Virtual meetings and remote work aren't going anywhere, and companies that sell collaboration tools hope that means big business.
"We're seeing that at Cisco," said Jeetu Patel, the executive vice president who runs the company's Webex division. "We're actually sending out kits to people's homes."
Many companies ponied up for knowledge workers to buy monitors, webcams and other home office necessities when the pandemic started last year.
But with most companies planning for a hybrid future, Patel is hoping that wave of investment won't end anytime soon. On Tuesday, Webex started hawking new, hybrid work-focused conferencing tools.
The portfolio includes newly portable video conferencing monitors, enhanced digital whiteboards for the conference room and new Webex features that improve the experience of meetings that involve remote participants (which will describe 98% of meetings going forward, Patel said).
Before the pandemic, Patel told Protocol, it was mostly IT organizations asking for these tools. Now, HR and facilities teams are weighing in on IT investments.
"This is not a short-term change. This is a structural change," Patel said. "Companies will take responsibility for equipping people when they're not working in the office."
How many devices do remote workers need?
One of the new offerings from Webex is a 15.6-inch portable that the company hopes employers will buy for their executives and employees to pick up and use around the house — say, in the kitchen or living room.
The $995 Webex Desk Mini is a smaller, cheaper version of the Webex Desk, a more standard conferencing monitor that stays in one place.
Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research, sees value in buying tricked-out conferencing devices for employees, both as a way to compensate for reduced in-office perks and in order to make workers look and sound more professional in external meetings.
"If I'm a salesperson working at home and I do a lot of customer calls — in that case, I really do want a really good-quality experience," Kerravala said. "I do think we're in the midst of a bit of a market change, but I think it's something that hasn't really been top of mind."
IT departments may scrutinize the usefulness of these types of specialized tools, but he said they may be wooed by benefits like high-end cameras and microphones that filter out background noise. It's up to vendors to make the case.
Not all conferencing tech experts agree that these devices will succeed.
Mike Fasciani, a senior research director at Gartner focused on digital workplace applications, questioned the usefulness of a standalone, separate device for joining meetings.
Laptops, smartphones and tablets can all be easily carried from room to room, he pointed out, and other unified communications vendors — including partners of Microsoft and Zoom — have put forth similar devices over the years. They haven't sold well, he said.
"Why don't you just use, like, an iPad?" Fasciani asked. "I just don't know how many devices we really need."
How will companies keep investing in the home office?
Daniel Hong, a vice president and research director at Forrester, said that companies will continue wanting to set up employees to work remotely in a way that's both productive and a good experience.
But he anticipates that IT departments will want to pick out any hybrid work devices rather than forking over stipends for employees to make their own purchases.
"Troubleshooting with 'bring your own device' is hard," Hong said. "That's always been an issue of BYOD and having the proper IT support, especially if that is compounded in terms of complexity with the IT support being remote."
And not surprisingly, most of the IT investment will still go to the home offices of company leaders, rather than rank-and-file employees.
"Somebody who has to talk to the board, maybe a senior salesperson, is going to get everything," said Johna Till Johnson, founder and CEO of Nemertes Research. "They're going to get the ring lights, they're going to get the Rode mic, they're going to get the high-quality camera. They may even get a professional makeup artist to come and get them done for big, important events."
For some executives, elaborate at-home conferencing setups have actually made them less mobile than before they worked from home, Johnson said. She spoke with one senior executive at Zoom who has become more stationery in the era of hybrid work.
"In order to do the presentations that he has to do for his day job, he actually has to have the lighting set up right," Johnson said. "It means you can't just pack everything up and go. It's no longer just a laptop."