Conventional wisdom had it that our homes were the center of our lives, but only after a year of massive pandemic adaptation did we really bring our lives home. E-commerce and streaming entertainment made big gains on existing strength and school came tumbling home (though will clearly need to move back to the classroom), but work and health are the most intriguing. They made shifts we could not have imagined prior to the pandemic and their future paths are vital questions for me as I look ahead to CES 2021.
Work is the linchpin of our home livelihoods. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom estimates that 5% of US work hours were performed at home prior to the pandemic, rising to about 40% during it, a remarkable expansion. But Bloom estimates that about 20% of work hours will remain home-based when the pandemic dust settles. That’s both a long way from where we were, and a major retreat from where we are.
Smart home tech is veering toward in-home, rather than away-from-home
A 20% residual level of home-based work would seem to set the table for a big spike in smart home technology adoption, a category that is currently embraced by less than a third of US homes. But CNET Senior Editor Megan Wollerton says the immediate shift in smart home may be more about the kinds of devices adopted rather than the percentage of households doing so. Technology that addresses the at-home experience rather than away-from-home remote control will be a key for her at CES 2021, along with an ask she increasingly hears from CNET Smart Home readers: Where are the technologies that will really reduce the drudgery of cooking, cleaning and laundry, tasks that have become more onerous now that so much of life is compressed into the home.
Parks Associates Senior Director Jennifer Kent is similarly skeptical that the pandemic will move the overall smart home needle in the short term. Her firm’s research reveals, instead, new smart home priorities around safety while at home, indoor air quality tech and, of course, better Wi-Fi. She also urges brands to recognize the expansion of older demographics as a driver of smart home adoption, supporting ongoing social distancing while also enabling new forms of remote social connection and telehealth. CES is perhaps the only tech show that has the breadth to regularly roll up a lot of tech for people over 50.
Telehealth will shine, but only for a moment
Telehealth represents perhaps a complex home-centric shift, used by only 15% of US health care consumers prior to COVID-19 but growing to 41% using it in 2020, according to Parks Associates. The array of providers is broad and their overall sector represents a unique nexus of scale, importance and previous intransigence that is a remarkable achievement. But telehealth may also be ripe for the most snapback, according to Dr. Wendy Dean, an experienced physician and psychiatrist who will predict the future of telehealth during our session “Digital healthcare: Better than the doctor’s office?” at 11 a.m. PT on Wednesday, Jan. 13 on CNET. Her informal peer surveys suggest that, for all its care access improvements, telehealth remains a low-fidelity experience compared to in-person medicine, and burdens clinicians and patients with new tech support roles that test physician time management and patient capabilities.
CES 2021 is shaping up to have an unusual amount of tech to disinfect and to maintain distance from others, ranging from air purifiers to phone sanitizers and distance alarm wearables. As with face masks, it remains to be seen if these are a durable trend or a “remember the early ’20s?” phenomenon.
“New normal” tech depends on human change
The new normals at home will be determined not only by hardware and software, but also by “wetware”: human nature. Even if working from home was technologically perfect, it would be blunted if the senior managers who control opportunity and promotions return to the office, suggests Paul Lee, global head of research for Deloitte UK’s Technology, Media and Telecom practice. He also reminds brands that people living in home-based orbits have far fewer chances to see, envy and aspire to products that others use, be it a beverage, phone, clothing or car.
CES 2021 will be a kickoff toward an end zone we can barely see: The ultimate new role of home for work and health. We know each will “snap back” somewhat to previous behaviors, but don’t mistake that for a retreat; the arrow of history only points one way on both fronts. CNET recommends that brands stay as adaptable as they’ve been in the jaws of the pandemic and avoid the instinct to set new normals in stone any sooner than consumers choose to.
I’ll tackle the new role of the home during CES in CNET’s Next Big Thing panel at 1 p.m. PT on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at CES.CNET.com.
Brian Cooley is Editor at Large at CNET.