Technology & the Workplace

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Which technological innovation or innovations will revolutionise the workplace in the next decade?
Sam Sahni, Principal, Strategy at Unispace, offers a number of possibilities.

The potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is undeniable. It promises to shake up a significant number of industries, but the workplace is one area where AI or machine learning is going to be prominent. The integration of AI will, in theory, allow us to crack that thorny issue of productivity and start pulling workplace data into shape. Getting a grip on performance data and understanding the outcome of successful workplace design will revolutionise our market.
‘People Analytics’ as some are already calling such data, hits that sweet spot where workplace, HR, and IT collide. This area is the future of the sector and the successful integration of technology carries massive potential benefits. Thus far, workplace professionals have relied on HR to offer human-level insight or to better understand ‘people and performance’. But if this kind of data on staff movement, attendance, productivity, choice of location, utilisation and collaboration is readily available, then it will empower the workplace discipline.
Perhaps we will end up being the advisors on staff attraction and retention, as AI will allow us to observe and predict pressure points across the business?
Most practitioners understand that AI already has the ability to learn an employee’s preferences around desk height, lighting, temperature and conference settings – and to adjust accordingly. Which, quite frankly, I think is a glorified SIRI or Alexa. I think what everyone really wants to know is: ‘Will AI shrink my need for space?’ or ‘Will my workspace look different because of AI?’
The real difference will begin when AI enables frictionless working beyond the physical workplace. For example, we are working on combining calendar (meeting changes), transport (traffic/trains) and weather (clear/ rain) data for a user, which will give them back an extra 15 minutes in the morning. How would you quantify an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning to better productivity during the day?
What are the challenges to the adoption of this kind of tech?
The heated debate around the use of personal data has raised red flags at tech companies around the world. And has only given greater onus to the right to privacy and just how our data is being used. The workplace will be no different, and will possibly be more contentious.
Journalists at the Telegraph have already very publicly made their objections known to the use of workplace sensors and this is far from being the first example I have heard. The monitoring of employee data – while legitimate according to the vast majority of employment contracts – has to be handled very sensitively. This is particularly the case when external contractors are handling said data and, with AI, that may well be the case as that is where the expertise will lie. To properly gather and use data required for AI, firms must take a three-step approach: anonymising data, ensuring full transparency of what is available to view and where, and that they opt-in to the process.
It is the latter of the three points that is critical for our sector – from the early stages of strategy and planning, we will have to set our objectives clearly and communicate the benefits of AI and data collation to the business and its workers.
Retaining a sense of humanity in the workplace will be a significant challenge – the concept of machine learning already evokes a sense of dystopian dread among some people, rather like watching an episode of Black Mirror. This will fall to the workplace team of the near future to offer reassurance and extol the many potential benefits of AI.
Access to and storage of data will also have to be re-addressed in light of the EU’s GDPR regulations. This policy has been put in place to try and ensure that we all have control and access to any personal data that is being stored by another party.
Google and Microsoft are best placed to lead machine learning in the workplace because they have data access to where people sit, who they talk to and certain productivity measures. There is significant value to be had in predictive analytics and to help anticipate costs around churn and future real estate cap ex.
Microsoft has already developed a workplace analytics tool that measures collaboration, while Google Analytics can assess which teams are collaborating within an organisation. Beacons and sensors can check-in people. IBM has Watson to analyse and predict workplace trends. Data collection and intelligence mechanisms are already in place – the market is far more advanced than many realise!
So in what ways could our lives be revolutionised by technology, which currently seem unimaginable?
There are wonderful advances being made right now that entail the evolution of the frictionless workplace – an AI-enabled space that can guide you from entrance to workplace via the intelligent of selection of space for the work and the interactions you will undertake on a given day. The way the likes of IBM are heading, I understand that they will be able to deliver you the perfect coffee with a personalised selection of coffee beans.

From the perspective of progress there has always been a lag between technological inception and ultimate adoption

When you factor in the likes of Biometrics, which will enable anything from activating entry to the door by silently scanning your retina, to checking on stress levels via vital signs, then the workplace sector promises to be a very exciting place over the next 20 years and more.
The introduction of tech like this will make the workplace a better place to be – and certainly far removed from the light-deprived, concrete boxes that workers crawled home from in the 70’s and 80’s. However, the role of the workplace will not have moved too far from its original point – it is a space that brings people together, allowing ideas to collide, for concentration and for learning.
Tom Carroll at JLL recently wrote: ‘We expect more businesses to ‘humanise’ their workplace through digitisation and smart technologies, using employee satisfaction, performance and wellbeing as the new way to measure success.’ It seems counter-intuitive to envisage tech as a humanising force but that is what we must not lose sight of, however exciting technology might become.
On a very pragmatic level, an issue that has to be mastered is sucking-in data and project information to enable project teams to pull together and deliver better results for clients.
Given the way that so much of the sector has wrestled with BIM, it almost seems unfathomable that such a seemingly prosaic task could be mastered – but the benefits, for the client, would be manifold.
At Unispace, we have had a crack at this approach with our uniBIM product, which allows us to integrate different tech across the various phases of the project journey, from strategy to design and construction. The impact on both cost and project schedule is such that I would hazard the proper integration and use of tools such as this will be a holy grail for much of the sector over the next five years.
Will continued advances in technology mean the end of the workplace as we know it?
No. We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, it would seem – and we are going to find a new balance. From the perspective of progress there has always been a lag between technological inception and ultimate adoption. Many pieces of tech that we are excited about now will fall by the wayside, some will be just plain wrong, and there will be left-field creations that will come late to the game. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done – the workplace is a place where humanity converges to produce something better; technology will enable this but cannot replace it.
Users who are concerned about privacy and a potential de-humanising effect on the workplace eye technologies such as AI wearily. From my perspective, AI will greatly enhance the client experience in the workplace. This is not just about big data but making the average working day more productive and enjoyable!
If access to data allows us to cut working commutes by 15 minutes, save time searching for a meeting room or tracking down lost documents, it can make the work experience better. This is the very positive, human outcome of greater access to data. Every day we waste time trying to access information that is buried across multiple different platforms. The availability of a single, intelligence data-source will provide a happy outcome for people and place.