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It’s official: The future of work is distributed. With COVID-19 prompting office closures and a sudden shift to remote work, companies have had to adapt to and learn to work with new technologies in recent months, and change is still coming. Even if your organization has adjusted successfully, the “new normal” is an ever-moving target, especially when it comes to technology.

Software giant Microsoft announced recently that it will let employees work from home permanently if they choose to, becoming the first large employer to announce perpetual work-from-home provisions prompted by COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us to think, live and work in new ways,” human resources head Kathleen Hogan said in a note to employees. “We will offer as much flexibility as possible to support individual work styles while balancing business needs and ensuring we live our culture.”

Right now, many companies are practicing distributed work, in which everybody is working from various locations. But while behaviors have adapted, we are still using the same tools that were available before the pandemic. So, what are the emerging technologies that will transform remote working in years to come?

5G

Imagine a future where networking step-changes such as 5G grant more people access to high-speed internet: as remote working becomes more commonplace, the economy would be positioned to reap serious benefits. That’s because new high-speed 5G networks, especially when combined with other technology, are likely to transform remote work. For one thing, according to industry observers, they’ll enable people to transmit and download massive amounts of data easily and almost instantaneously. As important, they should allow employees to perform many tasks remotely that once required they be physically present on-site, while also vastly boosting the capabilities of workers in the field.

The shift from 4G to 5G will fundamentally change the way we work. The reason for this transformation lies with 5G’s increased bandwidth, faster speeds, and low latency, or response times. It all means that remote workers will be able to accomplish tasks they couldn’t before with slower and lower bandwidth capabilities.

AR/VR

But the real superpower, say many analysts, is likely to result from the combination of 5G and XR, which includes virtual and augmented reality. The result will be a full-size, ‘digital twin’ of every place and thing that exists in the physical world, from theaters to operating rooms.

In the near future, distance will be of no importance. Ideas will be exchanged on the spot in meetings, where participants can join visually from any point in the world. Though current technology is still in its childhood, the connectivity capabilities will increase and the 3D display technology will evolve quickly.

Microsoft is developing HoloLens and by wearing glasses, you can connect with others remotely and share your pictures and thoughts in the virtual space. For certain field workers, having the ability for a person to quite literally see what they are doing could be quite beneficial in solving problems.

Google is going to be doing the same by making use of its Google Glass program, which will now be getting a Meet integration to allow workplaces to connect with others and have them see exactly the problem through the eyes of a client. And hopefully, help to solve critical issues faster.

The technology has the potential to enable a realistic projection of meeting participants and clients. Two-dimensional video meetings can’t emulate the inherent virtues of a three-dimensional environment – and that’s where virtual reality comes in. As these tools develop, they could prove transformative. This technology could provide new dimensions of collaboration with new levels of creativity and productivity.

AI

AI promises to help companies bridge the gap to a remote workforce. Tools like AI-powered virtual assistants and engagement tools will be essential to ensuring that remote workers, while potentially “out of sight,” are very much “in mind.” Its full potential is yet to be seen, however, a recent report from Gartner has estimated that by 2022, one in five workers engaged in mostly non-routine tasks will rely on AI to do a job.

AI-powered virtual assistants are making their mark on the enterprise, and it’s already evident that there’s endless potential for the technology to have an impact on the collaboration space. By integrating AI within collaboration tools, low-value tasks, such as organizing meetings, dialing into conference calls, and transcribing audio calls can be taken on an AI-powered assistant.

Although they may not sound like time-intensive tasks, if an employee spends an hour a week carrying them out, that adds up to around 6.5 working days each year, suddenly becoming more significant. If virtual assistants can take on these jobs, employees are freed up to focus on higher-value tasks, in turn increasing productivity within the company.

And for business leaders who want to see a financial incentive before implementing new technology, a rise in productivity will drive more improvement on the bottom line.

One of the criticisms about working from home surrounds a business’ ability to monitor the productivity and quality of output from external workers. Fortunately, artificial intelligence and machine learning are on hand to help out. Team leaders, supervisors, and managers alike can turn to machine learning programs to monitor staff performance in a non-invasive and accurate manner.

More modern systems are capable of utilizing information through survey-based tools to provide impartial performance reviews and deliver accurate reports that indicate respective employee strengths and weaknesses on a case-by-case basis.

Here, technology takes the lead and creates a level of analysis that’s difficult to replicate through human management. This is especially true for companies with a large number of employees that work from remote locations.

Remote work has become a new reality for many businesses in 2020. Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft have already announced that they will allow most of their employees to work from home permanently after the pandemic.  More than anything else, technology is remote work's saving grace. Having the right technology tools is critical to empowering remote workers to thrive and collaborate efficiently.

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