Traditional in-person physical offices have been disappearing from our work lives for many years. With pandemic-wracked 2020 receding into history, many sectors of the global economy now have experienced the pleasures and frustrations of working from home.
Emergence of hybrid physical-virtual work environments
We’ve now seen practically every big technology company from Google to VMware give up trying to bring employees back to traditional offices for the indefinite future. According to a recent enterprise survey by 451 Research, the emerging technology research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, 80 percent of companies have implemented or expanded universal work-from-home policies, and 67 percent plan to keep at least some work-from-home policies in place long term or permanently.
If this recent London Business School study published in Harvard Business Review is any indication, knowledge workers generally have met the remote work challenge with flying colors. As discussed by study authors Julian Birkinshaw, Jordan Cohen, and Pawel Stach, productivity is booming. Based on comparatives responses to interviews conducted with knowledge workers in 2013 and then again in 2020, respondents are now spending 12 percent less time drawn into large meetings and nine percent more time interacting with customers and external partners. Knowledge workers reported performing 50 percent more activities through personal choice and 50 percent fewer activities because someone else asked them.
The pandemic hasn’t entirely eliminated physical offices that we share, at least occasionally, with other people. Few employers have committed to closing their traditional multiperson offices permanently. Most companies still reserve the right to require that personnel come back to at least one of these physical offices at some point. And few organizations have achieved full parity between the support infrastructure they provide for work-from-home employees and the level enjoyed by those who report to a traditional office.
At least for knowledge workers, the global economy is rapidly shifting toward “work from anywhere.” Going forward, most knowledge workers will spend their careers in hybridized work environments that blend physical and virtual sites in endlessly shifting patterns. Much of this change will foster work culture, behaviors, and processes geared to hybrid, distributed, work-from-anywhere productivity. We’re even seeing this new order begin to transform working environments such as cinema production in new and surprising ways.
Enterprise IT can facilitate work from anywhere
What impact will these “new normal” work location arrangements have on enterprise IT infrastructure patterns? In this coming post-pandemic social order, the most pivotal technologies will enable greater social distancing, more productive remote collaboration, and more comprehensive biosensing.
Under decentralized arrangements, most workers will be allowed to use traditional offices when they need to but can retreat to their homes or other sites when it suits them. Employers will allow personnel to rely on standard remote collaboration, cloud computing, robotic process automation, and other sophisticated productivity tools.
To keep productivity from suffering, smart organizations will provision an infrastructural baseline of automated cloud-based security, backup, recovery, and compliance services. All of these robust services will be available 24/7 to all employees, regardless of whether they’re working out of a physical shared office, their own home office, a customer site, or elsewhere.
One recent industry initiative that appears to address the new workplace situation is the Modern Computing Alliance. Created by Google and other leading tech vendors, this new consortium is defining a common tech industry approach for supporting hybrid environments that connect, blend, and enable seamless movement between physical and virtual workplaces. The consortium includes Dell, Intel, Box, Citrix, Imprivata, Okta, RingCentral, Slack, VMware, and Zoom, and is developing standards and interoperable technologies for distributed work in a cross-platform, multicloud world.
Weaving the Internet of Things into work-from-anywhere infrastructure
The Google-led alliance, whose founding predates the COVID-19 crisis, is addressing the collaboration, identity, security, transparency, and guidance implications of remote work. Beyond that, details will have to wait until the first half of 2021 when the group promises its first concrete plans. Its initial announcement only alluded to its intention to advance simplification (device administration), analytics (unique device and user), and optimization (device-level, hardware-boosted performance and employee workflows).
Considering that one of its key drivers has been an ongoing pandemic, the alliance’s efforts should include a strong focus on pervasive biosensing within both traditional offices and remote environments. Consequently, IoT (Internet of Things) will need to be incorporated into the fabric of how organizations manage planning, monitoring, and control in a sensor-rich world where people work from practically any public or private space imaginable.
Throughout a distributed, remote workspace, IoT-based sensors will transmit real-time feeds of facility metrics—room temperature, lighting, occupancy, and safety—while co-configured thermostats and other local IoT actuators take automated actions to keep these and other metrics in compliance with company health, safety, productivity, and other policies. Most IoT sensors and actuators in the remote workforce will be embedded in smartphones and other edge devices that workers already have at their disposal. Alternately, the IoT endpoints will be deployed in company-provided portable edge devices, appliances, and robots for use, perhaps transiently, in any space where workers choose to do their job, such as a car or client site.
To keep distributed workers safe from infection, these IoT-based sensor networks will drive robotic cleansing platforms that automate the sanitizing of spaces prior to allowing workers and customers to occupy them. To make this possible, workers will be required to download and install proximity and biosensing apps to their smartphones prior to entering sanitized group spaces. Smart cameras and thermal sensors will detect when people might be bringing infections that they picked up elsewhere into otherwise cleansed spaces. Within group offices, this will automatically trigger ingress restrictions, in-office warnings, automated cleansing tactics, and other infrastructure-based responses for preventing or containing an infection.
Potential of digital twin technology in the hybrid workspace
Blurring virtual and physical environments is another hallmark of this new world of work from anywhere. Consequently, a key feature of the future that the Modern Computing Alliance appears to have ignored is the need to incorporate “digital twin” technology. The digital-twin paradigm has already been proved out in the industrial IoT, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes integral to hybrid, distributed workspaces—even for knowledge work and back-office jobs.
Essentially, a digital twin is a data construct that mirrors a corresponding physical entity throughout its lifecycle. The twin tracks a physical entity’s current configuration, state, condition, location, interfaces, sensor readings, operational characteristics, maintenance history, and other attributes.
Positioning its offerings more squarely in this new industrial order, Microsoft recently launched its Azure Digital Twins service. In gestation for the past two years, Azure Digital Twins allows industrial designers to plan, model, deploy, monitor, and control a sensor-laden IoT/edge-based physical environment. Using the Microsoft-developed Digital Twins Definition Language (DTDL), the new cloud service supports modeling physical environments, and by collecting configuration data from deployed IoT sensors, it tracks any changes made to those physically mapped areas.
Driving the development of collaborative robots for hybrid physical-virtual workplaces feels like a good fit for these digital twin offerings. Microsoft already counts Johnson Controls as a user for Azure Digital Twins. The company, a leader in building products and technologies, is using the service and tools to manage energy use, workspace optimization, and safety workflows within and among distributed physical facilities.
Immersive reality connects the physical and virtual workplaces
Remote work tends to lack the hands-on, interactive support that we’ve come to expect from on-site technical and administrative support personnel.
The need for immersive reality will come to the forefront. The technology includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. As it finds its way into developers’ toolkits, it will enable them to build apps that seamlessly deliver a hands-on, interactive quality of experience to even the most virtual, remote work tasks.
Appearing to pave the way to this future, Microsoft’s recent launch of Azure Digital Twins includes a cloud-based spatial intelligence graph for tracking people, places, and devices. It also supports the development of digital-twin apps that use 3D or 4D visualizations, physics-based simulations, and AI-based generative-modeling capabilities. This news comes just a few months after Microsoft announced three new immersive reality offerings that feel tailor-made to flesh out this vision:
- The HoloLens 2 headset is globally available. The headset blends augmented reality’s dynamically superimposed captioning with virtual reality’s simulated environments.
- A new immersive-reality service called Azure Object Anchors is in private preview. It enables HoloLens headsets to recognize an object in the real world and dynamically map relevant instructions or visuals onto it.
- Dynamics 365 Remote Assist launched, which allows people in two different physical locations to collaborate and solve problems in a shared immersive-reality environment.
Encouraging greater collaboration
Multiperson offices won’t go away, but they’ll never again be the default work site for most knowledge workers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Personally, I’ve had to report daily to a shared office for only one of the past 22 years, and I have no desire to return to the cubicle farms of the world. It’s not that I’m antisocial—I simply like to get things done, and I’m way more productive in my home office.
Going forward, the question of where to work will become a configurable slider bar that business units, teams, and individuals can push back and forth to suit changing circumstances. Let’s hope that the IT industry can come together quickly to define a practical vision for the infrastructure, tools, and standards that will be needed to move the revolution forward.
For starters, it would be good to see collaboration among the industry groups that are driving standardization in the technological underpinnings of this new world of distributed, hybrid work environments. At the very least, any efforts in this direction should involve the Modern Computing Alliance, the Object Management Group’s Digital Twin Consortium, the IEEE’s Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Standards Committee, and the Robotics Industry Association.