'Disruption' may be an overused word, but it's hard to find a better one to describe the effect of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic on organisations of all kinds. But what comes next?
Looking at the many predictions for IT in 2021 currently doing the rounds, high-level themes that emerge include: continuing widespread remote working and online collaboration; renewed focus on customer experience (Cx) and employee experience (Ex); accelerated adoption, and wider geographical distribution, of cloud services; further developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML); and greater emphasis on cybersecurity and business resilience.
SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
With the (very) welcome advent of COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020, it's a good time to look forward to the working practices that will evolve in this environment in 2021 -- and specifically, the devices and services that will make life productive for remote workers.
Among the lasting changes to working practices caused by the pandemic will be a shift away from the traditional office as the centre of operations for organisations of many kinds. Of course, the degree to which this happens will vary between sectors, businesses within sectors, and employees within businesses. But when it comes to interacting with employees and customers, and organising business processes, it certainly won't be 'business as usual' ('usual' being the pre-pandemic norm).
As 2020 staggers to a close, knowledge workers routinely occupy desk or office space in their homes, using a desktop or laptop computer on an internet connection that they pay for but is now vital to their employment as well as the running of their household. Communications with colleagues, company departments and clients revolve around the collaboration features built into office suites, along with instant-messaging and video-conferencing platforms, often using a secondary device such as a tablet or smartphone for some of these tasks. Cybersecurity is more important than ever for this newly distributed and heterogeneously equipped workforce, for whom commuting is a fading memory (along with real-world interaction with colleagues and clients).
Although there are obvious downsides to remote working, including work/life balance and long-term mental health, many of us are likely to continue working from home on a regular basis after the pandemic. That being so, it's obviously a good idea to have the best equipment for the job: there's a big difference between spending a couple of hours on your laptop at the kitchen table outside normal working hours and making this arrangement your primary workspace.
To get an idea of the kind of setups that knowledge workers should be looking at in 2021 and beyond, it's worth examining the contents of ZDNet contributors' home offices, as featured on this site over recent weeks. These are journalists who have been working from home for years, and who are also, by definition, up-to-speed with the latest technology. This means that their gear is mostly at the power-user end of the knowledge worker spectrum, giving a good indication of what may become standard fare in the 'new normal'.
Several ZDNet contributors cover the physical aspects of their workspaces, including desks and chairs. Comfort and adjustability are important here, especially as remote working can involve long hours at the desk. Products mentioned are: Vari Electric Standing Desks, the Herman Miller Aeron office chair, Uplift Standing Desks, the Ikea Fredde Desk, Respawn chairs and the Humanscale Freedom chair.
In one survey of COVID-19 remote working, 15% of respondents admitted to working from the closet (with bedroom [42%], couch [49%] and dining room [49%] also mentioned), which is clearly not a sustainable long-term solution!
In 2021 you will…
Decide that ad-hoc workspaces at home won't cut it if you're going to continue to be a regular remote worker.
ZDNet contributors use a range of computers, as you'd expect: six out of ten use at least one desktop, and seven use at least one laptop, while three use both form factors. Only three contributors mention a tablet as part of their armoury, and it's always in conjunction with either a desktop or a laptop, and always an iPad Pro -- no reports of tablets becoming the primary work platform yet, and no look-in for Android. On average, ZDNet contributors use 2.3 computing devices (excluding smartphones).
SEE: Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done
The desktop PCs are a mixture of traditional tower systems (Dell XPS 89x0, Dell Precision 3440, custom builds), All-In-Ones (27-inch Apple iMac) and small form-factor systems (Apple Mac Mini). Laptops are a mixture of Dell (Latitude 7400, XPS 13), Apple (MacBook Pro), Microsoft (Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop 3) and Google (PixelBook Go) devices, plus a gaming-oriented Acer (Predator Helios 300). As noted, the iPad Pro (12.9-inch) is the only tablet on show.
2021 is shaping up to be an interesting year for desktops and laptops, with Apple's Arm-based M1 SoC and its successors set to stir up the market, prompting Intel, Qualcomm and Microsoft to respond with new designs offering improved combinations of processing muscle and power efficiency.
In 2021 you will…
Cease using an old, shared or repurposed home computer for remote working and buy one that's fit for purpose -- or persuade your employer to do so.
Anyone who has spent the last nine months staring at a laptop display will probably be feeling the need for more screen space, in the shape of an external monitor. ZDNet's contributors are certainly devotees of the large screen, with the average size being 29 inches (ranging between 25in. and 38in., including AIOs) and three using two large screens (38in.+34in., 2x 28in. and 2x 27in.).
Large monitors used by ZDNet's contributors come from Dell (U3818, U3415, U2518D), LG (Curved UltraWide WQHD IPS, 27UL850-W UHD) and Samsung (U28E590, LC24F390FHNXZA), with Apple's 27-inch iMac making up the remainder.
Screen size is important if you want to work comfortably with multiple browser tabs, documents and spreadsheets and so on, but it's not the only factor to consider. Panel technology, resolution, refresh rate, pixel response time, colour gamut support and ergonomics are all important too, with relative importance of these features depending on the particular use case.
A massive, curved monitor may look tempting, but if it dominates your desk space and compromises on image quality, it won't transform your working life in a good way. A point worth noting: you've probably already got a large screen at home in the shape of a TV, and although it won't be suitable for general-purpose computing, you can press it into service for video calls.
In 2021 you will…
Get a computer with a bigger screen, or add an external monitor to your existing setup.
Although many monitors now have built-in USB hubs, you'll often want the flexibility of a separate docking station for attaching peripherals and making connections, and there's plenty of choice available at a variety of price points. Popular dock brands among ZDNet contributors are Dell (WD19TB Thunderbolt Dock, D6000 Universal Dock) and CalDigit (TS3 Plus Thunderbolt 3), with Anker (7-in-1 Premium USB-C hub), Aukey (Multiport USB-C adapter) and Atolla (4-port USB Hub) also receiving mentions.
When buying a laptop docking station, take heed of the potential pitfalls pointed out by ZDNet's Ed Bott: Does your laptop support Thunderbolt? Does the dock have enough power for your laptop? Are there enough of the right kind of ports? Can the video hardware handle your displays? Do the ergonomics work for you?
SEE: WFH and burnout: How to be a better boss to remote workers
With laptops getting thinner and lighter, there's often only room for a limited number of ports, making the need for a docking station more likely, both at home and in the office. So, as with any product purchase, ask the right questions, do the research, and read the reviews.
In 2021 you will…
Discover that a docking station is an essential component of your remote working setup, if you haven't already.
Despite advances in speech recognition and voice control, knowledge workers do not routinely select, open and navigate apps using spoken commands, or input text via dictation. All these things are possible, but most of us still use a keyboard and a pointing device (usually a mouse). You don't have to settle for the default offerings with your desktop or laptop computer, though -- so what do ZDNet's wordsmiths use?
Logitech is the most popular keyboard brand, with four products (K780 Multi-Device Wireless Keyboard, G915 TKL Keyboard, G513 RGB Backlit Mechanical Gaming Keyboard, MK710 Wireless Desktop), followed by Microsoft (Modern Keyboard with Fingerprint ID, Surface Keyboard), Keychron (K4 Mechanical Optical Keyboard, K2 wireless mechanical keyboard), Razer (BlackWidow) and Apple (Magic Wireless Keyboard).
Personal preference is a big factor in choosing a keyboard, but important factors to consider include the key switch mechanism (which affects the action and noise), layout (presence of a number pad, specific function keys, size and position of particular keys), connectivity (wired or wireless), and ergonomics (sculpted designs, wrist rests).
Navigation devices include mice from Logitech (MX Anywhere 2, G502 Lightspeed) and Microsoft (Precision Mouse), plus a range of specialised products: Kensington Trackball, Apple Magic Trackpad 2, 3Dconnexion Wireless 3D SpaceMouse (for navigating CAD applications) and Contour ShuttleXpress (a multimedia controller). Another popular navigation device is Elgato's Stream Deck, a productivity-boosting external keypad with customisable buttons, mostly used for actions relating to video production and editing.
In 2021 you will…
Pay more attention to your computers' input devices, and likely upgrade to more functional and ergonomic models.
One of the biggest changes the coronavirus pandemic will bring about is a widespread reassessment and reconfiguration of peoples' home networks, as long-term remote working is added to the usual mix of entertainment, education, family video-calling and general web usage.
The key factor here is the increased frequency of video calls, which require considerable upload as well as download bandwidth. David Gewirtz provides a telling illustration in his detailed article on home network optimisation: while 100Mbps of download bandwidth might support four Zoom download streams, one or two 4K video streams, plus email, Facebook and other online activities, if you've only got 5Mbps of upload bandwidth (on a copper-based ADSL connection, for example), you'll struggle to sustain one Zoom stream. This is a recipe for household discord if one or two regular Zoom-using remote workers are added to the equation. The ideal solution is access to fast symmetrical fibre-based connections offering 100Mbps-1Gbps up and down, but that's by no means universally available.
SEE: Technology's next big challenge: To be fairer to everyone
In the UK, for example, 'gigabit-capable' (up to 1Gbps download) broadband is available to just under a third (27%) of homes as of December 2020, with symmetrical full-fibre broadband accessible by 18%. Nearly all (96%) premises can access what Ofcom calls 'superfast' broadband (at least 30Mbps down), although 190,000 premises have no broadband access, either via fixed-line or fixed wireless connections. I'm lucky enough both to live in a rural location and have a 300/300Mbps fibre connection (900/900Mbps available), but that's still something of a rarity.
Ofcom's Connected Nations 2020 report also gives a clear example of the 'pandemic effect' on internet traffic levels, showing significant daytime increases on weekdays, which the UK regulator attributes to widespread home working and schooling:
Ofcom also noted hourly traffic spikes due to video conferencing, and large spikes attributable to gaming-related downloads.
When it comes to your internal home network, as opposed to the external broadband connection from your ISP, the key decisions are the choice of primary router and any onward wired or wireless connections, including mesh Wi-Fi systems.
ZDNet's contributors use networking equipment from Netgear (Nighthawk X6 R8000 router, Nighthawk M2 mobile router, 8-Port Gigabit Ethernet Unmanaged Switch, Orbi Whole Home Tri-Band Mesh WiFi 6, Powerline 1200s), Linksys (LGS124P 24-Port Rackmount Gigabit Ethernet PoE+, AC2600 Wi-Fi Cloud Managed Access Points), D-Link (AC1750 wi-fi router), TP-Link (AC1200 Deco Whole Home Mesh Wi-Fi) and Arris (Residential Gateway).
In 2021 you will…
Realise the limitations of your existing home network and upgrade your broadband connection, your primary router and/or install a mesh Wi-Fi system to deliver whole-home coverage.
Pre-pandemic, you may have made do with a webcam of moderate resolution and functionality, and an audio subsystem of limited quality – especially if you use a mid-range or low-end laptop. Even if your setup is satisfactory, you've probably noticed poor image quality and indistinct sound on video calls with colleagues or clients -- or seen many examples in broadcast media interviews. Things clearly need to improve, and the tech is certainly available to achieve this.
ZDNet's contributors are well ahead of the curve on AV equipment, thanks to the amount of podcasting and video work they do. Logitech is the only webcam brand mentioned, with the C930e Business Webcam, C920 HD Pro Webcam and Brio Ultra HD Pro Webcam all in use. Almost as dominant on the audio front are Blue Yeti USB microphones, although Shure (SM7B) and Heil Sound (PR-40 Dynamic Studio Microphone) are also used.
ZDNet contributors invest in a fair amount of ancillary AV kit in the form of webcam lighting rigs, mic stands and high-end headphones, but this will probably be over the top for regular knowledge workers unless you're into audio/video production outside of work.
In 2021 you will…
Look carefully at the webcam/microphone/speaker configuration on your current remote-work computer, and consider whether it's doing you justice on video calls.
There's plenty of other equipment that remote workers could surround themselves with, of course. You might want to boost compute power with an external GPU enclosure and graphics card, for example, or your local storage with an external drive array. Printers and scanners still have a place, of course, and if you're in any way nervous about the power infrastructure in your area, a UPS might be worth considering for peace of mind.
ZDNet's remote-working contributors didn't have much to say about their smartphones, presumably because these devices are simply ubiquitous, and everyone's first point of contact with the digital world. Apple's iPhone (11 Pro, 11 Pro Max) was mentioned, of course, along with a couple of Android handsets – the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and Blackview BV9800 Pro (with an integrated FLIR thermal camera).
2020 has been a tough year for smartphone manufacturers, although IDC noted signs of improvement in Q3 with a lower-than-expected decline (-1.3% year on year, rather than 9% as previously forecast). However, buyers are increasingly questioning the need to upgrade religiously every year, and are also looking askance at the four-figure price tags of leading flagship handsets. And while 5G is the industry's big hope for continued growth, according to IDC "consumer demand for 5G is minimal at best, which only adds to the price pressure on channels and OEMs."
SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Aside from 5G, there will still be plenty of developments to tempt you into an upgrade next year, including new form factors (folding and scrollable screens, rugged phones), new sensors (Lidar, thermal cameras), higher screen refresh rates (120Hz and above), more AI (especially underpinning 'computational photography'), better power efficiency (including fast, wireless and reverse-wireless charging), and more.
In 2021 you will…
Be tempted by feature-laden 5G handsets from the big-name vendors, but probably settle for a 2020-flagship-class phone at around half the price.
There's no doubt that remote working is here to stay. The next challenge is to manage it to the mutual benefit of workers and employers.
These summary statistics from a June/July 2020 survey by Owl Labs and Global Workspace Analytics give a good picture of the mid-pandemic situation. The 2020 State of Remote Work Survey covered 2,025 full-time US workers aged 21-65 at companies with 10 or more employees:
It's clear that although the pros generally outweigh the cons, there are issues, including: the frequency with which workers expect to work from home post-pandemic; working hours and work/life balance; and company support for remote working -- including paying or sharing the cost of home office equipment. Another Owl Labs survey, conducted as the pandemic was taking off in March 2020, found that 34% of 1,239 US respondents thought their company was unprepared for all employees having to work from home, while only 23% of companies had implemented a WFH protocol in preparation for widespread remote working. This clearly needs to be addressed for the 'new normal'.
IT departments have grappled with employees' desire to 'bring your own device' to work in recent years. The next challenge is to keep tabs on what they're using at home, without becoming too intrusive or overbearing.