CES 2021 offers a glimpse at the future of work in a post-office world

2020 is behind us, leaving us with a glimmer of hope that life will eventually return to normal once the pandemic wanes. Most things will eventually reopen — bars, schools, stores, and even large events like CES.

But there’s one thing that may never “reopen.” The office.

According to a Microsoft survey from August, 82% of managers expect to have more flexible work from home policies after the pandemic is over, while 71% of employees reported a desire to continue working from home at least part-time. In other words, online collaboration, all-day videoconferencing, and makeshift home offices are here to stay.

If we’re in this for the long haul, it’s time we reconsidered the tools and products we rely on every day to make it work. So, at CES 2021, I went soul-searching on the virtual show-floor for a new vision for the future of work. Here’s what I found.

The birth of the hybrid worker

I started by speaking with someone whose actual job it is to think about the future of work. Loretta Li-Sevilla is the lead of the future work department — yes, that exists — at HP. According to Li-Sevilla, the pandemic and subsequent quarantine accelerated a lot of the trends that were already in place, some that futurists like herself have been waiting years for.

Large tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Microsoft announced early on that work from home policies would change moving forward. This has been backed up by a number of reports, including a survey from Forrester’s “State of Remote Work,” which found that 48% of decision-makers anticipated a permanently high rate of full-time remote employees in the future.

Again, there’s no going back.

man working at a desk at home

But Li-Sevilla’s interest was in a very specific type of future worker, which may end up being the majority of us.

“We’re seeing a lot of end-users want the flexibility to work from home and in the office,” she said. “There’s this growth of what we’re calling a hybrid work environment.”

I always assumed some kind of hybrid work environment would be key to managing the transition toward reopening offices. But according to Li-Sevilla, hybrid workers are more than just a bandage to hold us over. They could be destined to become a permanent fixture in companies.

But how does an office with so many hybrid workers function? IT and HR are undoubtedly part of the solution, but Li-Sevilla envisions a larger change coming to the makeup of our offices.

“In the past, [the office] was about 80% individual cubes and dedicated spaces and 20% collaboration spaces,” said Li-Sevilla, describing the way offices have been typically arranged. “We actually see that changing, to maybe 50-50 or even 80-20 in the other direction.”

Companies have brought more to CES than just good ideas.

The idea of an open office, consisting mostly of meeting space, futuristic collaboration tools, and videoconferencing rooms sounds like a good start to me. Li-Sevilla says the office of the future will also be highly adaptable and customizable, perhaps to suit a particular project or team goal. She sees us moving from the “Information Age” to what she calls the “Experience Age.”

“The experience age is really all about people and getting them to be engaged with one other,” she said. “How do you drive higher levels of creativity and innovation? And then, how do you drive innovation when you have a distributed workforce? I think those are really key.”

Big questions and big ideas. But we’re a long way away from upgrading our offices, homes, and devices to fit that new normal. Fortunately, companies have brought more to CES than just good ideas. There are also some products that will make 2021 a bit more palatable for at-home workers.

Work from home upgrades

If there’s one thing we all did a lot more of last year, it was videoconferencing. Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams all saw record amounts of usage. It was also the year we all found out just how bad our built-in webcam laptops are. The resolution is stuck at 720p, and the microphone situation isn’t much better.

“We do a lot of active listening in terms of what our customers are saying,” said Adam Howes, the Director of Global Product Management for ThinkPad for Lenovo. “We never used to hear about cameras. All of a sudden that rose to the top.”

Howes admitted that ThinkPads and laptops in general haven’t been well-equipped to handle that situation in the past. It’s hard to know who to blame, though. The hardware? The software? Your internet connection? It all has an effect on the quality of your feed. This year, Lenovo has brought a new 5-megapixel webcam to its new line of ThinkPad X1 laptops, including the Carbon, Yoga, and new Titanium. It’s still not 1080p, but it should be a modest upgrade over older laptop webcams.

“One of the key needs is to hear and 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, HP also has both a 5-megapixel camera and four wide-range microphones.

But video is only half of the equation. The audio experience is equally as important. As HP, Li-Sevilla continued to walk me through her lineup of products, she used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain the need for a great audio experience while videoconferencing.

“One of the key needs is to hear and be heard,” said Li-Sevilla. “As we take a look at the entire ecosystem that’s needed for a user to be productive at home, a headset or wireless earbuds is really important.”

Yep, that’s right. HP had a surprise announcement up its sleeve for CES 2021, the Elite Wireless Earbuds. On one hand, it’s just another company jumping on the wireless earbud bandwagon. But HP sees its earbuds as completing its ecosystem of commercial products, calling them the “world’s most advanced earbuds for collaboration.”

Though they function with mobile or Macs, these earbuds are designed to work specifically in a commercial setting on Windows, using HP’s Windows apps and Microsoft Swift Pairing. And HP’s right — when everyone is working from home, a good set of wireless earbuds is a key piece of the puzzle.

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

“We’ve been working with Dolby for a long time,” said Howes. “It’s really the culmination of where they’ve been headed in terms of mobile audio.”

Dolby Voice is designed to use the sensors and the microphones and the processing — powered by Dolby — to give you this sense of spatial awareness through the audio experience. It should help clarify the sounds of voices and eliminate background noise, especially if multiple people are speaking from one device.

While videoconferencing is key for the current moment, Lenovo brought one product to CES 2021 that previews the future of work from home technology.

An office-less future

If the hybrid working model is the future, we’re going to need more than higher-definition cameras. We’re going to need some fresh technology that better utilizes the spaces we find ourselves working in. That’s exactly what the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 smart glasses are all about.

Admittedly, these aren’t 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 even 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 for getting work done. The virtual screens are created in AR, which Lenovo calls “immersive but not isolating.”

“Conceptually, you can think about what they mean,” Adam Howes told me. “But when our customers put them on, it sent their wheels spinning. They really unleash all these capabilities of possible scenarios.”

One example Howes referenced was finance workers and real-time day trading, an industry known for its need for many displays. The A3 glasses would, at least in concept, allow such a person to access up to five virtual screens from anywhere. That includes hybrid working environments and at-home makeshift offices.

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

The technology is built on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X1 platform, which handles the bulk of the processing and stereoscopic 1080p displays. Of course, the secondary use case of 3D in-person training or collaboration is also important, as more and more work happens outside of a shared physical space.

“It creates a powerful scenario where just through a set of glasses you can increase productivity and maximize space,” said Howes. “Even on top of that, the idea of security and privacy. You don’t have to worry about anyone being able to see what’s on your screen. It’s all locked 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 using these virtual screens even feels like. But the ThinkReality A3 glasses do get my imagination going. If we really are headed toward a future with less permanent physical working space, this is exactly the kind of technology we need to fill in the gaps.

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