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How AI and IoT Will Evolve the Workplace in 2021: Insights From Zeus Kerravala

As 2020 finally comes to an end, we look to the new year with great hope and excitement. To understand more about what we can expect in 2021 when it comes to remote work and the technology and tools that will shape the future of work. Hotwire has asked a few trusted friends and industry experts to share what most influenced their reporting in 2020, the trends and content that resonated most with their readers, and their outlook for 2021.

We spoke to Zeus Kerravala, Principal Analyst at ZK Research, a division of Kerravala Consulting, about trends in networking, collaboration tools and AI:

Q: Zeus, let’s start with establishing a benchmark for 2020. How has the pandemic influenced your reporting in 2020, eight months into the pandemic?

The biggest thing is that travel is gone, so as an analyst and reporter, I don’t have as much opportunity to connect with people as in a typical year. We’re used to sitting at a bar during conference season and getting the real scoop on things, so, in some ways it’s become a lot more work to have those interactions with people.

Thematically, the focus has obviously shifted to work-from-home topics. Readers want advice and tips for the short term, and I’ve noticed that content discussing long-term trends doesn’t seem to do as well as they did pre-pandemic. It’s just the nature of the IT buyer. They scrambled just to get people going, especially early in the pandemic. They weren’t thinking three years out, they needed to think three months out. So they said, “Okay, we’ll do this for three months,” then they had to extend it by a couple of months, and now, I think the realization has hit that the situation we’re in won’t be changing anytime soon. So now IT buyers are taking a step back and starting to think more about the long-term adjustments that need to be made to get their teams settled.

There’s also been a pullback in some areas from the vendor community. If you think of core infrastructure that goes into buildings, it’s now much more focused on tactical solutions that enable work-from-home. With that, collaboration tools have evolved more this year than in the last five years from an ease-of­-use and functionality perspective. Probably the biggest life change from an IT perspective is that most people that worked remotely pre-pandemic were technically savvy and could navigate around the systems and business applications. Now, you’re seeing a whole bunch of people work from home who have never worked from home, and that’s really changed the way vendors build products.

Q: In what way? How have real time R&D, time to market and product or solution launches changed?

Ease of use has become a lot more important. You can’t make the user the integration point because they’re simply not tech savvy enough to be the integration point.

Prior to the pandemic, we tended to buy team messaging from one vendor, meetings from another, calling from another, and even video from another. The vendors now have built these integrated systems, so users can deploy one or two things instead of five or six. That makes life easier for everybody.

Vendors have been forced to advance their products tremendously in a relatively short period of time. Zoom partnering with Ring to get their own phones. Google Voice has matured. And then there’s Cisco, who arguably didn’t have a very easy-to-use solution, so since the pandemic started, they’ve made significant adjustments and advancements to meet the market need.

Another change – and we’ll see if it sticks – is the focus on security, especially with all the Zoom bombing that has happened. That’s something a lot of buyers ignored until it happened to them. We typically see waves of interest in security – with interest lasting only about six months. But I think if we’re going to stay in this environment for a prolonged period of time, we have to know that the data and the things we’re doing are secure.

Q: So, we’ve talked collaboration tools evolution, security and that readers are looking for content that help them navigate their current challenges, what’s ahead of them in the short term. Have you seen other shifts in what your clients and readers are gravitating toward?

There’s a lot of focus on the cloud now. Companies that were on the fence about moving to cloud have gone over to the cloud side. But we’re also learning that not everything is ideal for the cloud. So now we’re seeing more and more interest in edge computing and things like that.

The big thing here is that we’re putting more data and more workloads into more places than ever before, and it creates a whole lot of complexity. We went through a mad scramble to get things up and running, and now we need to take a step back and rethink how we do things from an IT perspective. When we took the burden off the end users, in some ways we threw in on IT, and that’s not a solution either.

Q: We’ve talked through a few key trends in the spaces you’re closest to. Was there any one standout moment this year? The greatest “aha” reporting moment that you’ve experienced in 2020?

Before the pandemic, we all talked about how great it would be to work from home, but I don’t think it’s always great. In 2015, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, said everybody has to be in the office all the time and that will drive productivity up. Well, that didn’t work because people didn’t want to be in the office all the time. But now that everyone is working at home, people are saying they don’t want to work from home all the time.

People want social interaction with their colleagues. So what they really want is a work style that’s a lot like college, where they do a lot of their individual work at home, then go to the office to collaborate. I think that’s the ideal situation.

So companies are trying to figure out how to create the optimal situation. Which leads to another aha moment. Collaboration tools are helping solve the remote work challenge, but they augment what we do face to face, they don’t replace what we do. That’s a big change in thinking. We used to think that online collaboration would be just like being there, but it’s not. It’s much different, and good things will come from this lesson

Today’s tools are good for mobile professionals, but they’re not good for many vertically specific workflows. For example, take Zoom used in schools. Kids are supposed to pin the teacher, but they don’t – they pin their friends. And they’re using chat messages to communicate with each other about how stupid their class is and things like that. Ideally, you would have a version of Zoom that’s built for schools, where the teacher is automatically pinned, and students have no ability to pin their friends. If the teacher designates three people as a group, they can go into a group and maybe pin each other, but they still can’t pin other people.

So I think what we’re now starting to understand is that these tools need to evolve and become not products but platforms. Peloton wouldn’t work if you had to have a zoom laptop beside your bike and then another app to track what you’re doing. It’s a fully integrated video experience. In 2021, we’ll see more vendors focusing on shifting to a cloud platform with APIs, which will help us use these tools better.

What’s one interesting thing you’ve seen a brand do in the networking and/or collaboration space as a result of COVID-19?

Think about what you need to work from home: network connectivity, security, collaboration tools, etc. They’re not very well integrated yet, so people have had to cobble the stuff together themselves. I think next year, we will see more all-in-one devices.

It will also be interesting to watch how IoT will change the workplace. You’re going to see all kinds of cool stuff coming. I’ve seen prototypes of robots that go around and sanitize offices at night when nobody’s there. There are also sensors that can scan your face and measure temperature as you walk into an office. You can also put sensors in place to measure how many people are in a conference room or the cafeteria, so if you have too many people, it can alert someone.

Now we might look at this as a little Big Brother-ish, but that’s something everybody will have to decide for themselves. Are you OK with everything being watched in the name of safety? That’s something we will have to see play out.

Anything you’d like to add?

We will see a rise in more C-level positions around data ethics and privacy. There has been so much focus on it this year – and companies are collecting more and more data about their employees – that I think you almost have to have a chief ethical officer who understands the implications of that.

Anything we do that makes life easier has a negative side to it as well. All the location information on your mobile phone makes it really easy to find the nearest Starbucks, but it also makes it very easy for the government to track you. So with employees clamoring to get back to the office, I think companies are going to run into privacy issues sooner rather than later – how can they keep people safe but also make them feel that how the company is doing it is in the employees’ best interest?

Looking for more remote work insights and tips? Check out The Remote Evolution.