A lot has changed in the last year. We asked some dealers and vendors to share their thoughts. 

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How did the COVID pandemic affect what customers are asking for? 

AJ Baggott: Our customers went down two distinct paths in terms of what they were asking for. First was the digitization of their documents and how to have access to those files from anywhere. Further, they wanted our help and expertise to make the entire workflow around the document life cycle more efficient. This led to a huge uptick in backfile scanning and document management projects. Secondly, we saw customers reach out to us for guidance on how to outsource many of the non-core functions of their business. … [They had] more urgent conversations with us around staffing and automating their in-plant print shops and mailrooms, and outsourcing many of their IT functions as they were forced to make difficult decisions for the survival and security of their businesses. 

Jim Dotter: Customers have been asking to rework service contracts to reduce minimums. Knowing they are not making the volumes they were before last April, they have asked for relief in some cases and reduced contracts in others. We have also seen an uptick in our program that provides unlimited images and enhanced remote IT support.

Mark Hart: The obvious is in the acceleration of IT services, but not far behind is the customer desire for software and cloud services. Document management, simple scanning and faxing requests increased drastically due to everyone being remote. Due to the increase in all the customers scanning, cloud storage and cloud adoption has moved up 12-18 months. 

Phil Houser: We saw a huge spike in temperature detection technology being requested and even now it is still being requested, especially in the education vertical where they are looking to bring faculty and students back safely. While this technology is relevant currently for COVID-19 measures, we see this as future-proof with the ability to connect to doors for facial recognition for touchless access control. We are installing this technology in buses for a districtwide school application that will provide health and temperature detection and validate proper student Identification. Kids that should not be on the bus going rogue and possibly sneaking onto campus will not be admitted. This can also be used in classrooms for taking roll. We see this as the new normal in creating healthier and safer workspaces. Many of us have not even had a cold over the past year and making sure people are not coming to work sick or with a temperature will be the norm.

Other technology, such as interactive panel displays for virtual learning and teaching, has been at an all-time high. Schools and corporations are requesting technology that allows the interaction of students, teachers and professionals to communicate remotely. Organizations are preparing for the long term in these hybrid environments of attending in person or remote and developing the smart technology classrooms and collaboration rooms. 

Ed Mclaughlin: We have only begun to see the changes that are on their way. The pandemic and lockdown accelerated a trajectory already in progress and pushed us five years down the road, at least in terms of behavior. We were heading to a “nomadic workplace,” a work from anywhere scenario, but landed on “work at home.” The shutdown put in motion processes that will significantly reduce the number of pages produced. The methods at this point must mature. It is only now that the new systems are being put in place to accommodate the next phase. It will be slow going back to the office. Most organizations have only recently set targets for returning to the office. Most will not even begin to return to the office until that second half of this year and then only partially. Many companies will not start the return until next year. However, it is clear that while many felt that most would be working at home, it will not be as extensive as initially suspected. The management process needs to change. What was once influential in the office is lacking for a remote workforce. Work at home has exposed the lack of security and supporting applications that permit consistent performance. We will see a faster rollout of 5G, MEC (multi-access edge computing) technologies (a promise for many years) and peer-to-peer capabilities. The remote workforce requires a different management process. Successful companies will adopt more leadership principles than managing activities, at least for the remote workforce. Collaborative technologies will continue to take center stage. 

Are you seeing real traction in the transition from A3 to A4? 

Baggott: This is happening, and it is a specific strategy that we are incorporating as part of our go-to-market approach. If we as dealers are truly managing the print environments of our customers, we should be looking for opportunities to optimize their fleets and provide a more balanced and cost-effective way for the customer to accomplish their business goals. With more companies moving to either a work-from-home or a hybrid home/office workplace, it’s less about transition and more about optimization of the overall print management strategy.

Dotter: Not yet; we are still placing more A3 boxes. Our A4 business has increased but not as much as we would have thought or what analysts have been telling us. The business that has increased is our refurbished business. We have our own leasing portfolio, and we remarket one-generation-old devices that have been under contract. The advantage is that our trained technicians have worked on them and we use OEM parts and supplies.

Hart: I don’t think it’s a matter of A3 versus A4, as customers have no clue what this really means. We are seeing that print jobs are far outpacing walk-up copy jobs. This is causing a shift to either a production print environment (schools, government) or a distributed print environment (remote workers, law offices, manufacturing, healthcare) that favors the single-function printer or small footprint MFP.  

Mclaughlin: Some have referred to this as a revolution. Far from it; this trend has been evolving for a decade or more. In 2006, it was clear that the only segment of the industry growing in double digits was A4. The widespread use of page printers brought on the trend to simplify paper use. Most companies wanted to standardize the output and found purchasing and storing different sizes for office communication was an ineffective use of resources. There was still the use of A3 for graphic applications, but the old accounting ledgers were becoming a thing of the past. By 2008, mobile applications allowed for easier distribution of PDF and other electronic documents, and the fate of A3’s importance was sealed. It mainly was kept alive through sales commission plans rather than customer demand. The work-at-home movement delivered permanence of the trend, and A4 is the standard due to the simplicity of the systems and need. 

Larry White: Compared to A3, A4 definitely held its own throughout the pandemic, though we are seeing more demand for A4 across the last few years. The question is whether the uptick in the last 12 months is a result of companies outfitting employees who are working from home. The next 12 months will truly tell if this trend will revert closer to what it was before the pandemic. My guess is that it will.

Do you think office workers now really are printing less? If so, to what degree?  

Baggott: Absolutely. There is no need to theorize here as we have all the data necessary to make sound determinations around the question. The volumes and metrics pulled from every resource available to our industry indicate that print declined substantially in 2020, but the real question is, how much of that is permanent versus temporary due to lockdowns? As an organization, we transitioned all of our sales orders and related documents last year from hard copies to DocuSign to ease the process for our customers and our reps. How many other organizations are doing the same? We cover and service many geographies in the southeast (such as Florida) that have been re-opened for quite a while. We have seen some bounce back in the click volumes and service calls relative to the peak of COVID, but we still have not reached pre-COVID levels. Will we? I don’t believe so. I fully expect an 8-15% permanent decline in print depending on the geography and sophistication of the end user.

Dotter: Yes, the fact that so many workers were forced to work from home abruptly forced them to adapt to a work style less reliant on paper and more reliant on electronic records for reference. We observed an increase in client realization that their data needed to be accessible from anywhere. This will lead to more organizations shifting away from paper filing and an increased urgency to move crucial data to cloud hosted repositories rather than premised based servers that require maintenance and management.

Hart: Not being in the office has created less printing but this has not fully gone away. Healthcare, manufacturing, shared office space printing is on the rise. Enterprise accounts and schools where employees are remote or kids are still on virtual learning, printing has declined. I don’t think anyone expects office printing to recover to pre-pandemic levels, but new opportunities exist with remote worker print/scan/fax. The first to create a viable remote office package for security, storage, printing, scanning and faxing wins!

Houser: Absolutely, people are printing less, and our aftermarket is showing this reduction. We are seeing as much as a 30% reduction in print. While we do believe that print will permanently be affected, we believe the reduction will be more in the 15%-20% percent range. We have heard for years that print will continue to decline and COVID-19 definitely accelerated this evolution. DocuSign and electronic documentation is becoming much more common. People are becoming more comfortable in correcting, reading and sending electronic documents. This was forced upon us and we learned in many ways we just don’t need to print as much. With that said, we still see a bright future in print for a good number of years to come.   

Mclaughlin: There is no question they are printing less. It is especially true of those working at home. We do some spurts of printing when some people come into the office. We adjusted our algorithms to accommodate this situation. Printers sit idle for weeks, then there is a sudden burst of printing and then back to idle. Some suggest that this indicates that when employees get back to the office, printing will resume. First, they are not all coming back. Second, the burst of prints will be close to what we experience now but with more normal patterns.  If we want to consider the drop-off, an excellent place to start is with the data. According to NEXERA’s database, volumes are off by 43% even now. That, however, is only part of the story. A3 pages are down 45%, while A4 is down 30%. Will some of it recover? Let’s hope so, but it is clear the momentum is in the A4 camp. Failure to reset our expectation to dismiss that could be a grave mistake. As the old saying goes, “Plan for the best. Prepare for the worst.” The models and key business benchmarks are up for a severe review. I heard someone say just today. “The old rules do not apply.” I think they are correct.

What about office technology surprised you the most in the last year? 

Baggott: The speed of adoption of new technologies. Change is hard. Resistance to change is usually an incredibly common occurrence, especially in a work/office setting. However, the adoption and urgency to change created by COVID was surprising and exciting. Even within our company, the adoption of new communication platforms was fantastic. Further, the adoption of new solutions by our sales teams and their ability to deliver these in a thoughtful and relevant way to our customers was very impressive. We had laid out a three-year plan to strategically shift the business to be more of a comprehensive office technology provider and were forced to do that in three months. Our people executed that vision far better than I could have ever dreamed of and it all started with the adoption of a new approach and new technologies.

Dotter: Zoom! Before the pandemic we were small users of Zoom but now we are power users. All of our internal meetings and most customer meetings use Zoom.

Houser: Without question, the ability for all of us to pivot and work remote with little or no reduction in results and productivity was the greatest technology surprise. Office technology allowed the majority of us to work, teach and train remotely. The number of virtual meetings made many of us much more productive and successful. Some of our sales members had their most successful years due to the fact they were able to make more calls and see more people in less time. Not having to travel across the state or country to conduct a meeting is really pretty cool! The technology has been there for quite some time, but we were forced to shift the paradigm.   

White: How quickly everyone adapted to a remote work environment is what surprised me the most. Our personnel very swiftly and adroitly began using and optimizing such collaboration and communication tools as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Go-to-Meeting. Having said that, I strongly believe that although a remote work environment can be very efficient there is something to be said for the enhanced creativity, collaboration and problem-solving capabilities when people are sitting across the table from one another. Although please understand that the last comment came from someone who still reads hardcover books.