To the pessimist, artificial intelligence (AI) is associated with terrifying and dystopian scenarios, where machines replace (and eventually overtake) humans. To the optimist, AI is an amazing tool that, when used appropriately, can drastically improve the way that humans work and live.
As AI starts to become more integrated into our work environments, it is worth exploring the different ways in which it will the transform the workplace as we know it.
Managing volatility and forecasting space
When it comes to AI, it is both a cause of the problem and a potential part of the solution.
As a cause, AI is resetting how we think about human labour. At this point in time, very few people really know how AI will impact organisations or how quickly AI will replace, modify or destroy jobs. Business leaders are confronted with the challenge of unpredictable future headcounts and traditional rules of thumb for forecasting labour needs are no longer valid.
As AI platforms become more sophisticated, they will eventually start managing workflows and job creation in organisations (they already are in some leading organisations). Ultimately, these platforms will be better equipped than humans to understand headcount volatility and predict long-term trends, allowing for smarter real estate strategies. AI will not stop unpredictability – just help us understand and manage it better.
So, AI is causing us headcount headaches today, but it will take time before AI steps in to help sort out the problem it has created. Until then the current market offers two approaches: managing volatility within an organisation’s lease (through unassigned desks, hot-desking or activity-based working), which accommodates minor, localised headcount fluctuations; and managing it outside the lease (‘space as a service’ whereby core leased space is supplemented by short and/or long-term access to serviced offices or enterprise co-working solutions).
Organising our daily life
The most obvious and immediate transformation of our work lives through AI will likely be the personal organiser. We joke today about the clumsiness and inadequacy of our personal digital assistants and their voice recognition. That will change rapidly as the next generation of consumer ‘organiser’ products enters the market.
Expect few complaints when AI personal assistants can reliably organise your diary, book meetings, submit expense claims, or even suggest courses of action. This technology will start with basic tasks – but over time we will become increasingly reliant on AI partners to make our work lives simpler, enabling us to focus on what we are most passionate about.
CRE will play a critical role, since AI personal assistants will need to connect into smart building technology and services. More than ever, the CRE function needs to work with IT to get the technology right. Compliance will also be critical as this next wave of technology will bring a horde of personal data privacy issues. The challenge will be to create a system that dramatically improves user experience and reduces worker stress, while ensuring that personal data is protected.
In today’s workplace, we are moving from the traditional model of desk allocation to employee self-organisation. We now live in a world where many of us work within fluid structures, interacting with colleagues across geographies as often as those in the same office. Unassigned desk environments are gaining in popularity because they enable self-organisation – allowing people to choose how, where, and with whom they want to work.
Self-organisation unleashes incredible potential for innovation; but it has also created new problems. For instance, hot desking can be very effective for those who work independently of others, while being detrimental to employees working in interdependent physical teams.
Real-time occupancy management is the key to solving this challenge. The AI concierge of the future will align workplace resources with the real-time demands of individuals and teams needing to work together, helping determine the optimum use of physical space. This platform will map out our work preferences and allocate seating accordingly, creating a seamless experience for all employees. Eventually it will understand inefficiencies in work processes and identify ways to enhance individual and team productivity.
AI as our workplace concierge
The challenge every business faces today is how to attract and retain talent. In this highly competitive landscape, workplace experience is fast becoming a key differentiator. How will AI help enhance the employee experience?
Firstly, AI-predicted maintenance and automated repairs will ensure a more productive and healthy workplace, with machines and equipment breaking down less frequently. AI platforms will also provide employees with concierge services – from ordering lunch to running errands. As they learn more about us, AI platforms will start to anticipate our needs before we are even aware of them.
More importantly, AI will become integral to our well-being. Our personal health devices will connect to our AI assistants, who can then assess when we are tired, stressed or just needing a break. Based on this information, they can automatically schedule breaks, keep an eye on our snacking, and find opportunities for us to be active – managing our well-being more effectively than we ever could.
Will we work in cockpits?
As AI becomes more sophisticated, it holds the potential to completely transform workplace design. What will these offices of the future look like? Will we end up working in virtual environments, sitting in cockpits with headsets and goggles?
Since humans like to connect with real, tangible environments, the widespread adoption of virtual reality seems implausible. However, augmented reality (AR), which enhances physical experiences instead of replacing them, is likely to emerge as a workplace trend.
Imagine a world where we are constantly talking to our AI assistants and computers. This might make our work environment unbearably noisy – unless we use augmented audio reality (AAR) headphones. With AI-enabled headphones, we could individually turn up or down the volume of the people working around us; quietening the noisy guy at the desk next door, making it easier to hear other colleagues. Or we could simply descend into pure silence.
Microsoft have recently brought to market technology that automatically identifies separate voices and transcribes meetings. Startup company Nura have created noise-cancelling headphones where users can specifically turn the ability to hear voices on or off. Combine the two technologies and AI- enabled Audio AR headphones could be on the market sooner than you think.
For those using visual AR headsets, visual privacy in open-plan spaces will become a breeze. Our virtual computer monitors will only be visible if we choose to share them with colleagues (also wearing headsets) and AR will enable us to build virtual partitions all around us when we need to block out distractions. In this sense, it will indeed become possible to retreat into a private capsule or cockpit at work and send your avatar to your meetings!
Welcome to your “workplace skin”
Humans are naturally territorial and like to personalise the places that they live and work with familiar objects and pictures. If AR (combined with AI) becomes prevalent, the virtual personalisation of workplaces could become a reality.
AI technology will be able to map a person’s physical surroundings and overlay decorative colour schemes and familiar virtual objects in real time — in the same way gamers buy ‘skins’ for their characters. Our AI assistant might even predict our moods, understand the type of work we are doing and adjust our personalised environments to suit.
Augmented reality is still a novelty for us, and it might be hard to imagine ourselves walking around wearing clunky headsets; but with the fields of AR, spatial computing and the emerging 3D worldwide web exploding right now, the clunky headsets are starting to look like Ray-bans and this technology could be brought to workplaces sooner than we think.
Safety in the virtual workplace
If we start working in a hybrid environment, where AR headsets blur the distinction between physical and virtual reality, what new risks might we face?
Will the virtual images obscure the physical — leaving us prone to trip, collide into each other or walk into walls? Will noise-cancelling headphones create the risk of people becoming unaware of impending danger? Will we need to build rooms within future workplaces that are “safe zones” for using AR technology? On the other hand, it seems just as likely that our AR headsets will have built-in sensors and that our personal AI assistants will warn us of impending danger.
Either way, new jobs will need to be invented to manage the potential hazards of a hybrid work environment. It’s easy to imagine that in the future there will be people tasked specifically with regulating any health and safety issues that may arise in augmented work environments.
As AI weaves itself into the fabric of our everyday lives, it will have a profound impact on our workplace — from the way we manage our daily well-being to how we interact with our colleagues. While AI will arguably make technology less obtrusive, it will nonetheless be omnipresent in our lives. In an AI-driven world, managing information and stimulation overload will become critical for our sanity, health and happiness.
AI will certainly make our home and work life much easier; but for all its benefits, it cannot replace human connection. Learning how to regularly “unplug” from technology (especially augmented reality environments) will be key to our overall well-being. While technology will obviously be central to our future experience at work, non-digital spaces for creating communities, connecting with nature, taking time to think and relax will be even more essential.
This article is a condensed version of “Nine Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Changing How and Where We Work” by Peter Andrew, which was originally published in Corporate Real Estate Journal (Volume 8 Number 1) in September 2018.