How the Coronavirus Could Accelerate Technology in the Workplace
Technology in the workplace continues to accelerate, supporting its transformation from a space for heads-down concentration to a place for collaboration and serendipity. In this post, we discuss five technologies that will define the "new" office.
When the coronavirus lessens its grip, offices will be one of the first places we go back to—and it will be an ever more critical space for us to socialize, ideate, connect and meet. For some companies, the workplace will no longer be a place for heads-down tasks that we can accomplish from home, but will instead serve as a place for group work.
At the same time, the virus is also accelerating preexisting technological trends that will support this transformation, freeing us to reevaluate what matters in the office, such as deeper collaboration, meaningful personal connections and increased creativity. The office will evolve into a place of fulfillment rather than just a place of work, and “office culture,” for many individuals, will become their social outlet.
Here are a few ways the pandemic could accelerate technology in the office:
What is it? Hyper-flexible offices that shape-shift on command, to meet employee and team preferences—and evolve to address long-term business goals.
Why does it matter? As people return to the office, the great “work from home experiment” shows that many are productive in a variety of environments, and even shift how they work throughout the day, thus creating a need for more flexible office infrastructure. While current building apps can allow employees to find areas in their office with their preferred environment (temperature, lighting, etc.) the kinetic office concept takes the smart workplace even further: rather than employees adapting to the building, the building adapts to each employee’s needs and an organization’s business priorities.
What could it look like? Employees can easily and rapidly adjust workstations, expand or contract common areas and meeting rooms, remove or add interior walls and partitions, as well as use software to tailor the air temperature, ventilation, lighting and noise levels to create the perfect work environment. Moreover, flexible infrastructure will create a framework to accommodate current technology and integrate those not invented yet into the workplace in the future.
Smart Furniture: Nissan introduced a “self-parking” conference chair in 2016, which may provide a glimpse into how this could work on a furniture level in offices. Similar to the technology in self-parking vehicles, the chair’s position is detected by a series of sensors, which then help to guide it back to its “parked” position. As autonomous vehicles become more reliable and prevalent—and as 5G becomes more affordably integrated into buildings—this technology could be more broadly applied to furniture systems, and even room partitions, in an office. The potential is tremendous, from automating basic janitorial services to rapidly reconfiguring rooms for events or new uses.
Hyper-Customized Experience: Our offices may automatically flex and contract to the workforce more deliberately on an experiential level. Like our smartphones and homes, our workstations should express our personal preferences in real-time. We need to “own” our experiences. Every office element should adjust—not just the physical space—to reflect our moods: from music to lighting to interactive graphic presentation preferences.
What is it? Automation—artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics that complete routine cognitive and physical tasks typically carried out by people in their work—may become more prevalent in the office.
The Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate this trend, as ensuring both human safety and maintaining business function will become the main market drivers.
Why does it matter? Technology is a means of convenience, to offload the trivial or tedious, so we can focus more on what matters in the workplace. The office could become a place where jobs that prioritize high value tasks, such as critical thinking, creativity, and social skills, become even more essential. This could also open up opportunities for other types of employment. “A new category of knowledge-enabled jobs will become possible as machines embed intelligence and knowledge that less-skilled workers can access with a little training,” writes the McKinsey Global Institute on the future of tech and work.
What could it look like? Automation is not just robots. For the office, much of the automation may be software-based, and physically located beyond the office. Areas where we see automation having near term impacts in the workplace are:
Routine Tasks: Any routine work, regardless of profession, is now subject to automation. Some of the most highly compensated and skilled professions, such as accounting, trading, legal and medical (surgical), will be subject to significant automation in the coming 10-15 years. Because of the rapid nature of adoption, offices will need to be more flexible and customizable to deal with changing departmental needs, and accommodate new business lines as they emerge.
Data Centers: Experts predict that by 2025, we’ll create 163 zettabytes of digital data worldwide. For data to be more effectively harnessed to improve machine learning and automated technologies, there must be a corresponding investment in data centers and technology infrastructure to support this shift. A trend we already see in our work in both Korea and China is that the first phase of any new corporate campus is a large data center, with an additional one or two phases of future expansion.
Mindful Balance: As artificial intelligence takes over more aspects of our work, it provides a chance for us to step back to address how we add to our work and our lives. It can be humbling, but also freeing, for AI to do the work that we have been doing for years. This is happening already in certain fields. In generative media, time-intensive hand-drawn digital animations can be carried out via AI, so now a designer can focus more on the story, then set up a basic ecosystem and let the AI run. While this might seem unsettling, it can be a new beginning for balance, where there are no true work hours anymore. Instead, AI could deploy our ideas—developed at any time—into projects, freeing us from the typical 9-5 schedule to focus on a more meaningful career and life.
What is it? Seamless hands-free technology that allows employees and visitors to move through a building and experience interactive graphics without touching communal, shared surfaces.
Why does it matter? As cleanliness and sanitization are at the forefront of everyone’s minds during the pandemic, this could provide an obvious, yet critical way to address infection prevention by minimizing the transmission of viruses and bacteria.
What would it look like? Interactive graphics, as well as doors, lights, windows, blinds, bathrooms and other building components would be fully hands-free via smart technology embedded into architecture and building systems.
Security: Security will continue to be ever more invisible and seamless. This is an important step in the experience of many urban campuses, as the security checkpoint is a place of human interaction and touch—not to mention invasive in many cases, with magnetometers and other scanning devices. This may evolve to not only be hands-free, but also more pleasant for visitors and employees alike.
An Extension of Brand: A company’s policy of cleanliness, and how their workplace design and operations support it, will become an important part of their external brand, and a potential attractor for talent.
Universal Language for Natural User Interfaces: A challenge in adopting natural user interfaces controlled by touchless motion is in the learning curve, to memorize all of the steps needed to communicate with an interface. Yet, like the standard gestures we use on our smartphones, interactive graphics in buildings may finally adopt universal touchless gestures to make this adoption easier, spurred by the urgent need to be hands-free in public spaces due to the pandemic.
Sensors, Sensors, Everywhere
What is it? Sensors in buildings can track occupants’ motions and proximity, as well as temperature, humidity, air quality, lighting levels, electrical usage and more.
Why does it matter? Sensors embedded in ceilings, building products and other areas would help offices stay smart, improve employee wellness and communicate data, like sustainability metrics, to facilities and employees.
What could it look like? While currently implemented in interactive digital displays as well as retail experiences like AmazonGo stores, the next generation of sensors in offices could provide not only engaging experiences for employees, clients and visitors, but also streamline logistics, target in-person and robotic cleaning protocols, determine conference room availability, remind employees to take a break, calculate office supply inventories and facilitate orders, and even tune circadian lighting.
Personalization and Storytelling: Sensors play a critical role in the modern workplace experience. In our projects, we use sensors to personalize a space and help tell a story. For example, we can adjust an experience to “see” clothing colors, body heat, brain waves and kinetic motion and analyze this information to create personalized mood-driven visuals. Artificial intelligence today is highly-advanced: it can even detect what people are holding or carrying, for example, the type of handbag, a pen or pencil, etc., and adjust based on an individual’s taste. As more people welcome sensors into their work lives, as they do at home, our offices will adjust throughout the day, tailored to our preferences and moods.
Customized Augmented Reality Experiences
What is it? Not just for previewing 3D architecture designs, augmented reality custom-built into our offices could become the new way we connect with teams, clients and collaborators around the world.
Why does it matter? With teams dispersed across the globe more than ever before, our future offices could primarily serve as hubs for connecting in person, but also provide high-fidelity virtual collaboration tools.
What could it look like? Augmented reality is the future of…everything. Deployed in conference rooms and common areas, but also via wearables, here are a few possible trends:
Travel Replacement: The coronavirus has substantially restricted business travel, particularly internationally, and travel reductions may likely continue for several years driven by health concerns as well as cost considerations. Advancements in sophisticated augmented reality tools for the office may be critical to support collaboration of dispersed teams and clients on a global level.
Wearables: By 2030, we may all wear augmented reality glasses that look just like regular glasses. In our offices, this could create an entirely new layer of reality on top of what we see every day—from clothes that can be changed to adapt to a meeting’s purpose, to virtual collaboration buddies and workspaces. The common areas in our offices will need physical and virtual layouts to accommodate this blend in our work lives—and to attract talent. This isn’t some far-off future. It’s happening now. And this current pandemic is just accelerating these technologies, not creating them.
In Other Words…
As the coronavirus crisis changes the way we work, the role of technology in the workplace will accelerate. Technology can help us have more fulfilling careers and comfortable work environments: it can provide a high-degree of customization, help us be more productive and spark creativity—as well as connect with teams and clients in a more meaningful way.