Digital Workplace Trends for 2021
Take a closer look at the office technology trends for 2021 that will improve and maximize the tools fueling our new reality.
It should come as little surprise that the coronavirus pandemic rapidly accelerated digital transformation in 2020. Although we were certainly immersed in technology at work and beyond previously, last year made technology a more vital part of our lives than ever before. As we look ahead to 2021, CDW’s experts predict that these technological advancements and adjustments will continue to move along at a rapid clip. In many ways, 2020 was a time for finding quick technology fixes in order to keep businesses running smoothly and ensure employees were equipped for remote work. Now we will take a closer look at the office technology trends for 2021 that will improve and maximize the tools fueling our new reality.
CDW’s Senior Manager of Research and Insights Operations Walker VanArsdale and Director of Collaboration Solutions Nathan Coutinho shared their outlook on what technology will be big for businesses in 2021—both from a macro-level and from the perspective of what businesses will need to keep their employees comfortable and productive and their data secure.
Predictions for New Technologies in 2021
When it comes to the potential for new technologies this year, Walker explained that the innovation will primarily occur within five major buckets: artificial intelligence, augmented/virtual reality, 5G, Software Defined Infrastructure (SDI), and blockchain/cryptocurrency. While 2020 accelerated digital transformation for businesses in many ways, Walker says that some trends will carry over from last year. While these new technologies are unlikely to become mainstream in 2021, he suggested that those bringing new technology products to market should start thinking now about how to incorporate these trends.
2021 Predictions for Artificial Intelligence and Digital Assistants
When it comes to artificial intelligence and digital assistants, Walker shared that customers are now becoming more comfortable. “It’s now becoming more ingrained mainly on the consumer side to where it’s now crossing over into the business side, as well,” Walker said. “So many customer support people have moved into the A.I. I think there’s a lot more people that are comfortable talking with the A.I. in their house. Alexa is a part of household conversations now, and she probably just clicked on by hearing her name. I think there’s more willingness because of what people do in their consumer life to see it involved in businesses as well.”
That said, Walker does not yet see the use of digital assistants in the workplace becoming mainstream. He shared that artificial intelligence and voice assistants might have major implications for certain industries, such as retail, where they can be used for automatic reordering and stocking shelves. Outside of these more specific use cases, most businesses still have too many concerns around privacy for voice assistants to become the norm across the board.
Preparing to Harness the Power of 5G
Walker said much of the technological innovation in 2021, and beyond, will harness the power of 5G. “While 5G is still slow in terms of getting rolled out nationally, there’s a whole lot of the upswing and the value that people were talking about when IoT [the Internet of Things] was hot a few years ago that never really panned out,” Walker shared. “The issue was really bandwidth, and 5G is going to solve for that. There’s going to be this large upswing of IoT that comes right on the heels of 5G becoming widely available. Because those sensors are now going to have faster bandwidth, and they’re going to be able to collect data faster and turn it around and make it actionable closer to the edge. 5G and IoT and edge computing all are kind of different versions of the same broad conversation.”
Leveraging the World of APIs and Modernizing Applications
In terms of more immediately actionable technology innovations for 2021, Walker shared that businesses should focus on leveraging application user interfaces (APIs) and modernizing their applications. He suggested that this would be a key opportunity for businesses to run more efficiently in the face of digital transformation and increased remote work.
“We live in a world of APIs now that will allow modern applications to work well with other modern applications,” Walker explained. “Having your CRM talk with your collaboration tools, like Teams and Slack, where they’re natively integrated and on the same platform, just streamlines everything and makes it work extremely well. Especially in businesses where you’re working with other companies. You want to share either data or collaborate on projects or things like that in the services industry. That’s a game changer in terms of how businesses can support their customers. That’s a large part of what the digital transformation is: What parts of the customer experience can be improved? And the role that cloud and digital plays in that. It’s typically due to revamping applications that make them more cloud native.”
Walker added that businesses should make sure their websites and digital experiences are updated so they can take full advantage of these new possibilities. For example, Walker shared that many businesses can integrate applications into their websites to make sign-in easier by having customers log in through LinkedIn or another social media account. He explained that this ease-of-use is becoming increasingly important for the customer experience, but that many legacy websites don’t allow for this kind of functionality.
Cloud Collaboration and Video Conferencing Trends for 2021
For companies that continue with remote work or hybrid work, Nathan emphasized the importance of optimizing those environments. Nathan said that the rise in video conferencing we saw in 2020 will continue, but that now companies will focus on maximizing their use of these tools. While in 2020 many companies were forced to make a quick decision about video conferencing platforms, this year they will now focus on making sure their platforms are the most cost-effective and most suited to their business needs.
Improve and Consolidate Use of Cloud Collaboration Platforms for 2021
Nathan explained that we will see businesses consolidating and modernizing their collaboration tools for calling, video conferencing, and file sharing based on ease of use, possible integration with other applications, and cost and security considerations.
“The swift move to remote work forced many organizations to modernize their calling and video conferencing platforms,” Nathan explained. “Many businesses jumped into UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service) solutions within a few days, as that was quicker and easier to implement than trying to enable remote access to aging on-premise phone systems. Now, as we go back to work, many organizations are changing their physical office footprints. Some will have employees that permanently work remotely, some will be hybrid, and some will work in an office full-time. Every business is planning to do this a bit differently, and the strategy will most likely change as we fully recover from the pandemic.”
Invest in Peripherals to Enhance Video Conferencing Experience
Nathan shared that the demand for peripherals, such as webcams and headsets, skyrocketed in 2020. He believes this trend will continue as people realize that there are better wireless headset options with better battery life. He added that we will continue to see webcam usage become widespread at home and in offices, conference rooms, and common work areas.
Many new products and solutions will be introduced this year that will improve upon the user experience for calling and video conferencing. Nathan explained that some webcams will have high-resolution cameras with integrated lighting, while some will be all-in-one display/webcam/speaker units that can be used easily with the click of a button.
Office Environment Predictions for 2021
For those returning to a physical office environment, Nathan predicts that that experience will look quite different than it did before the pandemic. He explained that most office desk setups will need to be equipped similarly to employees’ WFH setups. Because of capacity limits on conference rooms and other shared office spaces, Nathan shared that businesses should be prepared to equip employees with headsets, webcams, and other accessories for their in-office workspaces. Ideally, hybrid employees should have a webcam and headset pairing for the office, as well as for their home offices, since employees will want to bring as little equipment back and forth as possible.
Nathan also anticipates that the conference room experience will continue to transform.
“Initially, employees may not be comfortable sitting in a conference room together, even if they are six feet apart,” Nathan shared. “Companies will need to start reconfiguring team space based on their work habits – large conference rooms may need to become smaller, and small conference rooms may become single-person rooms. Existing technology in these rooms may need to be replaced or repurposed based on what the new room strategy will be.”
Harnessing the Power of the Cloud in 2021
The shift towards cloud, which was rapidly accelerated last year, will remain key for 2021. Walker shared that this part of the digital transformation is important for cloud collaboration, as well as data management and infrastructure. He explained that the rise in Software as a Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) will only continue.
“You saw people wanting to re-platform their old architecture and infrastructure to really allow for modernization and allow the remote workforce to have access to the same applications and things like that,” Walker shared. “Then you’re also seeing traditional infrastructure and devices moving into that service model as well…Capital expenses now seem to be dramatically reduced. You’re seeing a lot of companies closing some of the branches that they have…So shifting that expense from a capital expenditure operating expense really lends itself to the as a Service model.”
Businesses Should Be Mindful of Cloud Solutions’ Limitations
Security Remains Critical for 2021
With so many businesses moving towards the cloud in 2021, Walker also emphasized that security will be more important than ever before.
“The biggest areas that we’re seeing a lot of growth in are identity and access management,” Walker said. “Also because of the complexity of environments now in the hybrid space, we are seeing an increase in customers looking to managed security services...You’re seeing the rise of managed security services… Those breaches that are occurring. Managed detection and response not only handles the notification, but it also can take care of some of the incident responses… There are still many organizations that don’t have proper security protocols to wall off the data that they own and so people have the ability to share their data on network folders that anybody within the company can access. That’s a huge risk.”
While cloud environments are easy to spin up and enable employees to access documents and other company information from anywhere, Walker explained that that also means it is imperative for companies to make sure that information remains secure.
When it comes to major technology trends for 2021, businesses should remain focused on finding the best solutions for their employees. Cloud solutions (cloud collaboration, aaS, and cloud infrastructure), security, and application development are three core areas that should drive businesses’ technology decisions in 2021. Digital transformation shows no sign of slowing down. Companies should look to the technology solutions that ensure their employees can be as productive as possible—whether working remotely or in the office.