HR Management & Compliance, Technology

2021 Outlook: Collaboration Surge and the New Normal Workplace

It goes without saying that no one could have imagined this year’s outcome. In the face of unprecedented challenges, the response to the coronavirus pandemic called for drastic and fast-paced evolution.

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As leaders, we had to figure out how to keep offices; education; manufacturing; retail; and, well, the rest of the world moving forward. No one could have expected the scale or anticipated the length of the global remote workforce in 2020, and looking forward into 2021, it is clear this new workplace norm is here to stay.

Critical Lessons Learned

We have learned some critical lessons of what works and what does not, but the most important thing we learned throughout the year is how meaningful and productive remote collaboration is—that is, companies reacted to the spread of COVID-19 very quickly and without a playbook.

Their responses typically involved the now-familiar patterns of minimizing human contact, working from home whenever possible, maintaining physical distance, paying scrupulous attention to hand-washing, wearing masks, installing plexiglass dividers, and attempting to replace our normal with something else—but what?

The primary focus was maintaining the connection among employees within the company, as well as with customers and suppliers outside it. 

Keeping Workers Connected

“Collaboration” could easily be the 2020 word of the year. Industries implemented key tech tools that allowed workers to collaborate in several ways. With the surge of videoconferencing, the vital importance of chat platforms, a rise in interactive live events, and the use of augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), our world evolved. 

The ability to connect with one another remotely for meaningful collaboration, transaction, and training, as well as the ability to connect with equipment remotely for both production control and repair, is powerful and carries significant advantages over its more traditional hands-on forebears.

Fortunately for all of us, this same capability had been in limited use before the pandemic. The concept of remote support, control, and collaboration had by now become familiar, and much of the technology was already in hand. So for many organizations, ramping up quickly proved to be more incremental than abrupt. 

The Good and the Bad

Some industries survived the shift better than others. For education, it has been a brutal experience.  Familiarizing classroom teachers with the tools of distance learning did not go particularly well. On top of that, the penetration of Wi-Fi services is sharply limited in many parts of the country, as is the availability of interactive devices.

The socializing aspects of traditional education are extremely difficult to replicate online. And while the costs of shifting to remote learning have been extensive, public school budgets have not kept pace, and the tuition income of colleges and universities has plummeted. 

Some service-related industries, however, have fared a bit better. Using remote connectivity, sometimes enhanced by AR, many installation projects that formerly required a technician or two on-site can now be done remotely, eliminating travel times and multiplying the productivity of field service personnel.

As a result, AR is way ahead of where we thought it would be by this time last year. Its applications in controlling, testing, and accessing local databases—all of which had to be done on-site before—are expanding rapidly, and it doesn’t matter where their instructions originate.  

Technology to Drive 2021

While I see AR and its cousin, VR, as transformative technologies in 2021, I also see a steady growth of artificial intelligence (AI). AI will become increasingly useful as more data are generated and captured.

You can think of it the way you would a child growing up; the reason people are able to make better decisions as they get older is their brains retain more experience. It’s the same with AI. As AI products go through more use cases, they get more data points for finer precision going forward; it’s a mechanized version of the familiar learning curve.

The growth of all these technologies reinforces our business thesis that remote support, control, and conductivity is applicable to a wide range of business cases; the pandemic only highlighted its value. The technology has migrated from being mostly applicable to edge case opportunities to sitting squarely in the heart of full enterprise solutions. 

Those things you decide to make permanent will require investment in software, training, and system architecture. Those things you decide should be reversed will likely face some pushback from employees who have enjoyed the combination of avoiding the commute, finding a better balance between their work and personal lives, and doing away with office distractions.

But just as people adjusted to working from home, they will quickly find ways of adjusting to work from the office and all that goes with it.  

Finn Faldi is president of TeamViewer Americas and is an active investor and adviser to several early-stage and -growth companies. He previously held senior roles at Lifelock, Datalogix, and Yahoo! and has a BS in finance and management from UPenn’s Wharton and an MBA from Pepperdine University.