A year ago, we learned just how crucial a webcam, a home office, and good home internet are as we vacated office parks and high rises to work from home. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Slack and Zoom also took notice, doubling-down on remote work software that kept teams and companies humming with few disruptions (and raking in the profits). Google, for one, scrapped its clunky Hangouts and allowed everyone to use its zippier Meet video conferencing tool. Slack saw its revenue rise 43-percent in 2020 and Salesforce announced it planned to buy it for an astonishing $27.7 billion in December 2020. Webcam maker Logitech’s Q3 webcam sales increased a whopping 309% from 2019 to 2020 and promised it was “doing everything we can” to address sudden webcam shortages.
As we pass the one-year mark and look ahead to “what comes next,” consensus is growing around expected corporate policies of “hybrid” work, in which workers split their time between the home office and the company team space. How will the “work tech” companies continue to support this new work environment? Among other things, expect to see needed improvements in video quality and internet connectivity, along with a way to replicate the daily commute and bring more definition between home and work.
Webcams Are Sharpening the Picture
For all our reliance on video conferencing tools, there is still much room for improvement. Market research firm Creative Strategies found that 31% of respondents had issues with sound quality and 26% had issues with video quality. Creative Strategies also noted that nearly 31% of respondents had purchased their own cameras with the explicit goal of improving quality.
Improving quality is what to expect in 2021. Logitech, the maker of one of the most popular external webcams available, is planning big improvements this year, according to Scott Wharton, VP and general manager at Logitech Video Collaboration. And laptop makers will be prioritizing the webcam more than ever before, too. HP announced announced in January 2021 that its Dragonfly Max laptop would have a much higher quality webcam and Dell’s new Latitude laptops have a webcam shutter that automatically turns off to avoid awkward moments. Many webcams have historically been low resolution and that’s expected to improve, too, this year. “Some were already on the path to improvement like Dell, which used to have the infamous ‘nose cam’,” says Sag.
Poor internet frustrates workers accustomed to higher speed connectivity at work. It has been a year of frozen video calls and slow downloads. When Slack commissioned a study in 2020 to better understand the ways long term remote work would change how we work, nearly 1 in 4 respondents in the study said unstable internet would be a major challenge. Security is an issue, too. “WFH on home wifi is a risk that many organizations just do not want to take [going forward],” says Milanesi. Newer and faster cellular networks like 5G could increasingly become critical to how these companies do business and consider remote work.
To that end, T-Mobile spent much of 2020 building and rolling out one of the largest 5G networks in the U.S. Verizon and AT&T, are expected to continue to focus on 5G in 2021, as well.
But 5G alone won’t fix the internet, and other efforts are underway to close the digital divide and improve connectivity. Satellite-based Starlink internet service was launched in 2020 by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Microsoft has also devoted considerable resources to reducing the broadband gap in rural areas and has also joined with Best Buy, HP, Land O Lakes, and more than 100 other organizations to prioritize a more robust internet.
The Commute Is Back, Sort of
Most of us won’t complain about the end of the traditional commute. Cramming onto a crowded train or being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic isn’t pleasant. Slack found that workers really enjoyed the time gained back from not having to do itcommute. “While the commute might offer a mental transition period for some, it’s clear that many workers prefer the extra time that a commute-free workday affords,” Slack said in its 2020 report on its findings.
But Microsoft noticed last year that some elements of the commute were sorely missed by workers. Now, it plans to launch a digital commuting feature in April 2021 that will build in a “digital commute.” The new feature will let users choose a time to leave each day and then ease them out of their workflow.
Last year made clear that the tech existed to create a mostly seamless transition to working from home. Whether it can stand up to the new blend of office and home is an open question, but the tech providers seem to be aware that, at least, most workers would be happy to say “you’re frozen” for the last time.