So maybe Zoom was kind of the big winner in terms of software to help power digital workplaces in 2020. What will win in 2021?

“I'm expecting to see more interest in desk and room booking software to accommodate hybrid workforces and the return to work in 2021,” said Andrew Hewitt, Forrester analyst who specializes in employee technology experience, digital workspaces and remote work. “Also, increased focus on collecting qualitative feedback within digital workplace solutions and also merging that with quantitative information about the technology experience.”

Improvements Need To Be Made

Hewitt noted the need for vendors to improve in remote IT support, an area where he said gaps still exist. “End user organizations still are having difficulty with remotely supporting end users when there are incidents, particularly when it comes to break/fix on devices,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt anticipates digital workplace vendors will developing more robust IT support capabilities for remote workers going forward in 2021 as well as building out further partnerships to deliver in person break/fix support to remote workers.

PwC reported last month that 70% of US executives plan to invest in IT infrastructure to support virtual connectivity, a sign more work needs to be done in general when it comes to IT support in remote environments. That only trailed tools for virtual collaboration (72%).

Related Article: How COVID-19 Is Impacting the Digital Workplace Tool Landscape

Digital Workplace Vendor 2021 Aspirations

The biggest digital workplace vendor move of 2021 so far is Microsoft’s announcement this month of a new employee experience platform, Viva, which has evoked many differing opinions.

We’ve also caught up with some other digital workplace software vendors about their 2021 roadmaps.

Dropbox: Preparing for Virtual First World

Max Ventilla, VP of strategy and new frontiers at Dropbox, said in 2020 the vendor reprioritized its roadmap to ensure the features it shipped were what users needed most. “This year, we’ll be laser-focused on helping users easily get their most important content into Dropbox, organize it and collaborate on it with their teams as though they’re in the same physical room,” said Ventilla, whose company as of the third quarter of 2020 had over 600 million registered users and 15.25 million paying users.

The innovation roadmap will be an extension of Dropbox's 2020’s vision for the future of distributed work and tools that power productivity, creativity, organization and collaboration, according to Ventilla. “We’re asking ourselves: how can we build products to help teams thrive in a virtual first world?” Ventilla said. “Our mission is to design a more enlightened way of working — and that means making bold shifts and being even more intentional about how we design products. We’re building the virtual office of the future.”

Slack: Enabling Asynchronous Work

A Slack spokesperson said a major focus for 2021 will be prototyping and iterating on tools that enable asynchronous work. Last year at its Frontiers conference, Slack, which has more than 12 million daily active users, shared a sneak peek into the future of asynchronous communication, and a couple of new concepts that are twists on traditional voice and video communications.

During the year of remote work, Slack transformed from being a collaboration tool to acting as a digital headquarters for so many organizations, according to the spokesperson.

As for 2021, Slack at its Frontiers conference unveiled a 2021 capability, Slack Connect DMs. With this feature, Slack users will have a way to connect with trusted external collaborators.

HCL: Enhancements, Content Discovery

Andrew Manby, associate vice president of digital solutions for HCL Software, said planned releases in 2021 include user experience improvements to HCL Connections collaboration platform, specifically with usability and consistency of the various services — from activities to wikis to blogs to communities. The updates target uploading, discovering and sharing content with communities of interest.

It will also work on enhancements to Sametime Premium chat and video meetings software, including security capabilities such as end-to-end encryption for video meetings, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, Mail client plug-ins, plus inbound and outbound telephony support.

HCL wants to build a sense of community with specific targeted activities for workers since "social equity of people in the same office is running out."

"Our focus on the user experience is critical to helping companies quickly rollout and adopt digital workplace tools to meet these challenges," added Manby, whose company’s total customer base has grown to over 2,200 customers using either HCL Connections, Sametime, or Digital Experience (DX) platform or some combination of multiple products. "Disruption is likely here to stay, and we must ensure our products are both easy to deploy and simple to use by the employees and corporations."

Learning Opportunities

Workplace from Facebook: Bringing Emotion to Digital Workplace

In January, Workplace from Facebook announced two new releases: Safety Center and an update to live video capabilities. Safety Center is an evolution of the Safety Check feature also used by Facebook, which it brought to Workplace last year; it allows companies to check in on the health and wellbeing of employees and manage communications for a broader range of safety incidents. Workplace’s Live video experience now allows users to go Live with multiple presenters, according to Christine Trodella, head of Americas at Workplace from Facebook, which in May announced more than 5 million paid users.

Automation and heavier reliance on bots to automate mundane tasks such as booking meetings or asking for feedback will be a roadmap focus, Trodella said.

“We’re going to continue thinking big-picture about the future of work and how Workplace will have a role in it," Trodella said. "Bringing emotion and personal connection into the digital workplace, so it mimics the 'in-person' experience as much as possible will also be key and something that is very important for us both from product and experience perspectives.”

Desire’s There. Can Vendors Keep Up?

In the next two to three years, around three in 10 organizations expect more than 70% of their employees to work remotely, up from just 10% who expected as much before COVID-19, according to a Capgemini report in December. And around 45% of employees expect to spend three days or more per week working from remote locations going forward. About 81% of the executives surveyed said they have enabled employees to access tools, data and insights from everywhere within their hybrid working models.

So the need is there. But can vendors keep up with these work-from-anywhere desires? After all, organizations found many gaps in digital workplace software to enable remote work in 2020. Not that the onus is 100% on the vendors, but progress opportunities exist. Take digital whiteboarding, for example.

“Organizations found gaps with digital whiteboarding early on and while some organizations have invested in these tools, there's still additional need to adopt these tools in the future,” Hewitt said. “One challenge that's emerging is the interaction between the hardware and software for digital whiteboarding. Organizations are now revisiting the hardware portion of digital whiteboarding and investigating whether touchscreen or digital pen enabled PCs make sense for digital whiteboarding use cases.”

In some industries, Hewitt added, companies found there were gaps in software for some industry-specific needs. For example, he said, government organizations often rely on smart card solutions for authentication, but this tends to be a rare feature among many software players today. “We expect to see more investment in industry-specific use cases going forward in 2021,” Hewitt said.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Tech Expanded in the Pandemic. Here's What's Next

Telemetry Needs, Supply Chain Issues

Another key area for software gaps is around telemetry for remote workers, specifically when it comes to the employee's experience working in the home office, according to Hewitt. “Many organizations made investments in software,” he said, “that would allow them to understand the performance of technology at home, so vendors in that category have experienced big growth in 2020.”

Many organizations also found issues with the supply chain for employee devices as a result of the pandemic, Hewitt said. This has led to gaps in the remote work strategy and prompted them to look at new non-Windows based operating systems such as Chrome OS and macOS, embrace BYOD for some users, and invest more heavily in cloud-based VDI.

“The pandemic exposed gaps,” Hewitt added, “when you have a single vendor OS and PC strategy.”