The future of work from CES: The headquarters at home

CES 2021 offered insights on what it's like to work from home and how far technology still has to go to make it the office we all need.

A remote worker works from home with tablet, documents, notebook and pen.
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This year’s CES, which ends today, has been fascinating because it's showcased a coming shift in product design based on the assumption that — rather than everyone going into the office — many people will remain working at home for the foreseeable future. 

One of the most exciting sessions at the virtual event focused on this new work-from-home normal. My former colleague from CNET, Brian Cooley, joined Paul Lee from Deloitte LLP, Megan Wollerton from CNET Home, and Jennifer Kent from Parks Associates to talk about where we are now and what’s coming. 

Let’s talk about what they highlighted this week. 

Zoom meetings aren’t enough

I’m not trying to pick on Zoom. It and other videoconferencing products have improved over the past year in terms of engaging people. But they all leave a gap, since there’s no way to re-create casual conversations around the office or at lunch. Those of us who have worked from home have learned to live without the old social engagements. But we haven’t replaced them with anything, our pools of friends have declined, and our social abilities have withered with them. 

Facebook, which began as a social tool, could have filled this gap. But that service lost its way, and has become more of a personal publishing platform than a way to create and develop genuine friendships. I saw nothing at CES that would fill the void. There’s an opportunity for someone to look at the old Facebook, which initially focused on making friends, and come up with something similar.  (Those kinds of friendships are more likely to emerge from multi-player gaming today.)

On a related note, the inability to see body language on camera makes it harder to communicate effectively, suggesting the need for camera advancements. I’m thinking of something like video doors (where you put a large screen in a door frame so you can chat with someone remotely standing up).

Smarthome that needs more smarts

One issue the panel focused on is the need, while working at home, to also keep up with our chores. Nowhere at CES were there products that really address this problem. While we focus on Zoom calls, phone calls, emails and Slack messages, wouldn’t it be nice for hardware that does the laundry and puts it away, takes dirty dishes and not only cleans them but puts them in cabinets, or something that truly cleans the house?

Samsung had the best prototypes for this new future. The company showcased a new robotic vacuum with Lidar (from self-driving cars) that can navigate around cords and dump the dirt it picks up automatically. Samsung TV updates include services that would, like Peloton, replace the old office gym. And the company showcased two robots, the Bot Care and Bot Handy (which could really be merged into one).

Bot Care is a personal assistant on wheels that can provide reminders and start video conference meetings with its display and camera. The Bot Handy has an arm and a face like the display to help you do things like put the dishes in the dishwasher or tuck them away when clean. Folding laundry is likely a bridge too far, for now, for a robot. (Though there is a device that folds laundry, and the Bot Handy could work with that device.)

Telehealth on the rise

Keeping remote employees healthy is particularly challenging these days, and CES did have several rather interesting health monitors. According to the panelists, the telephone — just voice — has been the greatest equalizer during the pandemic. Troublesome video conferencing systems, and issues with PC access to healthcare, have created problems that need to be fixed with systems that work and interoperate as efficiently as phones. White Coat Hypertension, a term I’d never heard about until recently, is a real problem surrounding telehealth systems today. They need to advance a lot to reach their full potential. 

Another problem the panel stressed was that, even though CES introduced a massive number of health sensors, they aren’t tied into the health system — and both sensors and back-ends are fragmented. In the past, IBM has pointed to a lack of data integration as an ongoing problem. That data could have mitigated the spread of COVID-19, might have helped find remedies more quickly and could have sped up needed research. 

Home envy?

One interesting problem that was discussed — and something that hadn’t occurred to me — was “home envy.” People who are videoconferencing are also showcasing a variety of homes, from small apartments to palatial mansions. Much as it is unwise to drive a car nicer than what your boss has, it’s impolitic, to say the least, to show off a fancy house if you ever want a promotion or a raise again.

Even if you have a fantastic house, you might want to use one of those digital backgrounds now supported by mainstream videoconferencing systems to tone things down. 

Wrapping up

Based on this fascinating session, change is coming. It’s interesting that again, much as it was during the birth years of client/server technology and advanced telephony, interoperability and an avoidance of  change are keeping us from fully pivoting to remote work. But if tech leaders are listening, they will eventually address these problems. With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, change is being forced.

In a year, the new normal should be locked in enough to become a sustainable way of employing people. There’s an increasing likelihood many people will go back to the office, at least in the US enterprise market, though many will choose to stay home. (Along those lines, you might want to check out a new book by Karin Reed,and Joe Allen” “Suddenly Virtual making remote meeting work.”)

This was is arguably the best CES I’ve attended in terms of what I’ve learned, but the worst when it comes to engaging with people. That’s the nature of remote work and virtual connections now; fixing that will assure that working from home is here to stay.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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