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Remote possibilities

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The technology sector is beginning to assess the ramifications of the 2020 lockdown for long-distance interaction.

For years, members of parliament in the UK fought to preserve what they saw as essential components of parliamentary democracy in the traditions of the house. In contrast to the ballroom layout of modern foreign legislatures, the shape of the debating chamber dates back to Parliament’s 16th-century decision to take over the choir stalls of the Chapel of St Stephens’s. MPs will often point out that the layout of opposing benches gives members the ability to yell at each other across the aisle and, in doing so, make politics seem much more active to the public. Just a few weeks into the lockdown the shouting, even in the set-piece Prime Minister’s Questions, came to an abrupt end. You might try to roar “hear, hear” but if you are muted on Zoom, little is going to get through.

Much of the world of work has gone through a similar change, and possibly with far more permanent effects. Covid-19 may have achieved what years lost in traffic jams, pollution and directionless meetings have failed to do: change the way in which we view the need to go to work in order to work. It is possibly an event that will change the way we live permanently, though in many cases it is more a transition to a different state toward which the world was moving much more slowly.

Sven Smit, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, says: “Many of the trends we saw pre-Covid are now going much faster. Covid triggered it. It suggests the speed at which we change is not governed by its potential but determined by events.”

In medicine, for example, telehealth has been proposed as a way of making it easier for patients to connect with specialists and improve care overall. But it has met with significant resistance as deployment demands not just technology but a host of social factors to be changed to allow it. In the US, factors like reimbursement of expenses was a major obstacle for patients on the Medicare system in addition to concerns over privacy and possible conflict with strict laws that govern confidentiality. “It’s not that easy to wave the magic wand,” says Victor Camlek, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

But the current lockdown, Camlek says, has placed “a spotlight directly on telehealth as tools that can now prove themselves. The ability to have virtual visits has become far more valuable as social distancing continues until we have the therapeutics that are needed. After that, the telemedicine industry and practitioners should be able to say: ‘Look this worked’. And maybe the remaining issues can be resolved.”

Similarly, technology that has been available for some time now looks as though it could dispense with the need for large communal offices and further dent the ambitions of start-ups like WeWork, which had bet heavily on the need for face-to-face social interaction in white-collar business. A Gartner survey of 229 human-resources (HR) managers found the percentage of employees working remotely on a regular basis shot up to more than 81 per cent from just 30 per cent before the lockdown.

However, as the lockdown eases, employers probably will not decide to go as virtual as they could. Once return to normal gets under way, the HR managers surveyed by Gartner saw on average a little over 40 per cent working from home at least some of the time.

In late April, Aecom performed a survey of its workers in civil engineering, an industry that typically involves a lot of face-to-face but one that had to adapt quickly to social distancing and remote working. Kevin Cornish, senior vice president of design consulting services for surface transportation, says of the return to normal operation: “Our firm was already in a transition to an open-office environment. We will take a hard look at our office space; perhaps there are some opportunities to look at footprint. But for the most part people are looking to get back into the office and a collaborative environment with their peers. But a number of staff would prefer working from home and that will come down to management decisions.”  

In the lockdown-inspired conversion to homeworking, alongside the virtual private network (VPN) for maintaining secure connections an obvious winner was video conferencing – with Zoom powering into the forefront. Statistics compiled by secure-connection provider Okta in early April showed more than a 200 per cent increase in daily users as the lockdowns went into action in both Europe and the US, easily outpacing services such as RingCentral and Cisco’s Webex, although they also saw increases in usage.

Zoom seems to have benefited from name recognition among younger users in the workplace and its relatively generous freemium terms – such as the ability to have group calls with as many as a hundred people free for calls shorter than 40 minutes. Microsoft on the other hand has taken full advantage of the massive installed base for its Office product. Teams is the product that gets namechecked when companies talk about what desktop collaboration software they are using. It even played a central role in the team selection for the US National Football League in April when that event was forced to go virtual. Start-up competitors such as Monday.com and Slack claimed success in converting free users to paid accounts but are building on a smaller installed base. Momentum may shift to these newer players as companies fine-​tune how they operate with home working.

Less obvious beneficiaries of the lockdown are some of the social-media applications. Although employed by MPs to organise themselves into subgroups within their parties, WhatsApp remains primarily a recreational tool. But companies have now seized on the app and pushed it some way beyond its use by politicians.

Andrey Falileev, key account manager for Advantech in Russia, says: “WhatsApp is being used more often, not just for texting but phone calls and even video.”

WhatsApp became an easy way for workers at Advantech’s facilities to get help from their home-working colleagues when it came to seeking advice on what to do with stock and product movements.

As organisations look to longer-term adjustments if lockdowns continue for some time, or just to continue with greater homeworking for other reasons, they may begin to look beyond what a relatively simple video-messaging app can do and opt for technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). PTC, Siemens Digital and other design-tools suppliers have demonstrated smart-glasses and back-end applications that let experts see what service engineers in the field are looking at and point out to those remote workers where they should focus attention using animated hands and annotations.

In 2017, the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) polled companies across sectors that included aerospace, automotive, life sciences and industrial manufacturing. In the survey, 80 per cent of the organisations claimed they would implement the use of AR smart-glasses within three years and almost two-thirds said they saw AR as an important factor in efforts to reduce or eliminate downtime.

Despite strong interest, growth of VR has remained sluggish. That may change in the new environment. According to Frank Furnari, CEO and founder of VR-training specialist VRtuoso, the disruption caused by Covid-19 has made clients focus more on VR. He claims usage of the company’s platform increased by 32 per cent in 2020 up to the end of April compared to the last four months of 2019.

One issue with both AR and VR is that both call for lightweight, energy-efficient headgear but can be computationally intensive. One way around that is to devolve much of the scene detection and rendering calculations to nearby servers using short-range wireless links. This kind of usage model was one that drove the specifications for the 5G cellular standard, particularly when it comes to latency. The basestations that serve 5G packets have to respond much faster than those based on 4G protocols.

Although conspiracy theorists decided their enemy was 5G rather than a biological virus and the standards-setting process hit delays caused by a combination of the lockdown and geopolitics, the cellular protocol is another that some see as benefiting directly from the post-Covid environment.

One practical obstacle for 5G is money. Rolling out basestation hardware, which is far more complex than that needed for 4G, together with the communications infrastructure to connect them together, takes a huge amount of investment that may be in short supply when the initial wave passes and companies examine the damage lower economic activity has done to their balance sheets.

According to Omdia principal analyst Julian Watson, the crisis will hit 5G usage not just in the short term because telecom operators are unable to install masts and other infrastructure easily. The luxury factor in user adoption may also hurt sales. “Most probably, and for many reasons, 5G rollout will almost certainly be significantly slower than was anticipated for 2020, with China being a possible exception,” he wrote in a research note in April.

‘For 5G operators, the lack of roaming revenue will be a loss and there is a loss in consumer confidence, but it will pick up next year. A more important factor is geopolitics and the US-China trade war.’

Dimitris Mavrakis, ABI Research

Analysts at ABI Research, on the other hand, in a forecast session held in April, were bullish on medium-term prospects for the new cellular standard. Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI, says: “The biggest factor in the slowdown for 5G is down to personnel and not supply chain issues. We hear from operators that their personnel cannot visit sites. We do expect after June the major effects of the crisis will be over and 5G deployments will be under way. We expect an acceleration of 5G through 2021 and the market will recover fully. The supply chain is robust.

“For operators, the lack of roaming revenue will be a loss and there is a loss in consumer confidence. But, overall, Covid won’t be a major influence: it will slow down this year but will pick up next year. A more important factor is geopolitics and the ongoing trade war between the US and China.”

A temporary slowdown in 5G network deployments provides the opportunity for companies not at the forefront of development to ready their own offerings, taking advantage of the decision by some countries to ban Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE.

Most of the first wave of 5G deployments are based on traditional architectures that favour single vendors. Mavrakis points to the so-called OpenRAN movement as a potential way in for vendors who are not conventional cellular-infrastructure suppliers. OpenRAN basically uses hardware similar to that used for cloud computing to provide the processing power needed to control groups of basestation antennas.

”The whole movement with OpenRAN is to rely on generic processors, with an architecture that is similar to the PC platform. This will take some time to complete but it will result in a more horizontal ecosystem. It has the ability to redefine the supply chain,” Mavrakis says.

OpenRAN may have a surprisingly strong influence for more than just mobile 5G users. One of the big problems for any wireless network is the backhaul: the infrastructure that passes packets from the core network to the mobile devices. There is an increasing overlap between this backhaul and the fibre infrastructure that serves homes and offices – so much so that they are beginning to merge.

Earlier this year, ETSI, the European standards organisation that also plays a major role in the international 3GPP team that is putting the 5G specification together, set up a working group called F5G. This builds on work by Huawei to define standards for passive optical networks (PON) that deliver last-mile connections. A PON helps keep deployment costs down by only involving complex switches at central locations. Downstream, the fibre is arranged in a tree structure using comparatively simple beam splitters. By using wavelength division multiplexing, vendors expect to be able to increase broadband speeds on these PONs dramatically.

Sue Rudd, director of networks and service platforms at Strategy Analytics, points out ETSI announced the F5G group the day after the Fixed Access Broadband Forum published two standards intended to show how these kinds of networks could deliver packets to 5G basestations alongside broadband internet services direct to homes with their own fibre connections. An advanced gateway would sit “between fixed-access networks and the 5G network to support 5G and wireline residential gateways, creating a truly converged deployment”, she says.

A big difference between 5G and its predecessors is the way the cellular standard incorporates direct support for Wi-Fi, in the form of the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, which was designed to provide better quality of service where the user count is high. According to Andrew Zignani, principal analyst at ABI, a possible outcome of the post-crisis situation is the formation of a new service tier for homeworkers. Rather than simply posting a Wi-Fi router to the home user with a set of instructions, the managed services would provide active monitoring to check for unwanted intrusion by hackers, similar to the monitoring boxes deployed in corporate networks. “The current situation could lead to greater understanding of the need for stable, secure Wi-Fi in the home,” he says.

Malik Saadi, ABI’s managing director and vice president of strategic technologies, concludes: ”Post-lockdown, consumers will appreciate the digital lifestyle more than ever before. That will encourage corporations to increase investment in infrastructure, with open networks, distributed intelligence, AI and many other technologies.”

Human factors

Distance management

Though he is advising customers to bet large on projects designed around the Covid-19 pandemic, with a focus on robotics and remote healthcare, Advantech executive director and co-founder Chaney Ho maintains: “It will return to normal eventually.”

He does not expect everything to return to the same state as before. Companies may realise how much they can do without large and often expensive real estate. Many, after all, have been moving towards hot-desking and similar space-​saving initiatives for years. That leads to big changes in management styles that are not just short-term fixes and reactions to a sudden crisis.

In a mid-April blog post, Monday.com CEO Eran Zinman described how the only meetings that went ahead had to be about remote work: “Everyone, at all levels across the entire company, is expected to be talking and thinking about remote work – and nothing else.”

At the same time, software-development teams were told to continue to work on existing projects with near-term deadlines rather than switch their attention to purely remote-working features, on the basis that this would lead to less disruption to schedules overall.

Given the speed at which companies reacted in the first place, the trend could go into reverse if companies question the motivation and loyalty of workers they do not see very often and managers find organising teams without face-to-face meetings too difficult. Staff may themselves find it too difficult to work from home, particularly in industries where there is a strong need for personal and group interaction.

Andy Kaiyala, vice president of engineering at Lane Construction, says: “It’s hard to overstate the ability to collaborate in a team environment. The level of energy required to communicate clearly in writing and on the phone is another notch up from sitting in a meeting. It’s difficult to read body language on a phone and that can be so important.”

Ho, on the other hand, is among those who see potential in a longer-term shift driven by remote working from “transactional” face-to-face management techniques to what he chooses to call “transformational”. Instead of telling workers what to do or else, the managers lead by example and invest far more time in communication.

However, it is worth noting that most conferences that switched to virtual presentations have frequently ended with an exhortation to join them physically at the next one.

They are not ready to switch to virtual operation on a permanent basis and it seems a safe bet that management will continue to expect a return to normality not a new normal.

 

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