The coronavirus pandemic brought the economy to a halt in March — and sent millions of workers home, where they scrambled to set up remote offices in their kitchens and living rooms and hopped on Zoom calls with co-workers. Now, a raft of new technology and devices, introduced this week at America's largest consumer-technology event, CES (Consumer Electronics Show), seek to help workers manage their new work-life balances.
Seven out of 10 workers who can work remotely are currently doing their jobs from home all or most of the time, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of those workers want to keep working from home at least part of the time after the pandemic ends. Before the crisis, only about 2 in 10 workers who could work from home were doing so, according to Pew.
This shift is prompting tech businesses — from major companies like Dell to startups — to reimagine the burgeoning work-at-home marketplace.
Many remote workplace trends that consultants have been predicting for years without much traction have been accelerated by the pandemic. "The things we thought would take five years, took five weeks," said Jeff Schwartz, the U.S. leader for the Future of Work at Deloitte Consulting LLP. "The difference between 2020 and the last decade is that 2020 was a time machine to the future."
But the transition from office to home isn't always an easy one, with Pew finding that 1 in 5 remote workers complained they had trouble finding adequate workspaces at home. One-third said constant interruptions are a problem — presumably from pets, children, spouses and other household members.
Here are some of the new workplace trends emerging from CES that might work their way into your remote office.
Chasing the stream
Now that Zoom and Microsoft Teams have replaced face-to-face meetings, tech companies are rolling out computers and devices that are geared toward improving the digital streaming experience.
One issue that many of those working from home struggle with is spotty Wi-Fi. Blame an old router or the fact that workers are sharing Wi-Fi with their partners, who are also working from home, as well as their kids who are attending online school.
But companies at CES are unrolling what might be the answer: a new generation of products that operate on a new 6GHz spectrum called Wi-Fi 6E. While current Wi-Fi products operate on the overcrowded 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, next-gen routers and devices that support Wi-Fi6 should be faster partly because they won't have to compete for airwave space — given that older devices will still be operating on the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands.
Among the new products unveiled at CES is Netgear's Nighthawk RAXE500 router, one of the first routers to support Wi-Fi 6E technology. The company is billing the device as helping families manage work, education, doctor visits and smart home technology, without running into WiFi problems. The $600 device, which looks something like a stingray, is available for pre-order, the company says.
Computers with Wi-Fi 6E capabilities are also being rolled out, such as Dell's new Latitude 9420 laptop, which has various connectivity options including Wi-Fi 6E, as well as plenty of other extras to help with the Zoom lifestyle.
"So many of us are working from home, learning from home — I have two kids learning at home from Zoom calls. This hybrid work culture is here to stay," said Rahul Tikoo, senior vice president of Dell's Client Product Group. "When you are on a Zoom call, we want to make sure we give you the best bandwidth possible."
The Latitude 9420 has what Tikoo calls "small delights" designed to make remote work easier, such the SafeShutter, which Dell bills as "the industry's first automatic webcam shutter." In other words, when the laptop senses that you are on Zoom or another streaming service, a visible physical shutter automatically opens. When you're done, the shutter closes.
"These devices do some of the work for you," Tikoo said. 'We're alway worried, 'Hey, is my camera off?' You don't have to do three more clicks to make sure your camera is on."
That laptop, which will be available later this spring, starts at $1,949.
Fixing the pitfalls of remote work
Slow Wi-Fi is only part of the problem with working from home. Uncomfortable furniture, background noise from kids or pets and security are among the other issues that can make remote work uncomfortable.
Ergonomics are on the table at CES this year, with one company rolling out what it calls the "the world's first office chair with both heat and massage technology." The X-HMT chair isn't cheap: It ranges from about $900 to $1,250, depending on the model — but it may appeal to remote workers who seeking more comfort in their current office setup.
"Introducing heat and massage was in development before COVID, but there has been this home office explosion," said Tony Mazlish, CEO of Future Seating, which makes the X-HMT. "What people are trying to do is figure out how they situation themselves. Every day we get people saying, 'I've been on my kitchen chair for six months, I'm done.'"
When the chairs began shipping in November, Mazlish said he had expected that about 20% of its chair sales would stem from the X-HMT. Instead, it was about 40%, he said.
A comfy seat may be one solution to the challenges of remote work, but tech companies are rolling out devices that aim to solve another big problem: background noise.
Headphones, earbuds and other audio devices that screen out background noise are not exactly new technology — Bose and Apple's AirPod Pros have long offered such products. Noise-cancellation technology, however, continues to improve. Some of the latest headphones and earbuds are specifically geared toward remote workers, such as the Jabra Elite 85t, the acclaimed brand's first wireless earbuds with active noise-cancellation. The $229 earbuds may appeal to remote workers because of their "6-mic" microphone capability (six embedded microphones), which Jabra says delivers "outstanding call quality" for both the user and the people on the other end of the call.
A clean work environment is also on the mind of remote workers, and CES has plenty of products that aim to disinfect and purify. Among them is Targus' UV-C LED Disinfection Light, which will retail for $299 this spring. The device sits on the desktop keyboard and runs for five minutes every hour, pouring germicidal UV light over your keyboard and mouse to disinfect them. (It has a motion detector that will stop the machine if you're sitting at the desk.)
Dell, HP and other computer makers are debuting new products at CES, marketed toward the remote worker who may want to pick up and move while juggling Zoom calls and demands for fast processing.
As workers shifted to remote work, the market for PCs took off. That's giving new life and interest into ultra-light, extremely fast laptops, as well as screens that can connect to the devices for a crisp display.
"The PC is having a huge renaissance," Dell's Tikoo said. "Third-quarter data showed the industry grew at 23% — we fully expect that to continue."
Among the new products is an HP notebook geared toward creative workers called the HP EliteBook x360 1030 G8, which supports 5G broadband and has what HP calls the "highest screen to body ratio" in its category. It also earned CES' innovation award for design and engineering.
Lenovo, for its part, is debuting what it bills as "the thinnest ThinkPad ever," the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, which is 11 millimeters thick and starts at $1,899. It's also packed with features for speed, including 11th generation Intel Core processors and 5G wireless technology
Another trend this year: Curved screens that can connect to your laptop or other devices and provide an immersive work experience. One such screen is Dell's UltraSharp 40 Curved WUHD Monitor, which it says is the world's first 40-inch ultrawide curved WUHD monitor. That will go on sale later this month and start at about $2,100.
One company that's not at CES is Apple, which traditionally does its own launch events twice a year. The Cupertino, California-based tech giant may unveil new versions of its AirPods and iMac sometime this spring, according to trade magazine MacRumors.
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