The Future of Work 2 -  stay home, workers of the world

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks December 15, 2020
Office workers may have been obliged to work from home with the coming of the first pandemic lockdown, but many took to it readily, and many companies realised it had many advantages without causing their world to cave in. The trickier problem will come when the same idea is applied to manufacturing tasks.


The majority of the tools of the trade that will drive changes in the future of work are, of course, already here. But the change in circumstances over the past year has demonstrated that the way businesses have so far been exploiting them can at best be referred to as conservative. The changes in perception of what they are capable of delivering are, however, being widened every day.

The oscillations of lockdowns and tier strictures continue to pressure businesses to come up with new ways of working that allow circumnavigation of such problems and, perhaps not surprisingly, it is the people working at the coalface that are getting the better ideas of what could and should be done with the tools of the trade than business managers. This was demonstrated in a recent survey conducted on behalf of Citrix.

This suggested that 73% of staff members feel some serious changes need to be made by their companies if they are to work at their most productive levels. The interesting point here is that this figure, taken after the pandemic and lockdowns started, was 10% higher than that observed pre-pandemic and what is more it was 20% greater than the percentage of business leaders who consider their organizations are already running at optimum productivity.

The survey did show, however, that those business leaders are starting to become aware that having the right technology available for staff is crucial and that the technologies they are currently employing are not as fit for purpose as they had previously thought, pre-pandemic. Only 44% think their current technology mix is key to achieving optimum productivity wherever staff might be working, whereas, pre-pandemic, a previous survey showed 59% satisfied with their technology choices.

This suggests one important factor, that business managers are learning pretty fast that the current pandemic is indicative of the types of changes that businesses must be flexible and agile enough to accommodate in the future and that this pandemic is not just a flash in the pan. This is going to demand that for businesses to remain operational regardless of the changes thrown at them, the balance of specification responsibility is changing and that the once novel trend of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) is now the standard. Companies will need the flexibility to accommodate a wide range of device choices by staff, while staff in turn will need to be sensible in the choices they do make. If the bands of tolerance are set reasonably wide on both sides, flexible working and business management conditions will make remote working the obvious choice.

Will ‘blue collars’ work at home?

When it comes to working from home, the main pressure point is now unlikely to be office workers - that move was relatively easy to accomplish. The real challenge is going to be in creating the opportunity for more manual workers out in manufacturing and similar sectors to follow suit. There are now two trends influencing how this might develop, with a strong possibility of them merging together so that the delineation disappears. These are gamification and customisation.

Gamification, the application of gaming techniques and technologies to the real world, is starting to open up some fascinating opportunities. The recent example of the Port of Ningho in China demonstrates well what is now becoming possible. Here, the commonality that already exists between game-playing tools, such as joysticks and high-definition video, and the control systems already used in the huge gantry cranes to move containers on and off ships, is exploited to the full.

The only real difference is that instead of the crane driver sitting in a cab looking down on the action in real time – and in the process being isolated for a full shift and having to observe the work at a physical angle that induces back and neck problems for many of them – they can sit at a desk controlling what is happening with a joystick and watching what is happening via HD video services.

So far, so much the same, but in this approach, not only is the operator in a safer, remote location with far better working conditions, but can also be supported by technology enhancements, such as multiple views of the positioning work in hand and the linking of real time activity. For example, AI and ML resources can be tied into crane sensors for predicting failure issues, while complex container logistics management planning can match optimum work schedules, not just for container movements, but also managing the trim of ship and matching container movements to the inbound and outbound land movement logistics.

The same approach and advantages can equally be applied to a wide range of other work activities, such as machine tools of all types. Games playing these days often demands high levels of manual dexterity and control over small physical movements and these can be readily mapped onto not just systems such as numerically controlled machine tools, but also those semi-automated systems that are loading raw materials or staging sub-assemblies from one manufacturing process to another.

Such tasks are also likely to offer new opportunities to those with skills in games of logic and strategy who will be needed to manage the flow of raw materials and sub-assemblies around a manufacturing facility.

Have you got this in pink?

This does raise the question of why such new roles or skills transference should be necessary. Surely this is one role where automation and AI will come into their own and human operatives can step aside?

In a few manufacturing processes this is certainly the case, but this will only be where the process never changes over long production runs. But the trend now is for customers to be looking for much greater levels of customisation in the products they purchase, but they do not want to see a significant increase in unit price, a factor which has been traditional in the production of any product that steps outside the parameters of a standard design and production process.

Meeting this demand is going to give manufacturing industry some real problems if traditional process models are maintained. The central receipt and processing of orders for small volumes of multiple variants of a single product SKU, together with managing their production and subsequent delivery and distribution, will create the need for huge, centralised management and control services. The better model here is likely to be the distribution of such services, a step that plays to the capabilities of the small to medium sized business sector, globally.

They are the businesses that will have the skills and knowledge to handle the localisation of the customising process, be that by geographical likes and dislikes, customs or practices, or by the requirements of niche market sectors that stretch across geographies. They are the ones to handle both sales and order management, the ones to help guide and implement the customisations required. And if the manufacturing processes are then being managed remotely by operatives sitting at a desk – which could easily be the dining table at their home – that small business could take on complete management of the design, manufacturing and delivery process of cost-efficient customised product.

The actual manufacturing facility could be anywhere, based on whatever met the criteria for an optimum location(s) around the globe. This could provide a balanced mix of optimum manufacturing with `boutique-level’ customisation and flexibility, coupled with more diverse and flexible employment opportunities that offer far better work environments.

The key to all this – and technologies such as cloud services, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and the rest – is communications. This is opening up new ways of looking at old manual jobs, with the possibility of turning them in desk-based, remotely handled tasks provided to users as a service.

The key here, of course, will be 5G mobile comms, which is creating a situation where it is fair to observe that the old ways are now on the verge of passing away. One example of this is Smart Agriculture, where drones are already being used to visually examine crop fields and livestock, but also to work with sensors monitoring factors such as soil conditions and needs. Drones can also be used to deliver supplements and other remedies to both soil and livestock.

With 5G comms those could easily become a high-value specialist service provided to a wide range of farmers by a third-party small business, offering them better service and results than they could provide for themselves. And it could all be provided remotely, by home workers if necessary.

Some of the capability which will be available to business and industry using 5G was outlined at a recent Huawei 5G Mobile forum in Shanghai by service provider China Mobile. One in particular that will be of interest to business users, especially those with remote workers, is the ability to set up exclusive networks offering specific types and levels of service. So those requiring low latency, local storage, high reliability service levels and/or high bandwidth for real time HD video transmissions can specify what is needed. This can also include Blockchain security technologies and China Mobile has now developed a blueprint for what it calls simplified and intelligent 5G networks that include AI and big data capabilities working alongside industry-specific services.