Early reports from 2020 found that about 40 percent of the EU’s workforce shifted to teleworking full-time as a result of the pandemic . That means that in a very short time, millions of workers transitioned from their typical office routines to setting up shop at home. In a matter of days, the use of video conferencing and virtual collaboration tools skyrocketed, going from periodic occurrences to the workplace standard and leaving many of us — myself included — just a bit dazed in our new routines. Luckily, though, most of us successfully managed this major adjustment, and we’ve now settled into a new normal. But despite our adaption, many of us can’t help but wonder in the back of our minds — does this actually work? Are video calls and home working stations what we can expect for the future? Is tomorrow’s office really remote?
Beyond the new normal
By now, these questions have become more than just lingering thoughts. For many businesses, organizations, and governments around the world, the conversation about what the future of work might look like is a topic under a lot of scrutiny — as is the question of what it’s going to take to get us there. For a massive shift in the practices we’ve known for so long to occur on such a large scale — not to mention the new resource capabilities that will be needed — today’s standard internet connectivity simply won’t be enough. And what’s more, not everyone has access to the same standard.
The pandemic has actually shed some light on this, exposing something of a digital divide existing in a lot of countries around the world. Even in the US or UK, if you were to compare the status of home broadband in big cities versus that in rural areas, you’d see a huge difference in the availability of reliable broadband and subscriber satisfaction with quality of service. But trying to bridge this gap and meet new demand by installing more fiber isn’t going to cut it — not from a feasibility standpoint and not in terms of rollout speed. Instead, 5G — with its superfast speeds, low latency, and robust security — stands out as the optimum choice for the job.
A 5G-enabled workplace
5G’s speed alone will go a long way when it comes to the growing percentage of employees working from home, enabling smoother and more reliable connections to keep operations running full steam ahead. What’s more, with even large companies currently relying on their employees’ access to home Wi-Fi, any security weaknesses in even a single employee’s network could mean serious trouble for organizations — making 5G’s enhanced security more crucial than just beneficial. But that’s not the end of what 5G will do for tomorrow’s workplace.
Enabling the possibility for use cases that have never before been possible, 5G is redefining how many of us envision the future of work. Think of extended reality (XR) — the conglomeration of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) — for example. What if we could maintain our connections with the workplace — the face-to-face chats with coworkers, the physical atmospheres of our offices — without having to leave home? XR-enabled interactions would have minimal delay between real-world actions and virtual effects, which would give us almost true-to-life immediacy for complete immersion in any situation, letting us feel like we’re almost there in person. And that seems to be an important factor for many of us.
According to our global survey on enterprise expectations by 2030 (featured in our IndustryLab report The dematerialized office: A vision of the internet of senses in the 2030 future workplace), half of the nearly 8,000 white-collar respondents indicated they would want a digital workstation to enable their full-sense presence at work from anywhere — a very real potential reality.
The future of creative collaboration
The possibilities might also extend into the territory of creative collaboration. Leveraging 5G, we could marry remote expertise with virtual collaboration in a single place (an XR canvas) to expand our teamworking capabilities.
“If you think about construction, for example, you want builders to work collectively together, looking at the kind of shapes and sizes and materials of a building. That’s also equally possible,” says Peter Marshall, Strategic Marketing Director here at Ericsson. “You could have a virtual CAD [computer-aided design] drawing on a central server cascaded to many people around the world, where they could collectively collaborate on something which kind of exists but doesn’t exist — and it’s not a PowerPoint presentation.”
Beyond construction, 5G would enable new capabilities in other domains too, such as manufacturing. In this case, 5G could be used in factories to create “digital twins” (or virtual replicas duplicating real physical entities), enabling the simulation of various scenarios and testing processes. In education, XR could redefine the current homeschooling experience, leveraging 5G to better engage students through interactive exercises and stunning visuals. In medicine, visual simulations could be coupled with tactile feedback through “haptic” wearables like gloves, providing realistic physical sensations.
“Touch is an important factor, but it very much depends on the situation,” Marshall says. “For instance, look at jet engine training. A jet engine is a very expensive resource. What you can do is replicate that jet engine in a controlled virtual environment, where you could disassemble it and assemble it using both tactile and virtual reality solutions, giving you the ability to feel how much tension you are applying through a spanner and the weight of a component in your hand. Based on that approach, you could have engineers from around the world collectively disassemble and assemble a jet engine with central support.”
The futureproof answer
For many workers around the world, the pandemic has shown us that we are indeed capable of adapting to new circumstances. That’s very true. But more than that, it has shown us the need for a new system of work that is more agile, reliable, and efficient to meet the demands of an increasingly complex future. In a world where we could remotely maintain a nearly true-to-life physical workplace experience, maybe there’d be no more need for commuting, which costs employees time and money (not to mention its environmental impact); no more expansive buildings costing companies a fortune to operate and maintain. Best of all, we could have all this without sacrificing the interpersonal connections with our coworkers that are so crucial to career satisfaction and team success. That’s what 5G can enable.
This article was originally published on Wired.co.uk
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Read Ericsson President and CEO Börje Ekholm’s blog post, Learning from Covid-19 and why we cannot go back to the future.
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