While the personal computer transformed the office of the 1970s, the fax machine smoothed communications in the 1980s and Microsoft had become ubiquitous by the end of the last century, artificial intelligence (AI) looks set to spark the latest office revolution.
Gartner has predicted that 2021 will see AI create almost $3 trillion of business value. But, says Tim El-Sheikh, chief executive of technology development studio Nebuli: “It’s about how we can make technology and AI work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them.”
AI will take over a lot of the heavy lifting in the office, he says, such as preparing and dispatching reports, managing and updating customer relationship management systems and mining data for patterns. But while El-Sheikh is adamant “AI is the future, it’s inevitable”, he is also at pains to “destroy the myth that AI is a solution for everything”.
It is essential companies can walk before they start to run, he insists. It’s about being AI ready, and robust digital and data strategies need to come first, because if the foundations aren’t in place, projects will fail.
Making training virtual
Digital entrepreneur Felipe Polo believes that to get the most from the new generation of office tech, businesses will need to adopt a culture of risk-taking and pilot new software. However, they must be sure it “enhances process and can future-proof the business, rather than complicating it further”, he says.
One of the biggest impacts of this new wave of tech will come from virtual reality (VR) and it’s ability to enliven the dullest of training sessions. “Even before the pandemic, the million-dollar question for businesses thinking about their learning and development was ‘how do you engage your employees when it comes to training?’” says Justin Parry, chief operating officer of VR training company Immerse.
According to Ofgem’s Technology Futures report, in a traditional setting with PowerPoints and handouts, participants remember just 30 per cent of what they hear and 20 per cent of what they see. Put on a VR headset and recall jumps to 90 per cent.
Richard Hess, immersive experience lead at Nestlé, works with Immerse on VR-content ranging from teaching consumers about sustainable sourcing, to safety training for employees. “It gives employees an environment to learn and the ability to ‘fail’ that is more impactful than in a traditional training environment,” he explains.
“For safety training, this could be a dangerous situation where a worker needs to apply correct personal protective equipment or follow steps to safely turn off a machine. When learning in this type of environment, VR can provide a visceral and emotional response to what they are experiencing. This leads to greater retention of the material and greater advocacy for working in a safe manner,” says Hess.
VR could also support remote job interviews. “We’ve seen how quickly new technologies can be adopted thanks to the pandemic, so if VR follows suit, it won’t be too long before the dreaded back-to-back Zoom becomes a bit more engaging,” says Polo.
Playing Big Brother
A more controversial area for new tech is the role it is starting to play in monitoring employees and the concept of surveillance capitalism. In 2017, Barclays was criticised for installing motion sensors on staff computers that could track how long employees were at their desk. Last year, the bank was censored again, this time amid accusations they were using software designed to give insights into work patterns to spy on staff.
In February, Loopin was launched, an app designed to bridge the gap between digital engagement and wellbeing in the workplace, by measuring the mood of employees. It has already piqued the interest of HSBC and the England football team management. Employees are able to see their own and wider team mood measurements, while managers receive insights so they can understand their people better and develop effective leadership strategies.
But is this type of tech taking things too far and edging into Big Brother territory? Not according to Loopin chief operating officer Antony Thompson. “It is not another tool for HR to peer in and see what their people are doing,” he says. “It provides managers with real-time data about how someone in their team is feeling, so they know if they need to pick up the phone or have a cup of tea and a chat with someone today not next week.”
Office of the future
Other innovations coming to an office near you soon include products such as augmented reality (AR) smart glasses, which will overlay digital information on top of the real world. Parry at Immerse talks about AR as “one device to rule them all” and “a technology that can subsume all other technologies”. He says: “The target here is a lightweight head-mounted display that can turn any surface into a keyboard or drawing board.”
The idea of identity and access management, or IAM, is also likely to focus minds, as companies come to terms with employees logging on remotely or bringing their own devices into the office.
Deception technology is an exciting new form of cyber-defence that sets traps and decoys for hackers and can be backed with new passwordless technology. While biometric systems using fingerprint and face recognition are already common, they could soon be superseded by proximity-based authentication, when users carry a wireless key that allows them to log on to different devices simply by being near them.
Even ordering stationery could change thanks to Epson’s PaperLab, which is capable of producing new paper in-office from securely shredded waste paper.
For Nebuli’s El-Sheikh, however, less is more and he predicts a future office that’s based in the cloud, with perhaps the odd tablet thrown in. But if the vast power of hosted quantum computing becomes more mainstream and accessible, he says, the minimalist office of the future could feature little more than a smartphone.