The majority of management tools we use today have been invented before 1920. The way we manage people today, compared to 50 years ago has hardly changed at all. The major principles, tools and methods that are driving our organizations today are legacies of people long dead. Mixed with recent fads promoted by consultancy firms. So when I say that office life is going to change in the next 20 years, this is a quite surprising statement, it’s not obvious at all. We will always need tools to hire, organize, motivate and control people. But the way we are doing it is about to change. And it’s all about innovation.
The barriers that protected corporation’s margins are crumbling. The share economy is at the base of the value proposition of Uber, Airbnb and many recent companies. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Paypal with their incredible innovation did not exist before 1994. As Ray Kurzweil said, we’re living in an era of accelerating returns. Innovation and technology are progressing exponentially. In other words, if we want to think about our work in 20 years, we cannot do it with linear principles.
Researchers state that there will be more self-employed entrepreneurs and less people into corporations. People working for multinationals will be more and more self-directed, work from remote and manage their time with flexibility. Generation Z will be more community based. Network, co-working, crowdsourcing, cross-pollination of ideas, collaborative environments will replace hierarchy. We will see a more flexible, freelance, collaborative and far less secure work world. Innovation will outsourced, it will be common praxis to search for promising start-ups and buy them. Scouting the best innovation out there will be a crucial competence to achieve differentiation.
Spaces, tools and technology will change to accommodate such changes. Below some examples of future office technology we can expect soon.
Evolution of living spaces: holorooms?
When I hear about hot desking, remote working or people working from coffee shops, I see it’s not the reality for the majority of companies. And probably it won’t be for a while. That will be maybe the standard for start-ups, young entrepreneurs, free lances and consultants.
Corporations will try to empower their employees providing new tools. Tools which maximize creativity, productivity and collaboration between people. This is not because such companies are enlightened. It’s because they need employees to be the main driver of differentiation. The main reasons left for going to work are to interact with other people and use equipment not available at home. One intriguing expectation is that spaces, rooms and even furniture will adapt to the any purpose of work. With just the command of the voice a simple meeting room will become an elegant boardroom. It’s not clear if this will happen thanks to holograms or materials made of nanoparticles that can be manipulated. But once again, this will be the reality of just a few pioneers with deep pockets.
I expect the main visible changes to office future technology will be virtual reality and robots.
Robots and virtual reality at office
Robots into office spaces is not hard to imagine at all. Technology is evolving fast and we can already see robots welcoming guests into buildings, hotels, restaurants and department stores. Some of them already have appreciable human features, can perform many concierge repetitive tasks and speak different languages. When the unit costs of a single robot will approach the annual cost of a human receptionist or worker, I expect corporations will consider the replacement. I think in a few years robots will perform tasks related to facility management, for example fix a burnout bulb, clean the toilets or patrol for security. Asimo at office is just an example.
The second big change will be virtual reality. Virtual assistants will follow the employee and appear on every wall or screen at command. The avatars will be just the visible face or body of services that companies will made available to employees.
Computers will exist in the walls and the floor, in the elements of architecture instead of in a big machine on your desktop. Agenda, calendar, reporting and analysis, market and competitive intelligence, news, corporate documents for example will be available on demand. The higher your level in the organization, the more powerful and rich of services the virtual assistant. I wrote a complete post on virtual assistants, so if you want to investigate in more details, you can find it here.
The Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence will allow for this change to happen. Bandwidth will need to be increased to provide everyone with high-quality streaming access, the Cloud will make the rest. Privacy and safety will remain major concerns, but we can expect IT departments to tackle such issues seriously.
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But virtual reality does not finish here. It will the new trend in training. Life-like simulations in the meeting room have a huge potential. Companies will train employees at sales, negotiation, conflict resolution and many other situations. Immersive experiences will be available, realistic and cheap. Virtual reality will also offer workers a virtual desktop and the ability to project computer-generated objects into the real world. That will be useful to technical roles and for every creativity task in general. Why not using it to show a demo to a client?
Wearables in the workplace
Another emerging trend posing important questions is wearables. I’m not a big fan of wearables at office. I think they have a huge potential for a variety of jobs outdoor. Fantastic for a retail chain’s employees to help with stock control. Simply perfect for drivers and other equipment operators assisted by fatigue-monitoring sensors. Fundamental for Boeing pilots, the head-up displays in cockpits so that they can get critical information without looking down at dials.
But what for at office? One of the most publicized application of wearable technology in the workplace so far, has been corporate wellness. Note “corporate” not “employees”. I’m sure that healthier employees cost less in healthcare payments, have less time off sick and are more productive. But control just creates anxiety. Workers have complained about the surveillance and also that the system measures only speed, not quality of work. Wearables can quantify tasks, but intellectual jobs are not a matter of quantity, but quality. Productivity is about motivation and empowerment, not just technology.
I expect that wearables having success will be:
- Smartwatches replacing smartphones before virtual assistants will be the standard. A watch coupled with voice commands, Siri-like, will be able to perform the same tasks of a phone in less space.
- Glasses and other wearables based upon open-air-gesture technology. Employees check their smartphones more than 150 times a day, on average. Each check typically requires a sequence of movements (type in password, choose app, enter data) that takes about 20 seconds. Emerging wearables, will replace those steps with simple gestures saving time and complexity.
- Wearables capable of increasing the cognitive abilities of employees. People are not interested in measuring the length or the number of phone calls with a prospect; they want to know if they are performing well. For instance, Melon has developed an EEG headband that helps wearers understand their cognitive patterns. I expect we will see more of this type of tools.
Future office technology to ease relationships
For example, real time translators. The combination of fast computers, cloud, pervasive broadband and machine learning algorithms will allow real time translation of speech. People of different cultures will be able to speak vis-à-vis while their words are translated. We don’t have to search too much for an example, it’s Skype. We agree this will impact some jobs, but a fast comprehension is at the base of every interaction.
Also brain-to-text looks promising. Teams in the US and Germany are developing a system that decodes brain waves and thoughts into text. This technology was born to help people with severe disabilities, like Stephen Hawking, but can easily go mainstream. At some point we can imagine that the correct algorithm coupled with the right interface will allow two people to dialogue via telepathic system. I’m sure it will need another 20 years for a full development, but I’m confident. Because research on this topic is backed by militaries interested in communications that cannot be intercepted. There’s another post in this blog about this topic, I invite you to read it here.
Another application that will be ready probably sooner than the brain to brain communication is NPL everywhere. Glasses and virtual reality headsets will allow to interpret NPL information. So when you meet a person you’ll be able to decode his body language without being an expert and in real time. This ability will provide a great advantage for example for recruiters, negotiators, salespeople. In general, all front office jobs, might benefit of it, because it simplifies relationships.
The last spark of this post is knowledge upload to brain. The ability to manually change the nervous system to input knowledge is way beyond anything we can do. But technology is improving fast and the good news is that you won’t even need a USB port in the back of your head. The process is called Decoded Neurofeedback. Experiments have reportedly resulted in long-lasting improvement in tasks that rely on visual performance, such as playing a musical instrument or catching a ball. I’m sure the idea to acquire any required knowledge in minutes is interesting, but I’m happy to downsize the benefits of such an invention. Technical knowledge is just a piece of the story. Experience and personal sensibility are equally important. If we could learn everything without any major effort, we would rely too much on this technology. There would be a risk to lose our creativity, interest in exploring, curiosity and many other features that make us human. Scientists will be able to hack our brain at some point, let’s see the consequences.
The current trend of employee-centric and people-first approach will likely grow in the future. Some companies will push hard to introduce tools that can maximize the performance of their staff. The sooner, the better, because people will become the main driver for differentiation. Knowledge will become a commodity and innovation will come from the outside. Clerical tasks will be replaced by machines. The key for success will be relationships and future office technology have to help in this direction.
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