The concept of a decentralized workforce, one in which employees effectively collaborate without being physically present in the same office or work area, has tantalized businesses—as well as many workers—for years. Yet despite rapid advancements in Internet and mobile technologies, the decentralized workforce has yet to reach its full potential, hampered by the bandwidth, security, latency, and connectivity issues associated with existing cellular and Wi-Fi services.
The imminent arrival of 5G technology promises to sweep away these concerns. Over time (likely several years) 5G is expected to provide a ubiquitous, reliable and secure broadband service capable of supporting business applications ranging all the way up to virtual reality.
A faster pace
5G technology promises to increase the already rapid pace of workforce decentralization. For all types of remote workers, video, conference-calling and collaboration will become the norm for all types of remote workers. "We have already started to see customer support roles transition to work-from-home, and this will just enable other job types to do the same," predicted Marc Enzor, a consultant at IT repair and service firm Geeks 2 You. 5G could eventually support speeds up to 10 Gbps. At that point, even remote workers who need to access massive amounts of data rapidly should be able to work effectively from almost anywhere. "With low latency and high speeds, even Autocad engineers will be able to work from home," Enzor noted.
Businesses are inevitably going to face pressure from employees to upgrade to 5G services as they become available, said Dan Hays, a principal at business consulting firm PwC. "However, as 5G is rolled out, it's unlikely to be available in every market, or even in every location within a market, as well as in every mobile device," he explained. "This will require businesses to carefully monitor the availability of services before they commit to buying them."
The first 5G-capable devices may be quite expensive, and availability could be limited, particularly in rural locations. "This may challenge businesses that expect users to purchase their own devices," Hays said. The shift to 5G could also generate upgrade cycle disruption, with users clamoring for the new technology and accelerating purchases. "This may [also] cause IT departments to see an increased demand in requests for upgrade support," he noted.
Even as office space demands gradually diminish, enterprises can expect to begin paying for their workforce’s 5G connection costs. "Ultimately, it will be a trade-off, and may even save them money," Enzor predicted. Yet any potential 5G savings may be offset by increased employee travel expenses and costs for productivity tools, such as Slack and Zoom, as well as other platforms that enable inter-employee communication and collaboration, observed John Gleeson, vice president of operations for Storj Labs, a decentralized cloud storage provider.
Yet 5G also promises to help enterprises build a top-tier workforce. Over the next several years, as 5G rolls out both nationally and globally, the technology will eventually make it easier and less expensive for organizations to train employees located at branch offices, stores, homes, and other remote sites. The technology could also allow many enterprises to attract qualified job candidates from almost anywhere without worrying about relocation objections or costs.
Like any new network technology, 5G is raising security concerns. BYOD is the biggest threat, said Joel Windels, vice president of global marketing for NetMotion Software, a mobile performance management software developer. "For a variety of understandable and sometimes unavoidable reasons a large minority of organizations are still operating significant BYOD fleets," he observed. "Without enterprise ownership of these devices, the ability to get visibility and control of them becomes much more limited and, subsequently, increases the organization’s risk exposure to threats such as malware, shadow IT, mobile phishing and man-in-the-middle attacks."
Security will always be problematic, Enzor said. "Making your corporate data open to the outside world has inherent risks," he noted.
Gleeson, however, believes that existing security tools and practices will be able to lock down 5G connections. "I suppose the threat surface may get bigger, but in terms of the actual security threats, these are largely solved problems," he stated. Gleeson noted that responsible organizations are already taking the security measures necessary to ensure that employees working from home can operate in secure, trusted environments. "VPNs, token authentication and technologies like these have now been employed for years or decades to combat potential security threats," he said.
Hays observed that 5G is "extremely early in its lifecycle" and "is arguably more hype than reality." He also suggested that enterprise leaders should keep a close eye on the technology as it develops, since "it will undoubtedly present new end-user demands and opportunities for new products, services, and customer experiences."