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Pandemic sparks new ideas for home collaboration devices

Vendors are looking to create new kinds of collaboration devices as businesses look to equip home workers with better communications gear.

Device manufacturers are retooling their product roadmaps as businesses look to equip home workers with better collaboration hardware.

The coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to close offices so quickly in March that many organizations lacked well-thought-out plans for equipping workers with collaboration hardware.

But some companies have now begun to develop more coherent strategies for procuring the gear their workers need. In response, some collaboration hardware vendors say they will create new devices and product bundles for the home office.

After stay-at-home orders closed its 65 offices worldwide, telecommunications gear-maker Ciena gave its employees a stipend to buy whatever gear they wanted. Off-the-shelf webcams and headsets have met the needs of most workers so far, said Craig Williams, the company's CIO.

Ciena's software engineers and product developers, however, would benefit from a different kind of video collaboration device, Williams said. Those employees are used to writing on whiteboards and looking over each other's shoulders. They need something to replicate that style of working at home.

"We have a certain number of our population that needs more of an immersive experience," Williams said. "We are now looking at creating a tiger team to come together to solve for that problem."

Many businesses expect that large portions of their workforce will continue telecommuting for the foreseeable future. Even after governments ease restrictions, analysts expect many companies to be flexible about allowing employees to stay at home. 

Vendors are now starting to think about how to meet the needs of home workers over the long term.

Poly, a leading manufacturer of meeting room systems, is amending its product roadmap to add "a true work-from-home category of products," Carl Wiese, the company's chief revenue officer, said.

The new devices "will be purpose-built for the home professional," Wiese said. "They are not going to be consumer grade."

Another leading vendor, Logitech, has combined its webcams and headsets in work-from-home bundles, an initiative it began even before the pandemic hit.

Features to suppress background noise and compensate for poor lighting will become more critical in collaboration devices, analysts said. Businesses will also need better platforms for remotely managing devices.

High-quality home speakerphones and headsets with noise-canceling microphones are two kinds of products that would make long-term remote work more tenable, said Tom Arbuthnot, principal solutions architect at IT firm Modality Systems.

Another category of product that vendors could develop in response to the pandemic is an all-in-one video monitor with a touchscreen display, said Brian Doherty, analyst at Gartner. However, the new products would need to be cheaper than what's on the market today.

High-end monitors designed for video conferencing and whiteboarding, like the Cisco Webex Desk Pro, cost several thousand dollars. Businesses typically can afford to buy them only for top executives.

Doherty sees an opening for vendors to develop a cheaper device with similar features.

"It's got to be something that is affordable enough that you would go and buy it for your UX designer or your R&D engineer, not just for your senior VP," Doherty said.

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