The coronavirus crisis of 2020 is changing the way we work, perhaps forever. Travel bans, lockdowns, and social distancing policies disrupted business around the world, forcing companies to find new ways to work. The trend toward a more distributed, mobile, and agile workforce was already unmistakable, but the crisis has dramatically accelerated this shift for workers who can thrive in the virtual world. But perhaps the bigger news coming out of the crisis is that the larger front-line workforce operating in the physical world participated for the first time in digital transformation in a meaningful way.
Knowledge workers in roles such as management, finance, marketing, scheduling, or product development trade in information that is readily captured in digital files and databases. Their work is easily exchanged via emails. Virtual meetings to collaborate with peers around the globe are a few clicks away. Where the work is digital, worker location doesn’t really matter. So when knowledge workers around the globe were forced into a massive work-from-home experiment with almost no planning, the results proved better than we ever thought possible. Not only did productive work continue, but additional time and cost savings were realized from reduced commuting and business travel.
These compelling results make it clear that the work-from-home Genie probably won’t go back into the bottle, even when the crisis passes. For knowledge workers, this way of working will become part of the “new normal” because of its inherent advantages.
But what about front-line workers?
Not all workers spend their day behind a desk using IT tools to engage the virtual world on their computers. Approximately 75% of the global workforce consists of front-line workers, whose job is done out in the real world beyond the office, and involves physical work.
While knowledge workers transitioned easily to work-from-home, the larger force of front-line workers cannot do their work from home. In fields like retail and hospitality, many were furloughed because their businesses were closed, sometimes by mandate. But work at factories, farms, repair shops, distribution centers, and other types of physical worksites was deemed essential to the economy. The Brookings Institution estimates that between 49 and 62 million frontline workers in the US alone were asked to continue reporting to work.
Front-line workers need knowledge too in order to do their work. But rather than electronic files and video calls, it traditionally comes in the form of paper documentation, training classes, over-the-shoulder mentoring, and face-toface troubleshooting. None of these modalities work that well in the best of circumstances. But they have been seriously impaired in the era of many working at home, travel bans, and social distancing. In addition to potential exposure to health risks, the coronavirus exacerbated an already serious problem for many companies, which is an increasing shortage of trained front-line workers.
Bringing Digital Technology to the Front Line
Office productivity tools like Microsoft Office help knowledge workers capture and share information, and videoconferencing tools like Zoom or WebEx work great for collaboration when there is a knowledge worker using a computer on each end of the information exchange. But how do you facilitate collaborate between an expert knowledge worker such as a manufacturing engineer and a front-line worker such as an assembly worker out in the factory? This traditionally involved the engineer travelling to the factory, but suddenly that was not possible. Also, how do you facilitate collaboration between two front-line workers where one is a veteran technician who needs to explain a laboratory process to a new-hire technician? This used to involve mentoring or “job shadowing”, but social distancing makes that difficult.
The answer to how to enable collaboration and knowledge transfer with front-line workers is augmented reality (AR), a digital communication technology that cansupport and significantly enhance the productivity of physical work throughout the economy. In the simplest terms, AR allows relevant and actual digital information to be transmitted and displayed in context in the physical world. This creates a powerful force for productivity improvement in a series of areas.
AR: Zoom for Front-Line Workers
AR enables front-line worker solutions that parallel the well-established digital technologies that came to the rescue for knowledge workers. Instead of a Zoom video conferencing call, however, AR technology allows remote experts to see the physical world in video and annotate physical objects during the call. Rather than publishing a PDF document or a Web page, AR can map instructional content directlyonto the 3D physical environment in which work will take place. Instead of a YouTube how-to video on a computer screen, AR offers a solution that captures the best frontline expert performing a task with a wearable device that captures every step, and creates an interactive and step-by-step guide mapped onto the work environment for other workers to follow using a wearable device.
The critical difference in each AR solution is its power to deliver needed digital content and expert guidance into the context of the physical environment, where front-line work is done. This substantially reduces the cognitive distance getting in the way of the worker translating the information from digital to the real world, increasing worker productivity and reducing errors.
“Augmented reality technology has the power to boost frontline worker productivity by as much as 50% and reduce human errors by up to a whopping 90%. But successful applications require quality content and project prioritization.”
The above is an extract from a report titled “AR And How We Work: The New Normal” authored Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann. The full report is available for download.