Like most things we took for granted before the year 2020 found us, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the traditional 9-to-5 work cycle of many people. Before COVID-19 only 3.6% of employees spent at least half of their time working remotely. By the end of 2021, that number is expected to be over 25%. Once uncomfortable with letting employees work from home (WFH), organizations are now embracing the practice by making these arraignments permanent.
The reasons for this are many and beyond the scope of this article but, in short, employers have found that their employees are just as productive working from home as they are in the office. Employees report being happier overall and like the control remote working gives them over their lives.
Another driver remote work is the availability of broadband internet. Most of the U.S. population (and much of the developed world) has ready access to broadband in one form or another: cable, fiber, or DSL. The introduction of mid-band 5G, gives millions of people in urban and suburban areas access to a mobile broadband experience that rivals these terrestrial connections. The number of people with mid-band access is set to increase dramatically in the coming years as telcos continue their 5G infrastructure build outs and more spectrum comes online.
With mid-band 5G, fixed wireless access (FWA) also becomes a viable connection option for rural (and urban) customers who currently lack good broadband options. With an FWA antenna, these customers can do things like provide broadband connectivity to far-flung facilities and installations; expanding the areas where field workers can access high-speed networking and, therefore, the data and applications they need to be more productive in the field.
What this means for remote knowledge workers—everyone from WFH office workers to traveling nurses to journalists to oil field technicians—is they will no longer be tied to a specific location to do their jobs. With 5G, WFH becomes work-from-anywhere (WFX). The knock-on effects of this new found freedom will be dramatic. Indeed, the immediate impact of 5G on knowledge workers is already being felt, with the biggest short-term impacts being network ubiquity and reliability.
Today, knowledge workers rely on a mix of terrestrial network connections along with WiFi, 4G LTE cellular networks, and even satellites, to do their jobs. Having one network to replace these myriad options can improve productivity dramatically. No longer will these data-driven professionals need to spend valuable time and energy searching for a reliable, fast connection. Instead, they can move from location to location, taking their work with them uninterrupted.
It will also relieve many of them, like traveling nurses, from having to fill out paper forms “just in case” they don’t have network access or lose a connection in the middle of taking notes at a patient’s bedside. With 5G, services platforms such as unified communications (UC), project management, sales enablement, virtual desktops (VDI) and the like, can now go where the user goes. Having to find a network fast enough upload and download data, documents, videos, make VOIP calls, use laptops, and host of other time-killing tasks, will be a thing of the past. Mid-band 5G is fully capable of handling these activities today.
Devices Will Evolve Too
Manufacturers are busy on the device front, as well. There are currently hundreds of new, 5G-enbaled devices coming onto the market in 2021 in 18 different form factors covering the gamut from smartphones to vending machines.
Mid-band 5G also will enable organizations to start mainstreaming long-sought-after technologies like augmented reality (AR). When combined with headsets like Microsoft’s Hololens and Google Glass (yes, it’s still around), technicians can keep working while accessing manuals, live-streaming back to a control center, engaging with trainers, or uploading video in real-time to name a few of this exciting technology’s many uses.
The best part is AR is not some future-state technology that may or may not come to pass one day. It’s here now. In March, 2020, when a group of UK and European manufacturers came together to build ventilators for COVID-19 patients, they used Microsoft’s Hololens 2 headsets and AR to train people to build ventilators. It worked. By July the UK Ventilator Challenge, as it was known, delivered over 14,000 units to the UK’s National Health Service.
Given the success of most WFH arraignments and the example above, fast reliable 5G ultra-capacity networks also will open WFX to a whole new range of job titles that can be done remotely. In May 2020, for example, the port of Ningbo-Zhoushan in China used a private 5G network to remove gantry crane operators from the cabs of their vehicles. Now they operating their massive machines remotely from comfortable arm chairs in air-conditioned control rooms instead of hunched over their controls all day.
Even Nissan is thinking about how to capitalize on the WFX trend. In January, the automaker unveiled an “office pod” on wheels mini-van complete with a slide out office module, coffee maker, power inverter, and even a lounge area on the roof. While the company said it has no plans to move the concept vehicle into production, it does show that WFX as a trend is likely here to stay.
Going forward, as more 5G spectrum comes online and more devices are primed to make use of it, it is likely that we will see the trend towards WFX continue to grow as a new generation of employees, never knowing an alternative lifestyle, enter the workplace en masse.