What Workstation Sales Tell Us About the Future of Work

We spoke with Lenovo’s Rob Herman about the effects of the pandemic and the advantages of hybrid work.

Relative sales of desktop and notebook PCs have changed since the pandemic. Will they change back? (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)

Relative sales of desktop and notebook PCs have changed since the pandemic. Will they change back? (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)

The way we work has changed. Instead of writing these words from my cluttered desk at engineering.com headquarters, I’m writing them from my cluttered desk in my bedroom headquarters. Many of you reading these words can relate. Though not everyone can work remotely—heroic front-line workers are a prime example—most work that could be taken home was taken home due to COVID-19.

Whether the mass shift to remote work is fleeting or will endure post pandemic remains to be seen. However, as with all dichotomies, the best bet is probably somewhere in the middle. Rob Herman, General Manager of the Workstation and Client AI Business Unit at Lenovo, predicts that hybrid work will be the new normal going forward. 

For computer manufacturers like Lenovo, the shifting sands of work habits are easily readable in sales figures. For example, 2020 was a banner year for notebook sales, which accounted for a record 79 percent of PC shipments that year. This number is not hard to interpret given the general uncertainty about where people would be working and when.

Notebooks accounted for a record 79 percent of global PC shipments in 2020. (Source: Canalys.)

Notebooks accounted for a record 79 percent of global PC shipments in 2020. (Source: Canalys.)

We spoke with Rob Herman—remotely, that is—to better understand how the PC market is changing and what may be in store for the future of work.

Rob Herman, Vice President & General Manager, Workstation & Client AI Group at Lenovo. (Source: LinkedIn.)

Rob Herman, Vice President & General Manager, Workstation & Client AI Group at Lenovo. (Source: LinkedIn.)

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Engineering.com: Why do you advocate a hybrid approach to work?

Rob Herman: Even before the pandemic, we had customers that were already pursuing as best they could a hybrid approach. Many companies have a follow-the-sun design approach, where they’ve got talent all over the world and they’re moving their design from one end of the world to the other, depending on the time of day. That also allows for the ability to attract talent from anywhere. So those two pieces were already in play before the pandemic, and as the pandemic hit, as awful of an impact as it has had on people’s lives and the economy, it really has served as an accelerant in addressing the advantages of remote productivity.

So I would say flexibility, business continuity, and talent acquisition are really the three advantages for a hybrid approach.

Do you think there’s still a role for the traditional office?

Just the other day I was talking to the head of an AEC firm [architecture, engineering, and construction] and his plan is by end of summer, he’s going to make it mandatory three days per week in the office. So while they’ve been able to maintain productivity through the pandemic, they just see the benefit of having face-to-face contact, especially with new or younger employees.

While we have survey data that says a vast majority of people prefer to work from home, there are still situations where employees want to be in the office. And employers want them in the office. So to me, hybrid is about where the employee is physically. And what are the pros and cons of that physical presence versus being virtual? When I think of hybrid, I think of it in terms of the customers and the end users. 

Our end users, especially if they’re dealing with photorealistic rendering, or maybe doing very involved 3D animation, still need a robust visual experience. So you need some level of a high resolution display at your desk. You need the robust connectivity to other displays that you might have at home or wherever else you’re working remotely. And then, you need the flexibility of being able to work offline too. So that still requires some level of robustness from a CPU and GPU and memory standpoint.

Do you think mobile workstations will replace desktops for these types of users?

What we’ve seen through the pandemic from a market standpoint is the mix between desktop and mobile shifted. Before the pandemic, it was 40 percent mobile and 60 percent desktop, and that’s a worldwide number. The market has flipped. It’s now 60 percent mobile, 40 percent desktop. Part of that, I think, is the rush to keep employees productive and a move from desktop to mobile to equip those employees. Part of it, I think, is knowledge workers in general wanting a more robust platform to keep up with Teams and Zoom and the multiple applications they have going when they’re spending a lot of time at their desk. Using their computer to not only do their work but to communicate as well.

I’ve had executives call me early on in the pandemic within our company and say, Rob, I’m not traveling anymore, I don’t need my three-pound X1 Carbon [mobile workstation]. I need something with a bigger screen, and I need something with more horsepower. So I think some of that happened in that mobile shift, but the other part was just workstation users needing to stay productive. Now what I see going forward is probably a rebalance to more like 50 percent/50 percent as we get into this hybrid model. I think there will be a rebalance even within the role that the desktop plays.

Let’s take an architect, for example, who might be using Revit and might be creating the final design look and feel, and doing photorealistic rendering. Pre-pandemic, they needed a pretty beefy desktop workstation to do that. And they probably had a pretty robust mobile workstation as well for when they needed to go visit clients. What we could see in the future for that example is a rebalance where you have one desktop machine sitting in the office with two GPUs or even three GPUs. And that machine serves as a dedicated client when someone’s in the office, but then can also serve as a multi-user client when people are out of the office. So you either tap into it remotely, or when you’re actually sitting at the desk, you can tap into it at the desk.

That gives you flexibility, and your spend is probably going to change. So your spend is going to be more on, okay, now I’ve got to buy two GPUs instead of one. And on that mobile system, you may still need a large screen, but maybe you don’t need as robust a CPU and GPU, because you can now use the power of that desktop in the office.

Has Lenovo’s strategy changed?

Based on the shift that I described earlier, mobile is more top of mind. But I think where we’re spending a lot of focus today is on what does the future of desktop look like? We know mobile and desktop will exist in five years, but what do they look like? What is the preponderance of features and performance that are needed for each of these?

I’ll just throw a wild idea out there. You could envision an ARM-based platform on the mobile side that has a very high resolution display, robust graphics, and the capability to port out video to multiple screens, whether it’s achieved through the ARM architecture or otherwise. So does docking become something different? What are the most important variables for the end user?

In the end, it really comes down to how we best serve our end users with a tool that makes them the most productive. And customers are coming at it from different aspects.

What is Lenovo’s approach to remote and in-office work?

My last trip was February 20, 2020 to Houston to visit some oil and gas customers. And I haven’t been on the road since. I made a few trips into the office, mostly to review design mock-ups for next generation products, but otherwise we are fully exploiting the use of Teams and Zoom to interact and collaborate with our teams.

Honestly, I think we’re still trying to work out the best approach. I’d go back to the survey data. We recently conducted a survey, it was a global enterprise-level survey, and 70 percent of global employees report higher job satisfaction and 56 percent feel more productive at home. So I think we’ve got to be sensitive to that. I don’t know if mandatory [in-office work] is something that we’ll do, but I think it just depends on the company’s mission. What type of work they do and what type of employees they have.

Do you like working from home?

I would say working the way we were before the pandemic was more appealing to me. And a lot of it had to do with just having that face-to-face interaction. I run a global business, so I used to fly all around the world. Especially with foreign countries, it’s good to have that face-to-face and be in their time zone and talking to them directly.

But, other than that, I think there have been ways that we’ve been more productive [at home]. I’ve had to establish relationships with new people, and I’ve only met them remotely, but I managed to build and foster productive relationships with good people. So that surprised me a bit. But my preference would be to be out and about.

Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at engineering.com. He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.