Coronavirus (and 5G) will boost telecommuting, change our tech future

The coronavirus is already changing how and where people work – and 5G will add to the options we have for telecommuting. Both will force companies to rethink how aggressively to promote telecommuting and how we provision remote workers to slow the advance of Pandemic threats.

young man on video conference coronavirus remote communication telecommuting by gcshutter getty ima
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Disclaimer: Most of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) seems to be doing everything it can to keep from naming the coronavirus a pandemic, we are likely already past that point.  The combination of a long gestation period, where people are contagious but not showing symptoms, and a fatality rate that is too low to burn the virus out but too high to treat like a cold, will change behavior.  As I write this, Facebook has canceled F8; this follows the cancellation of Mobile World Congress and increasing speculation that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be cancelled, too. With no immunization process yet available, we’re months away from when this illness will peak, suggesting that companies need to rethink travel, telecommuting, and even how we hold meetings on-site. 

Now is the time to start rethinking how companies provision workers, both to telecommute and to avoid group meetings where viruses could spread. Maybe it is time we started looking at converged communications platforms so that our employees can far more easily collaborate without physically coming into contact with each other. 

Let’s talk about how a pandemic is likely to change what we use for personal technology and how that intersects with work needs.

The evolution of personal tech

PCs and Smartphones evolved very differently.  We started with typewriters, which became electric, then became connected (teletype), then got screens (as terminals), then added computing capabilities (PCs), and finally, became portable. That evolution was tied to advances in technology, not necessarily to productivity or an initially defined human need. For example, had we been more focused on productivity, we would have changed the QWERTY keyboard layout – it arose from a need to keep typewriter keys from getting tangled – and used a more efficient design. 

Smartphones came from wired phones, evolved into wireless phones, then merged with two-way pagers to become smartphones focused on business. Then, thanks to Apple and the iPhone, they made a hard pivot to entertainment. (It’s a pivot that a lot of industries like defense, healthcare and finance would like to see pivot back.)

There was an effort to tie the phone and the computermore closely  together on the desk with the old AT&T/NCR and IBM/ROLM Systems efforts; that largely died out with the PBX market.  Now, the closest thing we have to a unified communications solution is the smartphone.  Both Dell and Microsoft have created applications that better tie the phone and PC together. While both applications are handy, neither effort has yet forced a change in a blended solution. 

The rise of telecommuting

At this point, telecommuting has seen varied acceptance. It generally works well for people who are self-starters and enjoy working alone, who have a job that doesn’t require constant collaboration or physical proximity to some types of work product. (Manufacturing, for instance, would require a lot more robotics and remote viewing capabilities to make telecommuting viable; these options exist, but haven’t been consistently applied to the problem). 

There is a bigger concern with employees: when it comes to raises and promotions, the belief is that remote workers are disadvantaged. A lot of managers and executives still believe that remote workers waste time and don’t focus on work. As a result, some companies will talk up telecommuting when the job market is tight to attract new talent, then curtail it when there is a labor surplus for a perceived gain in productivity. 

Recent studies have shown that there is no career disadvantage to working remotely, particularly when it is common company policy.  It is interesting to note, however, that when telecommuters increased face-to-face contact, either in person or through teleconferencing, they saw faster salary growth. 

5G, the cloud and ‘holoportation’

One of the things Qualcomm demonstrated recently with 5G and the latest Lenovo/Microsoft “Always Connected PC” device – the Yoga 5G – is that portable workstation-class performance is achievable. And with 5G, you get latency and performance capabilities that potentially exceed what’s now available in the office with a hard-wired network connection. 

This cloud capability means you can use relatively inexpensive hardware connected to the cloud to give a remote employee more scalable performance than they’d have in the office, short of their high-end workstation hard-wired into the network. 

Another thing coming with 5G, and this was demonstrated with Facebook’s Oculus effort, is the ability to have an untethered Extended Reality headset and use it for telecommuting. Microsoft has been demonstrating interactive Telepresence (Holoportation) with Hololens. When you realize that even on-site meetings are likely to be a thing of the past shortly, it’s one way to keeping people isolated from each other and slow the progression of illnesses like coronavirus to manageable levels.

When you make an Extended Reality headset part of the solution, you should be able to lose the display on the laptop and smartphone and use only the head-mounted display instead.  The device, if used consistently, can put you in a virtual cubicle, an office – or by a canal in France, depending on where you’d like to be working. 

Wrapping up:  The blended telecommuting solution of the future

The main elements for a not-too-distant telecommuting system include a comfortable Extended Reality headset like the current generation Hololens or Occulus; a computing device that is 5G connected (likely your Smartphone); a keyboard; a portable pointing solution (which could be your finger); and an integrated cloud solution that unifies your communications, blending visual and audio capabilities.

This set-up, coupled with the right software and communications technology, would better integrate a remote worker with his or her  increasingly also remote peers. And it would allow you to work anyplace you wanted with full computing capability – be that in a cubicle, at home, or in a bunker with a 5G signal. 

In the end, I think the coronavirus problem will force us first to reconsider telecommuting and then reconsider how we provision remote workers to take advantage of the technology of today. The days of the wired phone and typewriter are larehly gone. 

I expect most companies will be late to embrace change this time. But recognizing something like coronavirus is likely to happen again, the corporate world will be forced to change to avod damage from our increasingly hostile future. 

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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