save time and money by eliminating on-premises print servers and the need to manage print drivers from a myriad of manufacturers for users with different operating systems. But that’s not all it does. It also extends simple, consistent, convenient access of print to workers, no matter where they are. As far as end users are concerned, nothing will change, and they can continue printing as they always have without skipping a beat.
So far, 2021 has been an eventful year in the cloud print management space. Major developers have been pushing out their own cloud print management solutions to make it easy to deploy and manage the hybrid worker’s print environment. We have seen major activity from two tech behemoths: months after Google Cloud Print was retired for good, Microsoft’s Universal Print became generally available. The cloud-native solution offers tight integration with Azure Active Directory and basic print management functionality, like secure pull printing, basic accounting, and user/device management capabilities. With the Microsoft Graph API, businesses can seamlessly integrate robust print management solutions to manage, monitor, control, and secure their fleet while paring down their physical IT infrastructure. A number of solutions have already been certified to work with Microsoft’s Universal Print, and we can continue to expect a rich ecosystem of cloud print management tools to be developed around it.
In this ultra-convenient, hyper-connected, cloud-based world that we’ve built for ourselves, there is no such thing as 100% secure. As businesses embrace cloud solutions and the hybrid working model, they will certainly enjoy a simpler, consistent user experience and increased productivity. But with the good comes the bad, and in this case, the bad is taking on a considerable security risk.
We can expect the prevailing trends of ransomware and business email compromise to keep … prevailing. But the printer is also becoming a compelling target for cybercriminals looking for treasure troves of data or another soldier for their botnet (or some CPU power to mine bitcoin — there are plenty of ways for the bad guys to make money hacking printers). IoT devices (which include printers and MFPs) aren’t built with security in mind. And that’s not the fault of the manufacturers. They are just giving the people what they want: a device that can connect with everything to make print fast and convenient. But cybersecurity is complicated, and there are people out there that want to exploit the ultra-convenient, uber-connected machines (that we asked for) to benefit themselves.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The biggest trends in 2021 are interrelated, existing trends that accelerated rapidly in the wake of the pandemic. Due to the need to work remotely, businesses leveraged cloud solutions so they could keep their doors open. But by lifting their operations to the cloud, they exposed themselves to new security risks that can have disastrous consequences. Even after workers can return to the office, businesses will have to adapt to hybrid work environments, ensuring a safe workspace in the traditional office, while providing workers with the same work experience at home that they have in the office. Fortunately, technology is keeping up with needs, and tools like touchless printing and other solutions that keep workers safe are available, and more are being developed by the day. Yes, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and technology is doing its part to make 2021 a better year all around.