Remote-working tools could get something of an upgrade this year, according to new forecasts from Juniper Research.

The research firm’s 2021 Tech and Telco Megatrends report explores what the year ahead is expected to bring as businesses settle into their remote-working arrangements and look towards the future.

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (TechRepublic)

This includes the evolution of video-meeting and other productivity tools which, while essential to keeping businesses running in the scramble to remote work in 2020, has also exposed the limitations of remote-working software.

While video-conferencing technology is expected to remain a mainstay of the remote-working landscape, Juniper Research predicts 2021 will bring technology that’s capable of more accurately replicating the sort of social interaction that’s been missing since we began working from home.

“Tools that allow simultaneous working, and the organic sharing of perspectives and insights alongside the project being worked on will come to the fore,” said the report. “The lessons of the past year will be put to development of new forms of software that go beyond video conferencing to allow for ongoing simultaneous collaboration; bringing all these functionalities together into holistic platforms.”

You don’t need to look hard to find people complaining of Zoom fatigue. While the majority of professionals have expressed a desire to keep working remotely in the long-term, there is also a clear desire for a return to face-to-face interactions and in-person meetings.

Software companies have done clever things to try to bridge this gap and make virtual meetings feel a bit less impersonal. Microsoft’s together mode for Teams, for example, and its AI gaze correction tech, are both attempts to add an element of ‘there-ness’ to video meetings. Zoom has dabbled here too with Immersive Scenes, which is similar to together mode on Teams in that it places meeting participants into a shared virtual space, with the intention of boosting engagement.

Yet Sam Barker, lead analyst at Juniper Research, suggested immersion may not be a focus for these companies in the coming months; instead, software providers will be more concerned with building more capacity to cope with the huge increase in users they’ve seen since the start of 2020.

“This idea of making these meetings seem more like you’re in the office, it’s almost just a case of [the] small things to get people interested,” Barker told TechRepublic.

“I don’t think the development will really stay in those areas, it’s more going to be dealing with the increase and development of users, and investing in cloud services and servers that can handle that increasing amount of data.”

Instead, Barker said, 2021 will see third-party developers use already established platforms as a “springboard” for creating new remote-working capabilities.

“Third-party developers will have a really big role to play in developing [these apps] over the next year or so,” he added.

AR and VR still a niche

One trend Juniper Research is predicting is collaboration tools that incorporate augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) elements – technologies we haven’t heard much from in the work-from-home conversation so far.

“In particular, we expect to see innovation around what virtual meetings entail, which may include specialized use of AR and VR for those industries that require more in-depth presentation and simulation of ideas and designs,” said the report.

“This will become particularly prevalent in the CAD space, where design space and workspace for coding new designs will easily merge into one work interface. Platforms like this can easily be extended to social environments too, in order to allow workers to ‘be together’ remotely in the same virtual space.”

Google, Microsoft, and Oracle will be some of the bigger players to capitalize on this trend, Juniper Research said, given they already have capabilities in place to bring conferencing and productivity together in cloud-supported platforms.

Even so, the company noted that the prohibitive costs of setting up VR environments for workers meant the technology would “not see huge adoption in 2021” – meaning you probably shouldn’t hold out hope for virtual reality meetings any time soon.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Barker explained that AR and VR were too prohibitive, both in terms of cost and the software development cycle, to see mainstream adoption within the remote-working space for now.

“I wouldn’t hold up much hope for Microsoft Teams releasing anything AR- or VR-based in the next year or so,” he said.

“There’s no real killer app or service that’s really taken off or managed to establish itself. In the consumer space, there’s not enough content to justify the purchase of a brand-new machine for AR or VR.”

Workers are more likely to see developments around tools that help make video conferencing and collaboration more productive by integrating production tools.

This includes Salesforce’s Sales 360 Cloud, Dockabl’s Clink and in-house developments like Netflix’s in-house NetFX platform, which allows VFX teams to work on visual effects for Netflix titles in the cloud.

“These will only accelerate in use in 2021, with more workers now content to work from home, and more companies adapting their policies to incorporate expanded and permanent remote-working capabilities,” said the report.

“The biggest beneficiaries of this change will be those companies that can adapt their work practices to remote working more easily, and so take the most advantage of the expanded talent pool and more flexible work patterns that working from home enables.”