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.

Augmented Reality (AR) commonly refers to technology that overlays and merges analogue and digital light signals; in three dimensions; in real time. Powered by the next new wave of spatial computing – set to revolutionise the way we interact with technology and the physical environment.  AR can equally apply to aural signals, with smart headsets selectively filtering what we hear and overlaying voice, music and other sounds.

Combined together these technologies will make today’s ‘Smart’ phones look primitive in the near future. Understanding the hybrid virtual physical workplace will be critical to get the best out of talent and help them make educated choices about getting the most out of physical and virtual ways of working.

More than ever before, it’s critical that the HR profession engages with IT and Real Estate colleagues. Aligning change in physical workplaces with cultural and work process change is a powerful catalyst for organisational transformation. As AI and AR starts to become more integrated into our work environments, it’s worth exploring seven different ways in which it will the transform the workplace as we know it.

AI 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 enter the market.  For instance, Alibaba’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology exceeded human comprehension in tests in March 2018.

We were all amazed in 2018 when Google Duplex was able to book a hairdresser or reserve a table at a restaurant. That technology will likely be available to the Smart phone platform in the next 18 months. Expect few complaints when AI personal assistants can reliably organise your diary, book meetings, submit expense claims, or even suggest sensible courses of action.

This technology will start with basic tasks – but over time we will become increasingly reliant on AI assistants to make our work lives simpler, enabling us to focus on what we are most passionate about. Corporate Real Estate (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.

AI organising people
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 removes barriers to collaboration and innovation whilst creating opportunities to hide and focus.  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 help groups of people come together and work, creating a seamless experience for all employees. Eventually AI could be applied to understand inefficiencies in work processes and identify ways to enhance individual and team productivity.

AI managing headcount volatility
AI 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.

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. Apps with AI and machine learning have come to market in the past 12 months.  They help employees find people and places to work; give feedback about the office climate; and provide concierge services – from ordering lunch to running errands. As they learn more about us, these AI platforms will 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.

Writer: Peter Andrew, Senior Director for Workplace Strategies Asia-Pacific with CBRE.