Putting aside the negative aspects of 2020 for a moment, business people around the world should congratulate themselves for how many of them have adapted so quickly to new work patterns and environments. In a lot of instances, they also know a lot more about technology, or at least, appreciate how it has helped keep businesses operating during challenging circumstances. They are almost certainly aware that strong WiFi and other network technology made that possible.
All that will continue to evolve in 2021 and to provide some context of what that means, it helps to reflect on some of the big changes of 2020.
Office workers improved their ‘on-screen’ personalities
At the beginning of the pandemic, companies were scrambling to set up remote working fast: as long as people had some connectivity, it was better than nothing. Very quickly, however, it became clear that bad WiFi was not acceptable, particularly during video calls: colleagues whose voice or face constantly froze or sounded like a robot during meetings was not only irritating but time-wasting. Bad WiFi creates as much an unprofessional work image as wearing a shirt with food stains.
People discovered that the better the WiFi quality, the more effective it is to make a point, or to understand the nuances of body language and voice, and they also started to manage their ‘on-screen’ brand. Not surprisingly, sales of WiFi routers for home workers escalated, and I expect vendors of high-end webcams and ring-lights found the same. Backgrounds became important too, and if someone found it hard to locate a tidy corner at home, they chose a virtual backdrop (hopefully not a distracting one).
Video etiquette became better understood. Meeting attendees who just dial in via voice are becoming the exception. Not using video (when offered) is like entering a physical meeting without shaking hands with everyone. Plus, although mobile is great, people realized that attending meetings while walking the dog doesn’t convey the best message.
A lot of people became more productive in 2020
Anyone who has to handle childcare and home-schooling, as well as their jobs, may not agree, but a lot of people became more productive working remotely. Sure, the social aspect of face-to-face meetings is missed, but teams prepare more in advance (such as sharing documents rather than everyone having to squint at a screen), get down to business faster, attention is more focused, and meetings are shorter. There may be less distractions compared to working in an open-plan office. Any lingering stigma around working-from-home has gone for good, now that even CEOs brief their teams from spare bedrooms.
Small businesses found smart workarounds in 2020
Users explored beyond basic WiFi, especially wireless mesh networks, which helps them to achieve better coverage in every corner of their houses, apartments, offices or retail outlets. They also used the feature within NETGEAR routers that makes it easy to have several separate networks from one router: one for work, one for entertainment, one for IP Cameras or IoT, one for the kids, and one for everything else. Sales of small business network switches reached a new high, giving small businesses even more capacity than WiFi systems.
Using switches and wireless access points enabled for Power over Ethernet (PoE) increased, as small businesses connected more devices that needed both power and network connectivity. They found that PoE is the ideal solution for installing equipment where running an electricity cable would be difficult or impossible. Anyone can install PoE: no specialist training is needed. Need WiFi in the attic, which is now also an office? No problem, just run PoE up to the top floor.
Retailers got even smarter. More restaurants, cafes and retailers embraced online ordering, deliveries and click-and-collect. While Amazon was kept busy, so were many smaller retailers who had to pivot in order to survive, and once again, network tech – especially wireless – was critical in making that happen. This was all good news for consumers, with many of us placing a quick order towards the end of a busy day, knowing that by the time we finished work, dinner was on its way.
Coming up in 2021
Predictions can be challenging (after all, this time last year, we had no idea what was around the corner) but I think it is safe to say we know a few continued or new trends are already emerging.
While not applicable to every business, hybrid working is a new pattern, with employees dividing their time between home and work premises, and probably with less rigid hours. One example might be doing the first couple of hours of desk work at home, possibly the first video meeting, followed by going into the office for face-to-face meetings. Then lunch with the team and home mid-afternoon (to avoid the rush hour, if it will still exist) to spend time with the family or friends, and some more work if necessary.
The march of the Internet of Things will progress, with more sensors driving more devices, across all kinds of markets, both at work and at home. For instance, smart building systems mean that there is no need to have a reception physically on the premises: he or she can ‘welcome’ visitors remotely, even hundreds of miles away, with facial detection technology supporting better security.
The IoT is also impacting home-working environments, such as security systems and smart printers. However, all these sensor-based IoT devices depend on being connected to a network and power, so WiFi 6 will become mainstream. As well as being a lot faster than WiFi 5 devices (between 40-70 percent), WiFi 6 can treat all devices in a network equally, so they get consistent bandwidth. Plus, WiFi 6 provides the blanket coverage that users now demand, in every corner of a site.
Remote management of networks will take off, so businesses can hand over support to a third-party managed service provider. This represents a huge opportunity for resellers. At the same time, equipment for small businesses will become easier to use, now that many of us are now our own IT managers: we just want technology to work, not have to look under the hood. Expect to see the continued introduction of consumer-style ease-of-use in business equipment, but with added features.
Research shows that the majority of staff are happy to pay for their own WiFi, but employee-sponsored WiFi is increasingly being talked about, with many companies prepared to either pay or at least contribute to home-working costs. Making sure that staff are using a secure, high-quality WiFi router is good for the whole business.
Finally, when we are allowed back to normal life, people are going to expect a great WiFi experience everywhere and anywhere. Hospitality firms, entertainment venues and retailers will need to meet that demand, but in return, they can introduce WiFi marketing, whereby customers get access to strong network access in return for some ID credentials.
2020 transformed how people use technology, including network products. Workers have more autonomy over their technology and small businesses are more informed: it has even become a conversation point for those who were not previously interested in the topic. Let’s celebrate that technology has shown it can be a force for good, keeping people connected and businesses running.