“Life moves pretty fast,” said Ferris Bueller in 1986. “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” In 2020, life is moving faster than ever and if we don’t stop to look around and take stock of the changes, we’ll miss opportunities or be caught off guard. For the managed print industry, the events of the past 12 months will shape the foreseeable future. The question is, amid all the uncertainty, where is managed print now and where is it trending?
Now, hold on — you may have read that opening paragraph and been inclined to think that this is another article focused on COVID-19 and you’re not sure if you can bring yourself to read any further. Rest assured, I’m probably even less motivated to write in depth about COVID-19 than you are to read it. That topic has been covered ad nauseam in a million other places. For the future of our industry, it feels more important to focus on the fallout from the reactions to the pandemic as well as review the changing landscape in our industry. In fact, I can promise that after this sentence, if the words “COVID” or “pandemic” appear, it will be entirely the fault of my editors. [Editor’s note: they won’t.] That said, there are more external forces being applied to our industry now than just the evolution of digital transformation and competitive pressures. What are they?
Large-scale mobile work/WFH and unmanaged pages
Before 2020, the mobile workforce was a growing challenge for managed print providers. Now in 2020, much of the workforce is not only mobile, but almost exclusively working from home. The need to support processes for work-from-home (WFH) employees went from being the rattlesnake on the hiking trail to the rattlesnake in the tent. It is the same snake, but the level of urgency has changed.
In February and March, it became necessary for corporate employers around the world to have the vast majority of their employees work from home. When that happened, those employees managed those previously office-based printing processes one of three ways. Some of those processes went digital. Email, file sharing and other collaborative applications were used instead of the printed page. Some jobs were still printed in the office occasionally. These could be month-end invoices or other high-volume jobs. Finally, some were printed from home offices. In turn, service providers saw pages and service requests decline dramatically. Depending on verticals served as well as their region and associated government restrictions, some providers experienced more severe declines than others. Yes, many of those printed documents went away in favor of digital ones necessitated by remote work. Others, though, were printed on home office printers not being managed by the service provider.
The employer might reimburse the employee for the prints or provide a general stipend for WFH expenses. In either case, the service provider is not managing the device (they also most likely did not sell it) nor are they invoicing the pages under a supplies and service contract. The work is being done outside the office and subsequently outside of the traditional reach of most managed print programs. With the rapid escalation of mobile workers, the challenge for managed print service providers could be how to extend their services beyond the traditional office to the home office. If they don’t, pages printed at home offices are lost revenue. They are leaking out of a hole in the bucket.
While I’m not suggesting that workers are printing reams upon reams of paper at their home offices, there does seem to be the suggestion that some work-related printing is happening in the home office. I’ve spoken with friends who work in corporate accounting who were equipped with multifunction printers back in March and have been using them since while working from home. Some teachers are still printing digitally submitted course work for the purposes of reviewing without needing to use a screen. These examples may be more anecdotal than pervasive, but they do exist, and they do represent a revenue opportunity. The customer must respond to an environment where their employees need to work from home. Isn’t it our job as solutions and service providers to help them do so efficiently?
Limitations of traditional fleet management tools
Increased mobility in the workforce had been putting pressure on managed print providers before 2020 — not the way it has in 2020 with pages lost or pages printed outside the office, but because of the need to equip workers with laptops and tablets, making it more difficult for service providers to manage print devices in traditional workplaces. This is because most fleet management tools used by service providers to monitor page counts, supply levels and machine status rely almost exclusively on a software component that must be installed on a workstation at the customer site. The software only functions properly when the workstation is constantly connected to the network, which was fine in 2010 when few workstations left the office and most remained connected to the corporate network. Since that time, however, many desktop workstations have been replaced by laptops or tablets that travel to and from the office with the employee.
This is the chink in the armor that has been exposed by increased mobility. Because these workstations are not constantly connected to the network, the software can’t communicate vital management information back to the service provider. When this happens, the service provider has no visibility into that customer’s print devices and is essentially flying blind. The fleet management software platforms service providers have relied on for the past 15 years don’t have an adequate answer and it’s causing costly problems for service providers.
As the trend toward mobility has escalated, we see two significant effects on our industry. First, it is rendering most of the more traditional and widely used fleet management solutions ineffective and obsolete. If that sounds like an indictment of those software platforms, it is. Laptops in the workplace aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and other mobile computing devices showed significant growth in Q3 2020 in numbers released by research firm Canalys, while desktop workstations, towers and small desktops, not surprisingly, showed a decline. Second, mobility necessitated by the events of 2020 is fast-forwarding digital transformation and potentially driving printed pages into the home office outside the scope of conventional managed print.
On one hand, we have managed print service providers struggling with obsolete software that in many cases fails to adequately report on their customers’ office environments. On the other hand, we clearly see the need for service providers to not only manage remote printers in home offices, but to manage them efficiently and profitably.
Reconciling these two realities will be challenging. The degree to which workers are required to work from home will hopefully be temporary; if the global health situation improves and more conventional work is permitted, printed pages will again be more centralized in offices and traditional working environments. But even if that happens, the mobile workplace is here to stay. The proverbial cat is out of the bag and even the most skeptical of employers has been forced to embrace it and find ways to be efficient.
The next iteration will be the continued rise in the number of remote workers. With employers learning on the fly how to function with mobile workers, they’ll also realize that once they’re comfortable with it, they can recruit from a much broader pool of talent outside their immediate area. A recent analysis done by Flex Jobs and Global Workplace Analytics shows 44% growth in remote work over the last five years and 91% growth over the past 10. After the events of 2020, this trend is likely to continue. If so, we could continue to see digital transformation move at a faster pace along with the decentralization of printing from corporate offices and into home offices. Helping customers manage printing for mobile and remote employees is an opportunity that will require new solutions and new approaches. To do that, we’ll have to continue to stop and look around once in a while because life is moving and changing fast. We don’t want to miss it.