In many ways the future of work has already arrived. So what comes next?
Most of the changes to the workplace will creep up on you so that, by the time they occur, they will seem completely normal. But when you take a moment to consider everything around you (perhaps as you’re wandering down the corridor to your clients’ lounge area for a meeting, with a coffee in one hand and your iPad in the other), you’ll likely wonder how we ever came so far.
Let’s step back for a minute.
Imagine this. When you walked in to reception, the automated concierge knew exactly who you were and who you had come to meet. Sensors in your phone had alerted the artificial intelligence (AI) to your arrival at the building as soon as you stepped out of the driverless vehicle. As you were on your way up in the lift (you didn’t have to choose your floor – the lift knew where you were going), a bot had scanned through the trail of emails between you and the person you’d come to meet, to find out what the meeting was all about.
By the time you entered reception the AI system had sent various documents, all pertinent to today’s meeting, to your iPad. It had prepared a cup of coffee for you, just the way you like it, and had alerted your client to your arrival.
By the time you and your client shake hands and sit down, the level of lighting and air conditioning in the meeting area will have been adjusted to match your preferences.
Welcome to the future of work. For some, it’s already here
“Through the ‘internet of things’ most devices, such as your washing machine, coffee machine or refrigerator, will be WiFi enabled and will have some sort of intelligence,” says Hank Haeusler, discipline director of the Bachelor of Computational Design at the Australian School of Architecture + Design at UNSW. “There will be a lot of knowledge and data around where we are, what we do, how we behave and what are our preferences. Machines will respond to our behaviour and to our needs.”
Haeusler and his team have been conducting research in partnership with Arup (engineering) and BVN (architecture) around the tracking of people within open-plan and activity-based styles of workplaces. As staff are encouraged to collaborate and to operate without a specific desk, how does somebody in the organisation find them when they need them? How does a business understand where the most important work spaces for collaboration and productivity are? And are staff members spending enough time with the teams they are supposed to be spending time with?
“These are the research questions we’ve been looking at by applying indoor Bluetooth and WiFi tracking,” he says. “We use mobile phones and other beacons to track people to find out what kinds of serendipity you’re developing between people and teams and where the incidental meetings are actually happening. We suspect they are not happening at people’s desks or in official meeting rooms but instead in other areas such as the kitchen or where the sofas are located.”
Buildings and high-tech office spaces will respond to us. This has been referred to as the ‘second machine age’ in the eponymous book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.
“The first machine age, driven by electricity and internal combustion engines, meant that suddenly we could pull and push things and move things around. It was all about an increase in our muscle capacity. In this second machine age, our brain capacity will increase. It’s not that we will become more clever, just as in the first machine age we didn’t actually become stronger, but we will have much more intelligence to hand,” say the authors.
The rise of the bot
An increasingly hot topic in the technology world, and in the future of our work, is that of ‘bots’.
They’re not shiny silver humanoids with eyes that glow red. Instead, they’re brilliant pieces of software that will soon take over many of our jobs, explains Dr Kristin Alford, futurist and director of the Science, Creativity and Education studio at University of South Australia.
“Bots can interact with parts of the communication flow. That might be with people or that might be with other bots. When it comes to careers dealing with information that is fairly fixed – the sort of work that accountants do, looking at tax audits, at historical information. That could all be done by a bot. Also the work that lawyers do, in terms of looking for past case law, is the sort of thing that could be done by a bot.”
In 2009, Alford says, thousands of Wall Street staff were made redundant because of the financial carnage of the GFC. As the economy began to pick up, many of those jobs did not come back. Already we were witnessing the rise of programming to replace and automate middle management and analytical jobs.
Traditional robots, hand in hand with bots, will also assist with automation of particular processes, she says. While work that is repetitive and analytical will be taken by bots, so too work that is repetitive and manual will be taken by robots. We are already seeing such examples with drone deliveries, automation of warehouses, and driverless vehicles being used on farms and mine sites etc.
Interestingly, Alford says, the professions that are likely to be safe from automation are traditionally female roles such as nursing, teaching, physiotherapy and the arts. “So it is not just a technological change we’ll be seeing in the workplace but also a social change, or a change in the way we regard the value of certain types of roles,” she says.
How we will communicate
Stephen Minnett, founder and director of workplace design firm FutureSpace, says new innovations will help us to close the gap between the quality of physical connections and technological connections. Meetings and interactions with people who are not actually present will be far more sophisticated and nuanced than previously.
“There might be eight people in an office in Sydney sitting at a table and working. At the end of that bench they have a big, flat screen and a camera. On that screen they can see the team in their Melbourne or Shanghai office, as if they are sitting at the other end of the same table,” says Minnett.
“You become subliminally aware of the people in the other office. If you want to speak to them, you can just glance over and see they are on the phone, so you shouldn’t bother them right now.”
Virtual reality (VR) will also enter into this brave new workplace, although not exactly as we currently know it. Stefan Pernar, managing director of Virtual Reality Ventures, points out that current VR systems are very isolating. The headsets tend to shut everything else out. While this will suit specific purposes in the office of the future – OH&S training, visualisation of new designs, walk-throughs of new buildings for architects/engineers and their clients etc – the next generation of VR will be closer to the definition of ‘augmented reality’ (AR). Information will be projected onto the user’s glasses, onto contact lenses or into the user’s eyes.
“It will be about overlaying all types of relevant information, business intelligence systems that you might usually see on your computer,” Pernar says. “So you walk around a workplace and as you look around, all the information you need that is relevant for that particular scenario is being overlaid over what you are seeing.”
Here’s to your health
As wearables embedded with GPS, heart-rate monitors, WiFi, Bluetooth and other types of technologies continue to advance into the new high-tech office, it is likely that organisations will be able to track levels of health and stress within their workforce, says Bernard Salt, futurist and partner at KPMG. Such devices will be able to tell if an entire department is stressed, for instance, offering the organisation the opportunity to find and fix an issue before it becomes a bigger problem.
“People are aggressive if they’re stressed, or they could have a heart attack, or perhaps they’re feeling depressed or lonely,” Salt says. “Any or all of these indicators may give management the ability to manipulate the workforce’s emotions or emotional state – this may well be a feature of the future office.”
Technology has made people realise that they can work successfully from anywhere. But in the future, Salt says, they will likely turn back to the office. It will simply be a different office to the one we know today.
“I think we’ll see a yearning for the collaboration and the collegiality of the high-tech office,” Salt says. “I think the mainstream is caught up in the wonderment of it all, but sooner or later the need for collaboration of like-minded people in the same geography, in the same space and interacting in a human way, is what people will want. So we will see a revival of the office. But nothing ever comes back as it was.”