As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, there have been many questions about what (or even where) the workplace will be in the future, particularly for people who work at companies based in traditional offices.
Of course, some of it is obvious. Just look around.
Video-based conference calls on platforms like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, etc. are – like it or not – with us to stay. It’s an approach that literally overnight went from something unusual to completely mainstream, and the remote workplace has created habits that we’re not going to be able to simply walk away from.
Yes, there’s a growing awareness that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing – well, at least, too many video calls. As a result, the number and length of video-based meetings will likely decline somewhat over time, but they aren’t going to disappear. They are starting to evolve, however, thanks to the immense competition among the different platforms and the critical factor that programmers who are creating these tools have to use them extensively as well. (That isn’t always the case with other applications.)
In addition to lots of new views of participants and content, we’ve begun to see immensely practical benefits like real-time audio transcription of the meeting – making it significantly easier and faster to confirm your notes, double check what was said, or catch up on a meeting you may have missed.
Beyond video calls, however, other changes are clearly afoot.
Most importantly, the density of work environments is almost certainly going to decrease, and the implications from that move are many. When employees do start to return to the office – and those dates keep getting pushed further and further back for many organizations – some companies plan to implement rotating schedules to reduce the number of people in a given space.
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Others plan to increase the amount of space they have in order to spread people out, while still others have adjusted to larger numbers of work-from-home employees and, therefore, expect to reduce the office space they have.
In most cases, the work environments people return to will include physical changes to facilitate social distancing practices through the introduction of things like plastic barriers, higher cube walls, rearranged environments and more. In short, it’s not likely to be what you remembered (or what you may be hoping for).
Faced with that disappointing reality, even more people may start to consider longer-term workplace alternatives – either more permanent work-from-home arrangements (potentially even in other cities – as some have started to do) or a more nomadic type of work lifestyle, where people start working from a range of different locations including their homes, offices, coffee shops, and other places, just to bring a bit of variety to their everyday experience.
Connectivity technologies like 5G and enhanced versions of Wi-Fi (specifically Wi-Fi 6E) will be critical in all these situations because of the absolutely essential need for high-speed connections (and ideally a backup connectivity solution in case one of them isn’t working well). Thankfully, we’re starting to see many more mobile PCs that integrate these technologies come to market from major vendors like Lenovo, Dell, and HP, with more on the way.
In addition to enhanced hardware, we’re starting to see companies look at new software solutions to both ease the back-to-office process, as well as improve the overall employee experience. In the case of the former, companies like Cisco are leveraging their position as providers of in-office wired and wireless networking equipment to create solutions like their DNA Spaces indoor location service.
Among other things, DNA Spaces can track how many people are in a given section of an office or are scheduled to use a given conference room and use intelligent analytics to notify employees of potential people jams.
Companies like Citrix and VMware have been seeing strong interest in some of the virtual desktop solutions that they have for enabling easy remote access to all the applications an employee may need. Citrix is taking the concept even further by building a series of micro-apps within its Citrix Desktop that can be used to check on the physical and even mental health of employees via simple surveys and check-in procedures.
It’s all part of a bigger effort we will likely see grow and evolve as companies try to figure out how to best leverage technology to maintain closer, more personal connections with employees, a need essentially created by this pandemic.
Further down the road, we may well fall back into more of our old work habits and environments, though even those won’t be exactly the way they were. For the next year or so, however, and especially as we enter into a more uncertain cold weather, indoor-focused fall and winter season, it seems likely that the near-term future of work is going to be pretty similar to what we’ve been experiencing.
It’s still a work-at-home world.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.