The last six months have been strange times indeed. It’s probably not worth restating all the impacts on the workplace, but there is one thing that has become hugely apparent to me: The laptop has become not just one device amongst many, or even a preferred tool for certain tasks, but my workplace. Over the last six months, our laptops have surged to the front of the pack as being just really great at whatever I need to do to be productive.
But smartphones were the future…?
I have a smartphone obviously and it’s incredibly useful when I’m stood in line at the coffee queue and want to ping someone a note or tell them I’m running late. Indeed, my phone is invaluable. Elon Musk and others have observed that the way human and smartphone have become inseparable has, in effect, made us a low-efficiency cyborg species. Whenever I want to know something, I’ve probably reached and begun searching for it even before I’m consciously aware that I’m doing it. But while we will likely continue to fuse with our mobile devices, their true genius is also their Achilles heel. My phone is my companion that does enough to augment me as I move around the world. . I kind of knew this before lockdown. I had over four hours of commuting each day and the train carriage was always full of tired people eating croissants and tapping away on their Dells, Lenovo’s and MacBook’s. So even in an ultimately mobile-first scenario people still drift back to laptops where it’s practicable to use them.
Don’t even get me started on the iPad.
OK – Now you’ve got me started on the iPad. They became the must-have thing after they launched. Many professionals carried them to meetings and either awkwardly tapped away to indulge in this Steve Jobs approved vision of the future or they’d scribble notes into their analogue notepad and just have it on the desk next to them. For a few years, IT departments were trying to figure out whether the future would just be iPads for management types. Then, the iPad slowly became that device that you use to mindlessly scroll through Facebook while watching Netflix. Then they became that thing that your Grandma or young kids used. The iPad Pro appeared as a cynical feeling attempt to reinvigorate interest by implicitly admitting that the regular iPad was a toy. I saw a few people repeating the pattern of years earlier – trying to awkwardly take notes in meetings as the rest of us used laptops or pen and paper. In further recognition of this, the main USP of the latest iPad is… it’s basically a laptop now.
Yep. “Tablets? Only kidding all these years! What you want is a keyboard… Kind of like a laptop”. Furthermore, as Apple shifts to their new ARM based “Apple Silicon” processors, it seems highly likely that we will see an increased blurring of ultralight laptops and tablets. There’s probably an evolutionary truth that exists in the laptop form factor which is why tablets seem to keep evolving back into them. I speculate that as the pendulum of fashion swings between tablet and laptop form factor, the underlying truth is that a keyboard and a screen and proper apps are basically just a lot more useful.
Microsoft and Google have been on the same journey too of course, with attempts to ‘be inspired by’ the iPad. Google’s Pixel Slate follow up to their widely praised Pixel laptops was met with derision and their latest Pixelbook traditional laptop had many reviewers praising its back-to-basics usefulness. One could argue that Microsoft is the most committed to the tablet ‘dream’, but almost every review I read focusses on how wonderful the keyboard is.
And, whilst the official marketing may have ruggedly beautiful men in hardhats using tablets on building sites or well-dressed women in warehouses scribbling notes, I speculate that 99% of the time people will have a go for a few seconds, shrug and think “uuugh nevermind… I’ll just do it when I get back to a desk”. It looks great when TV extras do it, but it’s just not a great or highly productive experience for 99% of knowledge workers.
What does all this mean?
So where does this leave us? The laptop is the endpoint now. Of course, smartphones are only going to continue to be a vital part of our lives and the workplace and I’m sure mobile device management isn’t going to go away. But laptops are the workplace. Even as knowledge workers enter the next phase of work from anywhere, the hybrid model, and some return to the office and others visit more occasionally, the laptop will be the device that truly sits at the heart of this. It connects us via Teams, enables us to build that business case in Excel or write a compelling proposal in Word or PowerPoint. For this reason, when we think about Digital Experience, it’s vital to sort the hype from the practical reality. Many of those ‘workplace innovation’ pundits will be talking about the future of work and speaking at events about augmented reality and other future tech concepts, but digital workplace strategies need be no more complex than enabling people to work flexibly by giving them a laptop with the stuff they need to be productive and making sure it works and performs well.
Whilst this paired-back, straight-talking vision of the Work From Anywhere digital workplace is simple to state, it is far from the reality for many:
- 98% say device performance is critical, but 60% say they experience issues with network, slow-running apps and device performance
- 35% say they don’t have the software they need, yet only 17% have any automated way of requesting it
- 53% say their machine runs slower outside the office, but a quarter wouldn’t bother to contact service desk if performance was a problem
- 74% say they wait hours, days or weeks for IT issues to be resolved and 69% are disrupted when IT are troubleshooting their endpoint.
It’s 2020 (lest ye forget), and one would think that in the absence of the flying cars and space cities, we should be able to manage a laptop that works. The danger of thinking of “the digital workplace” and “the future” of work as being not the thing for the everyday IT folk, but the purview of the Innovation team, we’re missing a trick. We need to focus on providing great digital experiences for our knowledge workers who have simple requirements: “enable me and my laptop to be really productive wherever I am”. IT needs better tools. IT strategies for 2021 should be equally pragmatic and focus on exactly this.