Image: Microsoft

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to spend hours glued to our screens and trapped in grainy Zoom meetings. But what if there was a different way to work virtually? That is the basis of a new “Dematerialized Office: ConsumerLab” report from Ericsson, which delves into what the workplace may look like by 2030.

Researchers with the multinational networking and telecommunications company surveyed nearly 8,000 people in Australia, Brazil, China, Mexico, India, Japan, KSA, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Qatar, Sweden, Turkey, UAE, the UK, and the US to find out what they think things will look like for workers a decade from now. Those surveyed are “regular users of augmented reality, virtual reality or virtual assistants, or plan to use these technologies in the future.”

The report shows that by 2030, many believe it will be commonplace to have a lifestyle that incorporates working and socializing in completely virtual realms without ever physically leaving home. Using technology like 5G, AR, and VR, employers could create a fully immersive office experience where all sensory experiences—sight, sound, taste, smell and touch—are completely digitally interactive.

This may even include things like the ability to virtually whisper in the ear of a college while others are talking, take virtual coffee breaks, or even display products in a virtual warehouse where all functions of testing can be carried out.

“After having spent the better part of a year bent over a work laptop at home, constantly engaged in video meetings, and facing challenges with disturbances in their home environments, many employees have probably realized that while connectivity is more important than ever before, digital meetings need to evolve before they become as good as the real thing,” the report said. “The pandemic has in fact created a digital tipping point.”

SEE: Future of 5G: Projections, rollouts, use cases, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The report sought to ask respondents about their thoughts on the introduction of sensorial experiences, such as touch, taste, smell, and sensations of hot or cold, in the workplace and as a business initiative.

Calling it “the dematerialized office,” the study focuses on what respondents foresee in the future and what they hope comes to fruition, including “tools that better support remote interaction.”

More than half of those surveyed predict that online meetings are here to stay for good with customers, suppliers and colleagues while 77% said an “internet of senses” for businesses would help make companies operate more sustainably.

The desire for a fully digitized workstation extends beyond the employment, with almost 6 in 10 respondents hoping for “full-sense virtual warehouses both for buying from suppliers and for selling to customers.”

When asked to explain what the “internet of senses” would look like by 2030, nearly 90% said it would encompass spatial video and half said it would include digital temperature features to more immersively engage potential customers. Sound functions were suggested by more than 80% of respondents, with headphones that could flawlessly translate between languages in the person’s voice.

Another 80% predicted wearable devices that could make you feel whatever temperature you’d like regardless of where you are. Tactile experiences were similarly cited as a possibility by 2030. Examples of this ranged from smartphones that could give you the sensation of feeling the shape and texture of digital icons and buttons or earphones that could convey the physical impact of machinery sounds when virtually visiting a production facility.

Smell senses were another idea floated by more than 70% of respondents and over 60% mentioned digital taste tools that may be available by 2030. Some of the technology could be used for digital team building among colleagues, with half of all respondents envisioning virtual trips to exotic locations, the study said.

“During this COVID-19 isolation people everywhere are rediscovering the importance of the smells and the flavors and the sheer physicality of the locations they normally frequent and do business in,” said Michael Björn, Ericsson Consumer & IndustryLab’s head of research agenda and the author of the report.

Some respondents were wary of fully sense-driven technology due to concerns about security and privacy. These concerns revolved around the idea that by 2030, there would be technology to “sense” when a coworker was angry or upset. But this kind of concept worried respondents who said it would also mean their employer would have the same ability

“By 2030, your laptop may have been replaced by a digital workstation that allows for full virtual presence anywhere. That would mean that not only do your colleagues appear and sound totally real, but you could also use anything in the room, and everything would feel real to the touch and smell right. During a remote coffee break, someone might have brought a chocolate cake in that you could even smell and taste,” the study said.

“Interest in a fully immersive office experience, where all sensory experiences are completely digitally interactive, is primarily driven by those who already use AR/VR on at least a weekly basis. The fact that 58% of them are interested in a full-sense digital office is probably due to their current experiences, which give them an idea of what could be possible going forward.”

Ideas within the report also covered new sales environments that could take advantage of the same technology, allowing customers to go to virtual shopping malls where they could touch and smell items. Nearly 60% of respondents were interested in ways to taste things digitally.

For all of these technologies, cost was considered the biggest barrier followed by IT security concerns and privacy.

“Office work will not go back to the way it was before the pandemic,” Björn said in a statement. “Instead, employees will spend more time working digitally and, for this reason, drive the need for future technologies on a scale and at a pace that was unimaginable only a year ago.”