person staring at night sky
PHOTO: Greg Rakozy

2020 is finally coming to an end, to the delight of many. While we all know 2021 isn't going to magically be better because a glittery ball drops in Times Square, it's hard not to hope that were the case. 

The same premise applies when looking at the state of our digital workplaces. Things are not going to improve next month simply because it is a new year.

However, we will see changes to the digital workplace in 2021. A lot of those changes will be a direct result of what we learned from COVID-19’s impact. Other changes will result from the slow return to the workplace as vaccines work their way through the population. By the end of 2021, we’ll be reaching the end of the current pandemic phase of the digital workplace and on our way to establishing a more stable and deliberate digital workplace.

What We’ve Learned Since March

We've learned many things this year. We learned that many organizations still rely too much on paper. We learned some organizations weren't prepared for their entire organization to connect to the VPN at 9am. Even if their infrastructure could handle the number of connections, their bandwidth could not handle the large increase in video meetings.

Video meetings dominated the digital workplace this year. Zoom was so prevalent that it's becoming the default term for a video meeting. And thankfully, everyone eventually worked out how to better manage mute buttons, video backgrounds, hosting duties and the slippery slope of recording meetings.

We also learned that all those video meetings are exhausting. Not only do we have to look presentable during a pandemic, we have to ensure that our home office environment is presentable too.

Related Article: 6 Workplace Lessons From 6 Months of COVID-19

What We Need to Figure Out in 2021

We still need ways to better collaborate around system designs, brainstorming sessions, and other types of working sessions. There are some good tools out there, but no one system where it all comes together.

Moderators did their best by posting links to external sites. However, even when the tools worked perfectly, engagement was limited. More importantly, it was hard to bring the results back to the main thread of the meeting.

We need better tools. Then, we need to become proficient at using them. That means those tools need to be designed with a good user experience (UX) first and foremost. UX is critical for both the participants and moderators. The collaborative effort needs to be seamlessly captured and incorporated for use after everything is over.

Related Article: Guess What? User Experience Matters for Employees Too

The New Normal Will Be a Mixed Environment

One thing we do know: it will be a long time before everyone's back in the office full-time by default. Our tools need to account for that reality and bridge the gap between the virtual and the in-person. Critical conferencing equipment will evolve from the camera to include the electronic whiteboard. That process exists today, even if it sometimes consists of people aiming their laptop cameras at the wall. However, until we can seamlessly pass the whiteboard marker to a virtual attendee, we won’t be where we need to be.

Whatever the answers, expect to see continued innovation in the tools. Also look for at least one start-up to come out of nowhere and focus on the mixed virtual team dynamic. Maybe the giant Microsoft Surface tablet on wheels will come back as a popular tool. Perhaps we will all be issued tablets with styluses.

Whatever the future brings, we need to think differently. We've been trying to digitize and allow people to work from anywhere for the last 20 years. However, our primary focus was on paper reduction. We need to think bigger. It is time to make sure that our ability to work together is as effective virtually as is it when we are together.

Related Article: The Evolution of Video Meetings Has Long-Term Effects