Last month marked a year since many businesses had to swiftly pivot to remote work, and we are now able to see the impact this has had on business priorities. IDC’s 2020 worldwide SMB market profile noted that these priorities have shifted to focus on revenue generation, with a much more targeted emphasis on customer and operational excellence.

What has become even more apparent is that our technology priorities have also shifted. Not surprisingly, much of this is due to the need to focus on supporting remote workers and business applications from afar. But at the same time, hardware isn’t just going away. We simply have to be smarter in our uses of it. Here’s some of what we have discovered about the changing needs of office technology, and trends to look for in the new office environment.

Technology concept with face and binary code

The importance of a safe environment

First and foremost, as employees are anticipated to return to physical offices at least in some capacity, business owners now have to think about how to create a safe work environment, including the continual disinfecting of office spaces, disinfecting stations and touch-free technologies. Shipping giant DHL has implemented Avidbots robots to clean the floors of the multiple warehouses it manages across North America. And with a greater demand for touchless technology in “work” environments, last year Amazon announced it would start licensing its cashierless shopping software to other retailers. Along with the changes come policy changes as well, such as new office security policies and health screenings to enter a facility. Many customers have adopted innovative solutions that support employees’ safe return to office locations with features like facial recognition and access control.

Supporting a hybrid workforce

While we can anticipate a return to offices for many workers later this year, it will definitely be more of a hybrid approach. And with that comes a need for greater support of mobility, and enabling technology to help both those working remotely and on-site. A greater focus on digitalizing workflows to help improve operations will be the continued way of operating post-pandemic. Providing customers and constituents with the ability to do more online rather than coming into a building to provide services will be key, as changing priorities have created a very different work and office environment as compared to the pre-pandemic world. 

IDC’s research found that the biggest IT challenges workers face include the unavailability of IT support, being able to manage workflows efficiently, and keeping access secure. And as mentioned above, there is also a greater focus on hygiene awareness, and how to deliver a safe, cleaner work environment. For many companies, this has meant a switch from a reliance on office hardware such as MFPs to a greater acceptance of visual display/touchless technologies to disseminate information instead. Software, too, is becoming important — having the right connections to utilize the cloud for document management, for example, and printing and scanning to the cloud.

Print is evolving

Taking this into consideration, the traditional printing market faces challenges such as security vulnerabilities, a lack of remote monitoring, and no clear path to manage workflow from a decentralized location. The maturing print industry has long been anticipating change, but it was expected to be very gradual. The pandemic has accelerated trends already in motion. Fewer people in the office naturally resulted in less print. Since we’ve continued to work in the home environment with less easy access to print, we will see less reliance on paper. But don’t worry! Print is still here to stay.

In fact, many hardware businesses have been taking this opportunity to react to the changing landscape. We know that copy and print are still needed, but we also know that from both a hardware and a software perspective, the role of print is pivoting. IDC’s survey respondents confirmed that customers want greater connectivity and integration with other solutions; cloud, workflow, and security are the keywords of 2021. The most important features for office technology now are Wi-Fi connectivity and being able to print/scan to the cloud, rather than print speed and output quality. So having the right software is now just as important, if not more, as choosing the right machine for your business needs.

And in terms of choosing the right machine, we are also seeing minor shifts in demand in the market, such as a preference for A4 machines over A3, and a return to more centralized printing. While offering lower cost and a smaller size, A4s can still be as competent as A3 MFPs in terms of user functionality. In addition, A3 devices are perfect for a central reprographic area, due to the continued changes in office layout as a result of COVID-19.

What this means for office technology going forward

These market changes are fascinating, and they mean the MFP will continue to evolve into a quasi-business hub as we continue to adapt to customer needs. For example, while hardware itself no longer makes up the majority of technical priorities for SMBs, your printer is still where all information is managed, distributed and used from a central point.

The difference will be how we make it work for a more decentralized workforce and provide customers the opportunity to do more online. The focus is on creating a printing environment that is connected to the cloud and uses a secure mobile platform to allow a truly digitized workflow, accessible wherever you are.

This push into truly connected hardware, software and service will become even more important post-pandemic, where document management and processing are seen as a holistic service. Connecting these data points will not only provide a foundation for digital transformation, but also increase reliability, quality and productivity.

The role of technology in the future work environment 

Ultimately it is all about access to data, and as securely as possible. In a data-driven world, data-driven decision making is going to be essential to ongoing success, and the analytics and automation of that data will facilitate the next new ways of working IF we let them. So while our devices are software and hardware driven, the hardware doesn’t change as often as software, which can update as often as every six months – similar to automobiles, which are now data driven rather than hardware. In the same way that Tesla, for example, considers itself to be a technology company that happens to sell cars, we are an IT, data-driven company first and an MFP company second. Our approach to print has changed to view the technology first and foremost, with print being part of an IT ecosystem, whether it’s digital or paper.

Key to ensuring access to data will continue to be through the cloud, security and enterprise content management (ECM). Customers need to have access to their data, in whatever environment, and are seeking the technology to harness the data. For example, many customers rely on opening the mail and routing work that needs to be done. That is very difficult if you are not in the office. Digital mail offerings allow mail to be routed, scanned and digitized, and securely provided back to the organization for processing. Every business that relies on processing their postal mail to obtain critical documents can reinvent their operations and avoid delays this way.

Customers who have adopted and implemented workflow solutions see an increase in productivity and efficiencies in their business. A lot of companies were not ready to make this leap until they couldn’t access the paper, but now, with the pandemic and the fast adoption of automation and digital workflows, we’re seeing organizations connect disparate data points – more critical now than ever for remote workforces who MUST remain highly productive.

Digital transformation is about digitizing the content, but more importantly, it is about connecting the technologies and workflows to improve the performance of an organization. COVID made it very clear to many organizations that they must focus on a digital workplace of the future. 

Dino Pagliarello is Senior Vice President, Product Management and Planning, for Konica Minolta. He is responsible for Konica Minolta’s portfolio of industry award-winning office and graphic communications technology within the U.S. He leads a team of product planning and marketing experts that bring new products to market, from multi-functional printers for the office to high-end industrial printing equipment, overseeing the complete life-cycle of these devices.