Imagine participating in a meeting where 3-D holograms contribute ideas in real time on a digital whiteboard, enhancing collaboration among remote teams. Or managing a grocery store where smart shelves automatically detect low product inventories and submit replacement orders, eliminating the need for an employee. Or strapping on an augmented reality headset and receiving real-time, guided instructions on how to repair a piece of machinery, day or night.

Soon, you may not need to imagine. 5G—the fifth and newest generation of the cellular wireless network—has the power to unlock these and other capabilities in the workplace.

“It’s not simply another ‘G,’ as it has been in previous generations,” says United Kingdom-based Amol Phadke, global network practice lead at Accenture. “It has the potential to completely disrupt the way we work and live.”

Most of the buzz surrounding 5G so far has focused on consumer benefits. (Download a feature-length movie to your phone in seconds instead of minutes! Open your trash can through an app!) But there are a range of significant workplace implications as well. Greater efficiencies are expected, thanks to increased speeds and more data, and functions as varied as recruiting, collaboration and remote work likely will be affected.

Exactly when the 5G network will become widely accessible remains to be seen. So far, services are available only in select markets, and most devices in use today aren’t equipped to connect to the 5G network. While the rollout of 5G will continue over the next several years, and high-profile developments such as driverless cars could take at least a decade to materialize, some analysts have pegged 2020 as the year this technology will start to gain traction.

Great Expectations

Countries such as China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.K. are busy building out infrastructure to get 5G-ready. While some new wireless towers are being erected, most of the additions are small-cell sites that attach to lampposts and utility poles. These small cells build network density, which is crucial for 5G capabilities.

The new network promises higher data-transfer rates, lower latency and greater capacity. In other words, 5G will be faster, more reliable and more powerful than its predecessors.

“The biggest change by far will be brought by the speed of the connection,” says Carsten Schaefer, founder and CEO at, a startup based in Germany that uses artificial intelligence to provide online users with real-time notifications about the website or product being viewed. “Given how amazingly fast the Internet connection is, it will make work much more efficient.”

According to some estimates, 5G technology, which will process data in gigabits per second rather than in megabits, will eventually be 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.

5G will also be able to support far more applications. It will need to, considering that the number of devices connected to the Internet—often referred to as the Internet of things (IoT)—is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. London-based data and information services provider IHS Markit predicts that the number of connected devices worldwide will continue to rise, from 27 billion in 2017 to 125 billion in 2030.

These devices will collect and analyze a massive amount of data in real time—and, in some cases, be able to act on it.

“In the IoT, a multitude of sensors, meters and other machines will connect to the Internet to create more value and efficiency across a host of connections,” explains Kevin Linehan, vice president in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at CommScope, a Hickory, N.C.-based telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

For example, manufacturing equipment will be able to detect malfunctions before they occur, reducing downtime and lost productivity for workers on the factory floor. And smart shelves in a retail store could monitor inventory and place orders with suppliers when products run low, relieving store employees from having to perform these routine tasks.

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