It’s 10:00 am. Do you know where your employee is? No doubt they are working—somewhere.
Thanks to greatly improved internet connectivity and workforce applications, employees in an increasing number of professions can work just about anywhere they want—in their home, at a coffee shop, on a plane. And chances are they’re more productive and more engaged than they would be if they were in the office. They may even be planning to stay in their job longer because of their flexible work location. In 2017, Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom, in a TED Talk, went so far as to call work-from-home potentially as innovative as the driverless car.
Now, work-from-home is itself about to be disrupted, by the coming of 5G and its ability to enable virtual reality (VR) anywhere through what’s known as XR, the combination of extended, augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technologies. Fifth-generation (5G) communications networks, with their exponentially faster connection speeds, capacity, and communication response times (known as latency), will make possible an astonishing range of innovative new products and services.
As history has shown, new opportunities abound when wireless connectivity becomes faster and costs less. Watching HD video on a smartphone could only have been made possible with the shift from 3G to 4G, just as surfing the web went mobile with the jump from 2G to 3G. Now the shift from 4G to 5G will fundamentally change how, where, when, and in what ways we work.
Imagine being able to interact with a full-size “digital twin” of every place and thing that exists in the physical world, all from a home office. A plant manager in Seattle can immerse herself in a factory in Vietnam; she can see, hear, feel, even smell the shop floor. Avatars of executives can appear in a conference room anywhere in the world. Doctors can even assist with surgeries in faraway hospitals, operating remotely using immersive 3D holograms beamed right into their homes or offices.
In other words: While basic internet access allowed work to be done remotely, XR and 5G will allow work to be done truly virtually.
Consider our work-from-home arrangements today: Employees can perform a wide range of jobs remotely, including accounting, computer programming, graphic design, engineering, database management, corporate communications, and market research. But none of these jobs requires the employee’s actual physical presence or the manipulation of physical things like equipment and vehicles. For that, you need the kind of capabilities that 5G and XR will provide.
Based on our research and years of experience working with major clients to grow their talent, we see seven ways 5G and XR will change the nature of work:
1. The notion of the workplace will become increasingly fuzzy
Historically, how and where we live has been dictated by where we work. 5G and XR will allow many of us to perform almost any aspect of our jobs, including those that formerly required physical presence or physical tasks, anywhere, truly freeing us to live anywhere. Unlike telecommuting, which brings us to the workplace from remote locations, 5G and XR will bring the workplace to us.
2. Specialists—and even executives—may work for multiple employers
Surgeons or other medical specialists who are currently tied to a hospital or physician’s practice and limited to a single geographical area could conceivably be employed by many hospitals or practices around the world. We might even see the day when talented executives, with an ability to be virtually present for a meeting in New York and another meeting minutes later in Hong Kong, work as salaried employees for two or more companies simultaneously. And more and more professionals and specialists of all kinds could become freelancers—in effect entering the gig economy.
3. Working virtually could be as good as or better than being there
That Seattle-based manager of the Vietnam manufacturing facility will be able to do a realistic walk-through of the plant in real time and examine any aspect of its operations, at any level of detail. With an XR app’s ability to put operational data, diagnostics and controls at her fingertips, she will be in an even better position to do her work than someone on-site who lacks her augmented capabilities.
4. Companies that train their people to use—and be augmented by—technology will perform better
Large companies like Walmart, AT&T, JPMorgan Chase, and Amazon are equipping their employees by the thousands with new skills for a new era filled with artificial intelligence, blockchain, quantum computing, robots, and XR and 5G. As they undertake this new important retraining work, they will soon do so with a new advantage: 5G, and XR in particular, will make it possible to train workers anywhere, anytime, on a global scale, and with a degree of realism that will be indistinguishable from experiential learning on the job at the job site. With such reskilling made easier by the technology itself, companies will find an important value proposition: If they equip their people to leverage all the new tech—and be augmented by it—they will ultimately perform better.
5. Companies will have to figure out how to maintain virtual cultures
As fixed places for work diminish in importance, maintaining a desired culture will become increasingly difficult. Global companies have longed faced a version of this challenge across borders, but in the future it will become pervasive, even the smallest units of an enterprise, as flesh-and-blood encounters become increasingly rare.
6. Companies that figure out how to create the best value propositions for workers will win
As more people have the opportunity to work for multiple companies simultaneously, the very relationship between corporations and employees will be dramatically changed. How should compensation and benefits packages be structured? What about retention strategies? The reality is, companies that understand how to leverage new technologies to create the best value propositions for people, including perhaps letting them work for other employers simultaneously, will be the ones with the best people and therefore will win. The challenge then becomes how to structure employment contracts to get the most out of these high-performing employees.
7. Burnout and abusive work environments could multiply
Because 5G and XR will enable many employees to perform almost any of their duties anywhere, any time, they may be tempted—or expected—to be on the job around the clock. Those who work for more than one employer could be doubly squeezed, taking on too much and serving two or more highly demanding masters.
Today, the 5G/XR world seems to lie over a distant horizon. But when the availability and power of both technologies reach the tipping point and converge, the way we work will change radically. Companies will race to build business and operating models that use 5G’s capacity and XR’s immersiveness to create competitive advantage. As they do so, they will inevitably transform the workplace in ways that will challenge our concepts of work and place—and our remote-work capabilities will be utterly transformed.
Omar Abbosh is group executive for Accenture’s communications, media & technology business. Paul Nunes is managing director of thought leadership at Accenture Research. Both are co-authors, with Accenture Research’s Larry Downes, of Pivot to the Future.