Working from home may never be the same.
As shelter in place policies during the coronavirus outbreak force businesses to adjust to the reality of their teams working remotely, it's almost as if we're getting a trial run of what a dispersed workforce of the near future might look like. One of the much anticipated potential benefits of 5G, the fifth-generation wireless network, is the ability to enable a new kind of remote work: doctors treating patients from distant locations; widely dispersed farms changing their systems in fundamental ways from a centralized base; and knowledge workers seeing more productivity working from anywhere.
Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst at Gartner, the global research firm, imagines a post-Covid-19 world where business travel may be limited and large teams less viable. Menezes envisions scenarios where smaller groups are needed in the field since others can guide, assess, and document projects remotely with tools like virtual reality or high-speed video delivered over 5G. One upside of using 5G as a way to transmit data from the field back to the office is that "you're limiting the number [of employees] who may have to go out and potentially get exposed to dangerous conditions," he says.
As Inc. columnist Geoffrey James noted recently, there are compelling reasons why non-centralized workplaces will become more attractive: decreased emissions from fewer commuters, the potential to eliminate workplace bias, and savings to companies that will no longer need to relocate highly skilled workers to some of the most expensive areas in the country just because those cities house massive corporate headquarters. (Hello, Silicon Valley.) As James writes, in a decade, "centralized offices (open-plan or not) will be like the phone booths, a thing that older people remember as once being useful but which have since become irrelevant, obsolete, and non-existent."
While the true value of 5G will only be understood when it finally rolls out, Menezes sees potential in the innovations it could bring that none of us can even imagine at the moment. "When 4G started getting deployed a decade ago, I don't think there was anybody who said, 'Oh, 4G means we're going to have Uber now. That means social media are going to be a predominant communication platform, because everybody can access video and stuff wherever they go.' Those are the things that emerged that we hadn't really even thought of," he says.
Though some coverage of 5G frames it as a potential fire hose of data, some of that speed may be impacted by the rest of your household and neighborhood's streaming demands, according to Menezes. If everyone is taxing a network with huge data demands, he says, you might not see optimal speeds even with super-fast 5G.
"We're kind of in uncharted waters simply because of how quickly all of this has moved from an enterprise setting, where there's a fairly robust infrastructure, to a home setting, where sometimes infrastructures are robust, and sometimes not," he says. "So far, I haven't seen anything to indicate that there's been a significant degradation, but I think locally, it would be surprising if some people weren't experiencing some type of degraded performance simply because of a new sustained peak usage."
As this work-from-home trial continues, companies will see what works for their employees and what doesn't. The tools they use, including how each of us connects, evolve as well. The next decade of business is developing right now, and like a generation of legendary startups, it's being born in homes and garages. Only this time, these potential industry-shapers may stay there for good.