CES 2021: The Future of Work in a Post-Office World

The year 2020 is behind us and lets us hope that life will return to normal after the end of the pandemic. Most things will reopen at some point – bars, schools, shops, and even major events like CES.

But there is one thing that may never open again. The office.

According to a Microsoft survey from August, 82% of managers expect more flexible work from home after the end of the pandemic, while 71% of employees said they would like to continue working from home at least part-time. In other words, online collaboration, all-day video conferencing, and makeshift home offices remain.

When we’re at this in the long run, it’s time to rethink the tools and products we rely on every day to make it work. At CES 2021 I was looking for a new vision for the future of work on the virtual exhibition space. Here’s what I found.

The birth of the hybrid worker

I started by speaking to someone whose real job it is to think about the future of work. Loretta Li-Sevilla is the head of the future labor department – yes, there is – at HP. According to Li-Sevilla, the pandemic and subsequent quarantine have accelerated many of the pre-existing trends that futurists like them have been waiting for years.

Big tech companies like Twitter, Google and Microsoft announced early on that the guidelines for working from home would change in the future. This was backed up by a number of reports, including a survey from Forrester’s State of Remote Work which found that 48% of decision-makers expected a consistently high rate of full-time remote workers going forward.

Again there is no turning back.

But Li-Seville was interested in a very specific breed of future workers who may be the majority of us.

“We are seeing that many end users want the flexibility to work from home and in the office,” she said. “There’s this growth in what we call a hybrid work environment.”

I’ve always assumed that a hybrid work environment is key to transitioning to office reopening. However, according to Li-Sevilla, hybrid workers are more than just an association holding us in place. You could be destined to become an integral part of companies.

But how does an office with so many hybrid workers work? IT and HR are undoubtedly part of the solution, but Li-Sevilla sees a major change in the composition of our offices.

“In the past, [the office] It consisted of around 80% individual cubes and dedicated rooms and 20% rooms for collaboration, ”said Li-Sevilla, describing the way offices are usually arranged. “We’re actually seeing that change, maybe to 50-50 or even 80-20 the other way.”

Companies brought more to CES than just good ideas.

The idea of ​​an open office consisting mostly of meeting rooms, futuristic collaboration tools, and video conference rooms seems like a good start to me. According to Li-Sevilla, the office of the future will also be very adaptable and customizable, possibly to suit a specific project or team goal. She sees us transition from the “information age” to the so-called “experience age”.

“The age of experience is really all about people and about getting them engaged,” she said. “How can you achieve a higher level of creativity and innovation? Then how do you drive innovation when you have a distributed workforce? I think that’s really the key. “

Big questions and big ideas. But we are far from converting our offices, homes and equipment to this new normal. Fortunately, companies brought more to CES than just great ideas. There are also some products that will make 2021 a little tastier for home workers.

Work from home upgrades

If there’s one thing we’ve all done a lot more of in the past year, it’s been video conferencing. Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft teams had record levels of usage. It was also the year we all found out how bad our built-in webcam laptops are. The resolution stays at 720p and the microphone situation is not much better.

“We are very active listening to what our customers say,” said Adam Howes, director of global product management for ThinkPad at Lenovo. “We never heard of cameras. Suddenly it rose up. “

Howes admitted that in the past, ThinkPads and laptops in general were not well equipped to deal with this situation. However, it’s hard to know who is to blame. The hardware? The software? Your internet connection? All of this affects the quality of your feed. This year, Lenovo added a new 5-megapixel webcam to its new line of ThinkPad X1 laptops, including the Carbon, Yoga, and the new Titanium. It’s still not 1080p, but it should be a modest upgrade over older laptop webcams.

“One of the most important needs is to be heard and to be heard.”

HP is in a similar position with its new laptops at CES. The HP Elite Dragonfly Max 2 is its big announcement, and this time around, HP has both a 5-megapixel camera and four wide-range microphones.

But video is only half the battle. The audio experience is just as important. As HP, Li-Sevilla continued to guide me through their product range. She used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain the need for a great audio experience in video conferencing.

“One of the most important needs is to be heard and to be heard,” said Li-Sevilla. “When we look at the whole ecosystem that a user needs to be productive at home, a headset or wireless earbud is really important.”

Yes that’s true. HP had a surprising announcement for CES 2021, the Elite Wireless Earbuds. On the one hand, it’s just another company that is jumping on the wireless earbud train. However, HP sees its earbuds as a complement to its commercial product ecosystem and calls them “the world’s most advanced collaboration earbuds”.

While they work with mobile devices or Macs, specifically in a commercial environment on Windows, these earbuds will work with HP’s Windows apps and Microsoft Swift Pairing. And HP is right – when everyone is working from home, a good set of wireless earbuds is a key piece of the puzzle.

Lenovo’s solution is focused on improving the audio processing of its new laptops with Dolby Voice.

“We worked with Dolby for a long time,” Howes said. “It really is the culmination of where they have gone in terms of mobile audio.”

Dolby Voice is designed to use the sensors and microphones, as well as the processing powered by Dolby, to give you that sense of spatial awareness through the audio experience. This should help clear up the noise of voices and remove background noise, especially when multiple people are talking from one device.

While video conferencing is key right now, Lenovo brought a product to CES 2021 that previewed the future of working with home technology.

An office-free future

If the hybrid working model is the future, we will need more than high-resolution cameras. We need new technology that makes better use of the spaces in which we work. This is exactly what Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Smart Glasses are all about.

Granted, these are not the first AR glasses Lenovo has released. But Lenovo has a unique application for them this time around that fits well into a future where office space is limited or nonexistent. Here’s the idea: as long as you have your laptop and the ThinkReality A3 glasses, you have access to a multi-monitor setup that so many of us rely on to get our jobs done. The virtual screens are created in AR, which Lenovo describes as “immersive but not isolating”.

“Conceptually, you can think about what they mean,” Adam Howes told me. “But when our customers attracted them, their wheels turned. You really are unleashing all of these capabilities of possible scenarios. “

An example Howes referred to was financial workers and real-time day trading, an industry known for its need for many displays. The A3 glasses would at least conceptually allow such a person to access up to five virtual screens from anywhere. This includes hybrid work environments and makeshift offices at home.

Unlike previous attempts, the A3 glasses have been scaled down to look a bit more like sunglasses, though you still need to plug them into a laptop or other PC via USB-C. From there, the glasses are fully compatible with Windows and any Intel or AMD laptop.

The technology is based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X1 platform, which does most of the processing and stereoscopic 1080p displays. Of course, the secondary use case of personal 3D training or collaboration is also important, as more and more work takes place outside of a shared physical space.

“It creates a powerful scenario where you can use glasses to increase productivity and maximize space,” Howes said. “In addition, the idea of ​​security and data protection. You don’t have to worry that someone can see what’s on your screen. It all depends on your personal vision right in front of you. “

Will we all be using some kind of smart AR glasses for work in five years? I doubt it. We still don’t have a good idea of ​​what it feels like to use these virtual screens in the first place. But the ThinkReality A3 glasses stimulate my imagination. If we are really heading for a future with less permanent physical workspace, this is exactly the technology we need to fill the gaps.

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