How 5G will power up the hybrid workplace

Significantly higher internet speeds and enhanced connectivity will transform how teams can collaborate online

September 22, 2021

Frozen video meetings could soon be a thing of the past as the ongoing rollout of high-speed 5G internet promises to make online working easier and more efficient than ever.

With connections up to 100 times faster than 4G and near-zero latency – or lag in network response time – 5G internet enables super-fast uploads and downloads. This makes real-time applications such as high-definition video conferences and online editing of data-intensive files significantly smoother – and without current issues around dropped connections. 

What’s more, once 5G networks are fully rolled out, employees will no longer be tied to a Wi-Fi router to work online. Such developments will underpin hybrid working as more companies permit employees to log on from outside the office two to three days a week.

“The hybrid office is all about collaboration across the different digital and physical spaces that people can work from,” says Akshay Thakur, Head of Technology Consulting, EMEA & APAC at JLL Technologies. “5G internet will bring better connectivity to all these places – whether that’s the home office, on transport or out in the field – enabling people to truly work from anywhere.”

Where video calls may currently stutter on home WiFi networks when someone streams a film, the high bandwidth of 5G supports many devices simultaneously processing internet-intensive applications. Meanwhile, its network slicing capabilities allows high-priority tasks to have dedicated bandwidth.

It will also add an extra layer of security to remotely accessing data. Although many organisations already use VPNs (virtual private networks), data access is often tiered to protect sensitive information. 5G network slicing would enable service providers to offer a private segment of bandwidth accessible only by an organisation.

“When employees connect using their company’s private 5G network, their connection is more secure than it is via a public Wi-Fi hotspot,” says Thakur. “Working anywhere becomes far more possible, because employees can access all systems, not only video calling and email, for example.” 


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Gearing up for hybrid working

With the surge in remote work accelerating interest in 5G, U.S. telecom operators are rolling out enterprise-focused 5G plans. In Europe, the number of 5G network providers has climbed steadily since 2019, while in Asia-Pacific, government support has significantly increased 5G coverage in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

Yet despite fast-growing interest, there’s a way to go before 5G becomes an everyday workplace reality. Just 3 percent of global companies with 5G investment plans currently have 5G operations, with 67 percent trialling 5G or in talks with suppliers, according to data from EY.

“5G is still in its rollout phase, and companies are being slow in adopting 5G applications,” says Thakur.

Network coverage needs to be ramped up in many regions, he adds, requiring investment from service providers to build more base stations. Real estate also needs to host 5G infrastructure, such as distributed antenna networks, that can transmit signal indoors.

Within organisations, one challenge is shifting from current 4G devices such as phones and SIM-equipped laptops to their 5G-enabled counterparts. Nearly two-thirds of companies in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific say they are struggling to find vendors who can help implement 5G strategies.

“There’s a lag in what corporate device programmes are issuing. Organisations need to invest in 5G devices, and these must be standardised for use in their workplace,” Thakur says.

IT departments will also need to enhance existing security strategies; with 5G able to support high numbers of devices on a single network, it could increase the network’s vulnerability.

“It’s imperative to implement security procedures for a smart watch or a building sensor as we would for high-priority devices like a laptop – otherwise 5G could end up creating more opportunities for hackers to attack,” says Thakur.

Next-generation work life

Despite the challenges of implementing 5G, it has the potential to increasingly blur the lines between the digital and physical worlds.

The rise of augmented reality platforms could enable remote training or allow workers to control machinery from afar. 5G-powered virtual reality could enable holographic meetings and virtual tours, while office technology such as connected whiteboards or smart tables would allow real-time work between teams in different locations.

In the office, meanwhile, high capacity 5G could turbocharge Internet of Things devices such as sensors that today utilise edge computing to speed up data processing. In the hybrid workplace, this would support advanced data analytics that monitor how workspaces are used, enabling offices to be shaped around how employees work best.

“Workplaces can be more responsive to employees’ needs,” says Thakur. “And because 5G transmits through the air, fit-outs of new spaces can be more flexible and completed more quickly as there is less infrastructure – such as cabling – that has to be installed.”

And as technology advances, by 2025 around 75 percent of all enterprise data could be processed by edge computing, offering even faster speeds and negligible latency. 

Yet even with such 5G-enabled innovations, working life won’t move completely online, Thakur believes.

“Offices still have a core role as spaces that prioritise the real-life, in-person interactions and enable employees to perform collaborative tasks that would be difficult in other environments,” he explains. “But with digital tools an integral part of today’s workplace, 5G will enhance the office experience and support productivity.”

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