Technology is our ally against the Coronavirus
Fear has been mounting in the debate around new technologies and the implications for the future of work. But the Coronavirus outbreak is unveiling some real positives of technological advances. Digital communication tools are supporting and enhancing working from home, while innovative companies are leveraging more nascent technologies – such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing – to deal with the frontline challenges of the crisis.
Working from home – not an option but a must
With efforts to contain the Coronavirus pandemic escalating, working from home has become the only way of working for those who have an office job. Back in 2019, for many of us, working meant going into the office. The share of workers who frequently used ICT to work from home was less than 6% of the total working population in 2015, according to the European Working Conditions Survey, with an even split between employees and self-employed.
Things have changed dramatically in the space of a few weeks: many companies in many countries have now rolled out mandatory remote working. With the Coronavirus crisis deepening, governments have urged companies to facilitate working from home for their employees to protect their health. In Italy – the European country with the highest COVID-19 death toll – the government has even introduced legislation to simplify the procedures for employers to implement smart or ‘agile’ working, which, in the current context, is essentially working from home.
The virtual office becomes a reality
With working from home becoming the only way to do work, some technologies may fulfil their hype and prove to be useful tools. Virtual and augmented reality are already being used effectively in training, but they could have a powerful impact on remote working by supporting communication and enhancing teamwork.
According to Niall Campion and Pat O'Connor, founders of VRAI, an Irish start-up specialising in virtual and augmented reality, the technology is mature enough to be applied to new areas beyond training and on-the-job learning. By creating a virtual representation of the real world, virtual reality can replicate the experience of being in the office with colleagues or a meeting room with clients. Working in a simulated collaborative workspace can make employees feel more engaged in their work and part of a team, helping to overcome that sense of isolation and alienation that may arise when working remotely. Multinational companies like Mattel and Ford already use virtual reality across their global workforce for collaborative work.
Protecting and saving lives
Innovative European companies are leveraging digital technologies such as 3D printing and IoT to come up with solutions to deal with the fallout of the pandemic.
Issinova, located in the north of Italy, has shown how 3D printing can be mobilised quickly, by fast-tracking the production of 3D-printed replacement respiratory valves for the local hospital in Brescia, devices that could not be sourced otherwise due to the crisis disrupting the supply chain.
To aid prevention of virus transmission, Belgium-based Materialise has designed 3D-printed hands-free door-openers, which are easy to mount on existing door handles. The company has made the digital files available for others to 3D-print the gadgets.
IoT solutions also have an important role to play in containing the virus. Using the data-analytics capabilities of IoT, Irish company Taoglas has developed a Crowd Insights platform to monitor and detect breaches of social-distancing limits in real time both indoors and outdoors. One Irish hospital is currently using the technology. Experts see wider applications of IoT, such as providing early warning systems in airports to detect whether passengers have symptoms associated with infectious diseases.
One positive legacy
The Coronavirus outbreak and the measures taken to contain it are likely to result in permanent changes to life in Europe, including working life. Once we have overcome the medical and health crises, there will be many lessons to carry forward in our daily lives, including our interactions with friends, families and colleagues. It may be that our fears of the disruptive potential of technologies are tempered and that working from home becomes commonplace. If virtual and augmented reality prove to be powerful tools to enhance teamwork and communication across dispersed employees, they may be embraced by companies large and small. The greening potential of these technologies may become more apparent than ever. 3D printing and IoT, if we have put them to good use, may also be recognised as allies in the future of work. While disease may defy control, choices about technology are in our hands.
- Working paper: Virtual and augmented reality: Implications of game-changing technologies in the services sector in Europe
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