Who is watching you?
Future workplaces are likely to be filled with sensors giving real time feedback about what is happening in the physical workplace. Already there are sensors that detect who is in the office, which seats are being used and which are not. Contrary to rumour mongering in the media these devices are not tracking our work as individuals, rather are helping to optimise the use of space and understand how people use the physical environment to work. Valuable data to help CRE teams create better workplaces.
But how will we feel in the future when emotional sensors are placed in the work environment? Surely HR and the CEO would love to know how happy the workforce is; day by day, hour by hour? Make a change (physically or organisationally) and see who is happy. Does that person who just walked into reception feel happy, sad or anxious? Are they angry? Does the corporation have the right to know? Schools in China are training these sensors and cameras on children in school; are they paying attention, focussed, happy.
Will we feel the same about identity sensors? Sensors that would allow easier movement of people by avoiding need for physical security devices; easily identifying intruders. Allowing the building to know who we are opens up a whole breadth of opportunities to enhance the experience of the user. Or not. What could possibly go wrong?
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.
CBRE workplace research indicates the amount of talking in a future office might be three times what it is today as a consequence of this technology. Perhaps we need augmented audio reality (AAR) headphones. With AI-enabled headphones, we might 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. What a heavenly thought; the quiet open plan office.
Microsoft have recently brought to market technology that automatically identifies separate voices and transcribes meetings. Start-up company Nura have created noise-cancelling headphones where users can specifically turn the ability to hear the voice spectrum on or off whilst masking other noise. 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. This technology already exists. 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 will arrive in workplaces sooner than we think. Are we ready?
What does this mean for HR professionals?
Here are four questions for HR professionals to consider in the context of the AI/AR rich workplace of the future:
1. How can I use real estate data to enhance the employee experience, team and individual productivity? How do we prevent its misuse?
2. How could we use a workplace concierge app to reward and support our talent and deliver targeted 1:1 communications that hit the target?
3. What risks will these new technologies bring? What new issues will this bring to HR?
4. How can our HR team work more closely with IT and Corporate Real Estate to create a more compelling value proposition for our employees, accelerate transformation and build a culture of change readiness?
Being more human
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 and evolving version of “Nine Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Changing How and Where We Work” by Peter Andrew, Senior Director for Workplace Strategies Asia-Pacific with CBRE, which was originally published in Corporate Real Estate Journal (Volume 8 Number 1) in September 2018.