The evolution of digital technology is advancing at a rapid pace and greater connectivity has changed the way we live. But how will it change the way we work? Kayleigh Williams of Lewis Silkin considers the potential impact of increasing connectivity and other technological advances such as the internet of things, augmented reality and virtual reality on the future of work.

A recent report by the Pew Research Centre discusses the changes that some experts foresee as a result of our ever-increasing connectivity. According to Pew “the world is moving rapidly towards ubiquitous connectivity that will further change how and where people associate, gather and share information, and consume media.… Mobile, wearable and embedded computing will be tied together in the ‘internet of things’, allowing people and their surroundings to tap into artificial intelligence, enhanced cloud based information storage and sharing”. But what does all of this mean for the future of work?

The evolution of digital technology: increasing connectivity

Over the last decade or so, the evolution of digital technology has transformed the way we live and work. As a report by McKinsey & Company puts it, “in little more than a generation, the internet has grown from a nascent technology to a tool that is transforming how people, businesses and government communicate and engage”. Every advance in bandwidth has facilitated innovation which has affected both the digital environment and day to day life – with consequent effects on the workplace. The development of faster dial-up modems allowed websites to become more usable. Then, early broadband facilitated file sharing internet services such as MP3 music sharing sites like Napster. Streaming became the norm as broadband capability rocketed, giving birth to sites such as YouTube and Netflix. It is likely that the emergence and dissemination of gigabit technology will lead to similar advances. 

The International Telecommunications Union has estimated that by the end of 2014, the number of internet users globally will have reached a figure of nearly 3 billion. This figure will continue to grow, as internet use spreads amongst the 4 billion individuals still offline. At the same time, internet speeds continue to increase. The latest Ofcom research shows that the average UK fixed broadband speed as at May 2014 was 18.7 Mbit/s, up from 14.7 in May 2013. This shows the dramatic rate of increase experienced within a year but is a far cry from speeds provided by Google’s ultra fast fibre optic network, Google Fiber.

Google Fiber boasts connectivity of up to 1000 Mbit/s, 100 times faster than today’s average broadband speed. In another incredible development, researchers in the US and the Netherlands have managed to compress 255 terabits of information per second into a single strand of glass fibre – equivalent to the amount of data carried by the entire internet at peak times. It is very unlikely that this sort of capacity will be readily available in the world of work within the next decade, however, and although the speed boasted by Google Fiber may be obtainable, many are not yet sure how to utilise its capabilities.

Pew’s report provides experts’ opinions on how gigabit connectivity could change society and our workplaces as we know them, in the process disrupting traditional business models. A key theme is the facilitation of better collaboration at work, as improved telepresence will enable face to face cyberspace meetings with colleagues. Another great benefit of such technology is the potential to diminish – or do away with – the daily commute. Given the growing popularity of various types of flexible working (see for example, Richard Branson’s recent decision to give staff in his family offices unlimited holiday), it would be no surprise if developments such as this are extremely popular amongst companies and their staff. Vivid telepresence, made possible by widespread gigabit connectivity, could be a truly exciting development that does away with the need for business travel. Improved connectivity could also potentially increase labour market competition. Technology futurist, Marcel Bullinga, envisions “cloud immigrants”: real life holograms operating in real time and competing for jobs.

Augmented and virtual reality

Augmented reality is another hot topic, with huge potential benefits for the future of work. Under globalisation we are seeing more and more businesses operating abroad and extending their client base internationally. Super fast connectivity could enable virtual reality and the creation of a truly immersive simulated environment which blurs the lines between physical and non-physical reality, becoming the key to enabling greater global commerce. Virtual reality is an area already being explored by social media giant Facebook, who have invested in Oculus VR, a start-up company developing a virtual reality gaming platform. Google have also invested in a virtual reality start-up. Though not explicitly connected to the general world of work, these steps give us an insight into what may be possible as technology progresses.

The healthcare sector is amongst the most innovative with new technology. We have already seen the use of google glass in surgery, the potential for robotic doctors and appointments via facetime; gigabit connectivity could offer so much more. The Pew report envisages that enhanced connectivity will save lives and money, whilst enhancing patients’ quality of life. In retail too, the possibilities seem endless. Though more likely to utilise the hype around wearable technology, the retail industry could benefit from growing connectivity in other ways, for example by creating immersive shopping experiences in the form of virtual dressing rooms.

The internet of things: preserving confidentiality

Amid the exciting possibilities, there are also potential downsides to such a rapid pace of development. There are a number of regulation issues that come with the increased rate of connectivity, especially as the ‘internet of things’ progresses. Businesses are increasingly concerned over the privacy of their employees. As information sharing over the internet becomes the norm, how can we be sure to preserve confidentiality? David Clarke of MIT states that “as connectivity increases, information sharing over the internet will be effortlessly interwoven into daily life, becoming invisible and flowing like electricity”. Will organisations be able to respond rapidly enough to the challenges posed by increased connectivity as well as to its benefits?

Increasing connectivity is changing the way we work and will continue to do so but some of the developments predicted here are a little way off. There is a while to go before gigabit connectivity becomes a standard part of the workplace.

By Kayleigh Williams, Lewis Silkin


With super-fast broadband speeds just a few years away, does this mean that we'll all be working from home in our AR offices? Or do you think the technology will fail to catch on? Share your thoughts about the future of technology using the comments section below.

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