I’ve written dozens of stories over the years on ‘back-to-school’ tech. But stories on ‘back-to-office tech’? Never. Until now.
As vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases fall in many parts of the world, companies are preparing to bring millions of employees back to the workplace after more than a year of work-from-home (WFH). For many organizations, that means creating a hybrid workplace.
So instead of the annual “which laptop/tablet/smartphone/apps should you get your kid for September?” story, we’re posing this question: which back-to-office technologies are companies investing as they enter the era of the post-vaccine hybrid workplace?
As employers formulate their return-to-office plans, major research firms have revised their forecasts to reflect how mass workplace repatriation will affect IT budgets. Here are some key numbers indicating where the money is going:
Gartner (global forecast)
- Public cloud: spending to jump by 23% in 2021
- Collaboration and social software: revenue to grow by 17% in 2021
- PCs: yes, PCs could make a comeback in 2021, topping 500 million units for the first time ever
- Hyper-automation: spending on these tools will rise from $532 billion in 2020 to $600 billion in 2022
- Cybersecurity: investment in Zero Trust network access tools will increase as organizations move away from VPNs
Forrester (U.S. forecast for 2021)
- Overall IT spending: +6% (revised upward from an earlier forecast of -0.4%)
- Communications equipment: +13.2%
- Automation software: +33%
- AI software: +13%
- Security software: +11%
IDC (global forecast)
- Future of Work (FOW) tech spending: +17% CAGR between 2020 and 2024, surpassing $1 trillion in 2024 (FOW is IDC’s term for technologies enabling hybrid work, such as cloud, mobile, automation, AI, collaboration, robotics and augmented reality)
The key takeaway is that enterprise IT spending – which forecasters feared could free-fall due to COVID – has not only stayed surprisingly buoyant but is now poised for a major upswing thanks to the rise of hybrid the workplace.
For hybrid work to actually ‘work,’ the office or physical work site must promote COVID-related health and safety as well as staff productivity. According to a global survey of building managers in four sectors (health, education, commercial real estate and data centres):
- Remote facility management: 94% say this is more important now than it was pre-pandemic
- Smart building solutions: 63% are more willing to invest in this (including data aggregation, ML and AI) than they were pre-pandemic
- Healthy building solutions: 60% are now more willing to invest in this tech (i.e., indoor air quality optimization)
- Safety-focused facility tech: 58% are now more willing to invest in this (i.e., contact tracing)
- Occupant experience tech: 55% are now more willing to invest in this (i.e., contactless access control)
Other data suggests that in this new hybrid work era, employers can’t just think about where to spend their IT budgets. They’ve also got to think carefully about where to put their workers, and how often.
Polling indicates most employees don’t want to go back into the office 40 hours per week. The desire for hybrid workplace options is particularly strong among younger workers. More than 60 per cent of people aged 18 to 40 favour a hybrid arrangement, according to a global survey of 2,000 workers.
This meshes with a Bloomberg poll in which almost half of millennial and Gen Z workers said they would quit their job if not given an option to work remotely.
The issue recently boiled over at Apple when a very small group of employees (just 80 workers, by one estimate) wrote a letter to CEO Tim Cook panning the company’s new hybrid work policy. Starting in September, Apple staff members will be allowed to work remotely every Wednesday and Friday but must be in the office every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
“Apple’s remote/location-flexible work policy, and the communication around it, have already forced some of our colleagues to quit,” the letter claimed. “It feels like there is a disconnect between how (Apple’s) executive team thinks about remote-/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”
An anonymous survey conducted on the Blind app (it’s akin to a Glassdoor forum for IT workers) proves Apple isn’t the only tech firm grappling with the back-to-office issue. Only 51 per cent of tech employees are satisfied with their company’s back-to-office policy according to the poll, which included staffers at Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Amazon and Google.
In other data compiled by Blind, 64 per cent of tech employees said they’d rather have the option to work from home permanently than get a $30,000 raise.
There’s a delicious irony in Apple – one of the tech giants that made BYOD and remote work possible – getting roasted by its own employees over remote work policies.
It’s also a sign that hybrid work strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Giving employees new technologies for hybrid work might not be enough if what they really want is more of a say in where (and how often) they have to use it.