Imagine participating in a meeting where 3-D holograms contribute ideas in real time on a digital whiteboard, enhancing collaboration among remote teams. Or managing a grocery store where smart shelves automatically detect low product inventories and submit replacement orders, eliminating the need for an employee. Or strapping on an augmented reality headset and receiving real-time, guided instructions on how to repair a piece of machinery, day or night.
Soon, you may not need to imagine. 5G—the fifth and newest generation of the cellular wireless network—has the power to unlock these and other capabilities in the workplace.
"It's not simply another 'G,' as it has been in previous generations," says United Kingdom-based Amol Phadke, global network practice lead at Accenture. "It has the potential to completely disrupt the way we work and live."
Most of the buzz surrounding 5G so far has focused on consumer benefits. (Download a feature-length movie to your phone in seconds instead of minutes! Open your trash can through an app!) But there are a range of significant workplace implications as well. Greater efficiencies are expected, thanks to increased speeds and more data, and functions as varied as recruiting, collaboration and remote work likely will be affected.
Exactly when the 5G network will become widely accessible remains to be seen. So far, services are available only in select markets, and most devices in use today aren't equipped to connect to the 5G network. While the rollout of 5G will continue over the next several years, and high-profile developments such as driverless cars could take at least a decade to materialize, some analysts have pegged 2020 as the year this technology will start to gain traction.
Countries such as China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.K. are busy building out infrastructure to get 5G-ready. While some new wireless towers are being erected, most of the additions are small-cell sites that attach to lampposts and utility poles. These small cells build network density, which is crucial for 5G capabilities.
The new network promises higher data-transfer rates, lower latency and greater capacity. In other words, 5G will be faster, more reliable and more powerful than its predecessors.
"The biggest change by far will be brought by the speed of the connection," says Carsten Schaefer, founder and CEO at crowdy.ai, a startup based in Germany that uses artificial intelligence to provide online users with real-time notifications about the website or product being viewed. "Given how amazingly fast the Internet connection is, it will make work much more efficient."
According to some estimates, 5G technology, which will process data in gigabits per second rather than in megabits, will eventually be 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.
5G will also be able to support far more applications. It will need to, considering that the number of devices connected to the Internet—often referred to as the Internet of things (IoT)—is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. London-based data and information services provider IHS Markit predicts that the number of connected devices worldwide will continue to rise, from 27 billion in 2017 to 125 billion in 2030.
These devices will collect and analyze a massive amount of data in real time—and, in some cases, be able to act on it.
"In the IoT, a multitude of sensors, meters and other machines will connect to the Internet to create more value and efficiency across a host of connections," explains Kevin Linehan, vice president in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at CommScope, a Hickory, N.C.-based telecommunications equipment manufacturer.
For example, manufacturing equipment will be able to detect malfunctions before they occur, reducing downtime and lost productivity for workers on the factory floor. And smart shelves in a retail store could monitor inventory and place orders with suppliers when products run low, relieving store employees from having to perform these routine tasks.
Believe the Hype?
Some industry insiders have gone so far as to say that the 5G network will be as revolutionary as the printing press, the automobile and electricity. But not everyone agrees.
"We believe the effects of 5G on the workplace will actually be incremental, not revolutionary," says Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications, which provides fiber gigabit Internet for businesses in New York City. He predicts Wi-Fi will continue to be the primary wireless option at home and work, paired with a wireline connection.
Many business and technology executives remain similarly skeptical about what 5G can deliver. According to the results of a global study from Accenture last year, over half (53 percent) of the 1,800 executives surveyed believe there are "very few" things that 5G will enable them to do that they can't already do with 4G. Only 37 percent said they expect 5G to bring a "revolutionary" shift in speed and capacity, though a greater number anticipate a "significant" change.
"The most surprising thing to come out of the survey is the fact that many business and technology executives underestimate the disruptive potential of 5G technology," Phadke says. "There's clearly a lot of work that needs to be done to educate both business and IT leaders, because 5G is a revolution, not an evolution."
AT&T has been providing such education to its enterprise customers through roadshows and other avenues. "We start by educating them on the technology behind 5G, and then we explain how the evolution to 5G is changing the business landscape and the applications for 5G within different industries," says Robert Boyanovsky, vice president of enterprise mobility at AT&T Business in Dallas.
Industries often cited as those expected to be most affected by 5G include telecommunications, health care, manufacturing, retail, transportation and agriculture.
If 5G delivers on its promise, perhaps the biggest winner from a workplace perspective will be remote work. This will benefit both employees and employers.
For the last two decades, telecommuting has increasingly been an option for knowledge workers, thanks to advances in technology. But because remote work typically requires access to reliable, high-speed Internet, such work often has been limited to home offices or co-working spaces. With 5G's enhanced speed and reliability, that will change. Workers will truly be able to work wherever they want, whether that's at home, in a park or on a train—and that won't apply to just knowledge workers. Blue-collar workers and those in the service sector will have more opportunities to work remotely as well. Factory workers could inspect and monitor real-time system performance from afar, for example, and health care professionals will be able to monitor patient health through wearable devices.
More remote workers will mean more remote meetings. That may not be welcome news to anyone who has suffered through a videoconference when the picture freezes or lag times make for a choppy conversation. But don't snap your noise-canceling headset in half just yet.
"Videoconferences will be better with the implementation of 5G," says Deepu Prakash, senior vice president of process and technology innovation at Fingent, a New York City-based tech firm.
In the short term, increased speed and bandwidth will result in better video quality and fewer dropped connections, Prakash explains. In the long term, 5G-powered technologies will usher in virtual meetings and related tools. In a virtual meeting, employees could be at home (or elsewhere) but feel like they're sitting around a table with the other participants rather than in front of a screen.
Additionally, "holographic calls would be another application where a 3-D projection is used with the help of 5G," Prakash says. Participants separated by geography would be represented to other attendees as avatars and would be able to physically move about the virtual workspace, perhaps to collaborate with colleagues on a digital whiteboard.
A rise in remote work may also lead some companies to reduce the size of their physical office spaces or even transition to entirely virtual offices. After all, why pay for a building that workers aren't using?
Assuming remote work becomes more common with 5G, talent acquisition and job-search practices will be affected. Employees will be able to apply for jobs outside of where they live, and organizations will be able to expand their recruiting areas.
Eric Hanson, vice president of market intelligence at Boston-based Fuze, a global cloud communications and collaboration software platform, says this will particularly benefit companies in secondary cities. "Organizations can now look to hire the best worker—regardless of where they are based—instead of the worker that is based in their headquarters' city or trying to drive top talent towards urban areas," he wrote in an article for TechRadar.com last year.
In addition, job training—and even job previews and "auditions"—provided via virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) will become more common. These types of environments are particularly ideal for introducing employees to safety-sensitive tasks such as utility work and preparing employees for high-stress situations like store robberies. They can also be used to assess how candidates would react in certain situations, leading to better hiring decisions.
Although VR and AR are already used at some companies, the data-intensive applications haven't yet reached their full potential, according to Prakash. "With 5G and its better bandwidth and speed, VR training will be much smoother and more effective," he says. AR-based education will be smoother and more effective as well. These improvements, along with declining costs, will lead to greater adoption.
Enhanced VR and AR capabilities will also open up possibilities for improved on-the-job performance, Boyanovsky says. For example, a worker could don an AR headset and get instructions overlaid to his or her line of sight on how to repair a piece of machinery. "Or imagine a less-skilled worker who's virtually connected to a far-away headquarters site with an experienced mentor who provides them 3-D virtual training to complete a job without either of them having to travel."
Reskilling the Workforce
While the deployment of 5G technology will create many jobs—22 million globally by 2035, according to IHS Markit—it will also eliminate others.
Jobs being replaced by new technologies is nothing new—just ask people who were laid off from customer service or manufacturing positions in recent years. But previously unaffected occupations could be vulnerable in the future. If self-driving vehicles eventually take to the road en masse, for example, millions of truck, bus and taxi drivers around the world may find themselves unemployed.
And the jobs created by 5G won't replace those lost in a one-for-one trade. Bus drivers won't be able to hop over to a job in robotics, for example, without further education. Plus, at least some of the jobs created by 5G will likely be new occupations in new industries, requiring skills that don't yet exist.
"New skills will be needed," Phadke says, "which will involve a combination of new recruitment plus the ability to upskill and retrain existing employees."
Some companies are already offering programs to teach employees new skills in emerging fields. Amazon, for example, recently announced that it was investing $700 million to reskill 100,000 of its employees in areas such as machine learning and robotics.
Security and Other Concerns
Job losses and a growing skills gap represent just one challenge presented by 5G. Cybersecurity is another.
Some believe 5G will be more secure than existing networks. "5G will make interactive devices more secure. No question," says Chris McGugan, chief technology strategist at Avaya, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that specializes in business communications.
He acknowledges, however, that nearly invisible sensors that automatically collect information and determine when to disseminate that information are bound to raise privacy concerns and make some people uncomfortable.
Others note that the same qualities that make 5G so promising also make it more vulnerable. More file transfers and more connected devices mean more opportunities for hackers to do damage. And, given the growing interconnectivity of devices, the breaches could be more significant.
With more workers conducting business over 5G networks, employers will want to make sure appropriate safeguards are in place.
"The technology opens up huge risks and cybervulnerabilities and the need to secure the network, devices and applications that come from that network," says Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP, principal consultant at Hila Solutions LLC, an Irvine, Calif.-based technology advisory firm.
Additionally, Ambalavanan and Stealth Communications' Pandit say businesses should be aware that the potential health effects of 5G have not yet been fully vetted. (The Federal Communications Commission maintains that 5G poses no risk to health and current radio frequency exposure limits are sufficient.)
And then there are the costs.
Upfront investment was identified as the top barrier to 5G adoption in Accenture's survey, cited by 36 percent of respondents. In addition to upgrading or replacing existing devices with 5G-enabled ones, businesses will need to provide training for workers on new and enhanced technologies.
The upfront costs are real, Ambalavanan says, but he maintains that it's better to make those investments early on than to try to catch up after 5G use is widespread.
Phadke recommends that companies implement 5G one step at a time. Rather than try to do everything at once, he suggests, start by focusing on a low-cost change that provides a quick return, then invest the savings in a subsequent initiative. "It's also important to look at legacy environments," he adds, "and understand if anything can be decommissioned to use that cash to rotate to 5G investments."
Others point out that once the initial expenses are out of the way, businesses should see lower costs overall because 5G will be more energy-efficient than existing networks. For example, McGugan says, it will help extend battery life in devices.
Still, some are likely to remain wary of 5G's potential, and Phadke says that's to be expected. "Any new technology is met with some skepticism," he notes. "The uncertainty is valid right now because the technology is new, but the early movers and education will prove to other business leaders that the opportunity for 5G is profound."
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