When Stephane Kasriel moved from France to Silicon Valley in the 1990s, the concept of “telecommuting” was dramatically different than it is today.
Working remotely in the late ’90s still required access to expensive tools, which usually required either a hefty investment from employers or for remote workers to shoulder the financial burden, making the practice fairly uncommon.
“To be in communication with your clients or employer, if you were trying to do it remotely, had to be done through fax machines and long-distance calling,” he says. “Many of the tools that they needed you to use were only available on premise.”
In the nearly 20 years since, there has been an explosion of affordable tools that enable remote working, ranging from communication applications and project management platforms, to file and document sharing services, to the myriad of industry-specific tools.
Despite the drastic increase in the capabilities made available to remote and freelance employees in the past 20 years, however, they are believed to pale in comparison to some of the innovations that are just around the corner. Here are five predictions about the future of remote working tools, according to the founders of some of the companies that are helping to build them.
1. Remote tools will become standard, even among non-remote staff
Those like Kasriel who invest their time and energy into designing these tools suggest that we will soon reach a point where remote platforms become preferable to face-to-face communication, because of the additional capabilities they can provide. As a result, they suggest that we’re quickly approaching a future where remote working tools are standard, whether your colleagues are sitting right next to you, or on the other side of the planet.
“We’re still a few years away, frankly the hardware is not that good, and the software doesn’t work all that well, but you can see a time when the collaboration tools people use are entirely virtual,” says Kasriel. “So even if you’re sitting next to the person, you still do it through this augmented or virtual-reality world to collaborate on the thing you’re working on.”
2. Remote workers will do even more work even more remotely
Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices are great for sending quick messages or making minor changes to existing projects, but few remote workers are able to get the bulk of their day’s tasks completed using a truly mobile device. As a result, mobile work today is still frequently limited to a fixed location, even if that location is outside of the office.
“More and more, people want to work from mobile devices, but many of these collaboration tools are just terrible on mobile,” says Kasriel. “Video conferencing on mobile is just fine, but any time you need to start entering significant amounts of information, it’s still way behind.”
Rather than providing a smaller version of their desktop application, Kasriel believes mobile remote working tools, including his own, will seek to improve the user’s ability to complete tasks on a mobile device. He believes this will be accomplished in the future through a combination of mobile-first design, predictive text, artificial intelligence, and improved speech recognition software.
3. Out with videoconferencing, in with VR conferencing
The past decade has seen significant strides in videoconference technology, yet the tools currently on the market still have their limitations. In order to reach a point where remote working tools are just as, if not more effective, than in-person communication, videoconferencing will need to feel a lot more natural than it does today.
“If you think about videoconferencing today, typically the eye contact doesn’t really work well, the person is never at the right angle, they’re never the right size,” says Kasriel. He explains that Cisco recently solved these issues with their latest TelePresence products, which enabled life-sized interactions. “It’s great, and it works really well, except that it costs about $100,000 per meeting room, which isn’t really accessible to freelancers.”
Instead, Kasriel believes the future of real-time remote communications is in augmented and virtual reality, which is currently being pursued at a more affordable price point. For example, in 2016, Microsoft Research announced that it was experimenting with a product called Holoportation, which combined the Hololense VR goggles with 3D cameras to beam life-sized holograms of other people or objects in real time.
“The idea was that you would see the person, life-sized, as if they were standing next to you, in a way that would be more compelling than video conferencing,” says Kasriel. Taking this idea one step further, Kasriel believes there will come a time when projects are conceived, designed, and prototyped entirely within this virtual world, making the digital platform preferable to in-person communication.
4. Communications will be un-unified
Perhaps the most common buzzword within the remote collaboration space of the past decade was “unified communications,” a fancy way of saying a single platform for all communication types.
The idea of doing all things in one place may have appealed to the first generation to embrace remote work, but as the practice expands to a wider swath of the working population, service providers are seeing demand for more specialized tools, rather than fewer, more generalized ones.
“If you think about a typical developer, they will use Google Docs for documentation, Slack for messaging, GitHub for code storage, etc., and these things were never designed to talk to each other,” says Kasriel.
Rather than attempting to design an all-in-one remote collaboration platform, Kasriel believes the industry will continue to fracture, and he’s not the only one.
“We’re concentrated on making the communication piece really good,” Cal Henderson, the CTO and cofounder of Slack, told Fast Company at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon in early November. “We’re never going to make the best possible word processor or the best possible wiki or the best possible voice and video calls or the best possible file storage, because for different use cases and different business customers, ‘the best’ has different meanings.”
Instead, Henderson believes the number of software categories is only going to continue to increase in the coming years, with more niche products designed for more specific industries and roles.
“If an enterprise today uses 1,000 tools, God forbid maybe it will be 2,000 tools five years from now, not just for the sake of fragmentation, but because they help people be individually more productive,” he says.
5. AI will help manage remote staff
With less human oversight, Henderson believes the growing remote workforce will gradually begin to take direction from artificial intelligence tools. He explains that since remote workers are more removed from management, they aren’t able to get the same level of instant feedback, particularly when it comes to prioritizing their workload.
“You want people to understand that of the three things they could do right now, here is the one that is most aligned with what we’re trying to do as an organization,” he says. “To the extent that technology can help communicate that clarity around vision and priorities, that’s hugely helpful for people prioritizing their own work.”
Henderson says Slack is already implementing some machine learning and AI to help prioritize channels and conversations within the platform.
“We’re early days in that at Slack itself around improving search by looking at the people you talk to, the topics you care about to personalize your results based on results you’ve clicked on in the past, or by prioritizing the messages you’re likely to read first based on your particular behaviors,” he says.
Henderson believes that AI can help keep an increasingly remote workforce aligned to an organization’s timelines, goals, and priorities while returning some of the oversight that is lost when staff aren’t physically in the building.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Stephane Kasriel as the founder of the staffing platform Elance.