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Workplace technologies

The challenges posed by emerging technologies was the area of discussion at Quora Consulting’s June Smartworking Summit where a group of eminent speakers gave delegates some cause for optimism regarding a brave new digitised workplace. Sara Bean reports

The latest Smartworking Summit from Quora, held in June, had as its discussion point, ‘Workplace technologies – an enabler for change?’ exploring how rising levels of digitisation within the workplace as a result of an increase in computing power and Internet connectivity are changing the way employees and enterprises work.

In theory, organisations should benefit from digital disruption through increased productivity, cost savings, a more mobile workforce, and generally increased adaptability in an ever increasingly complex world; but the summit asked, how does this translate into working practices?

Integrating digital technologies into the workplace has the potential for transforming the productivity of workers but also creates its own distinct culture, impacting the previous work culture and the work experience. These changes challenge the workplace by forcing both executives and employees to adapt the way they interact with each other and the technologies that enable their work.

Employee’s ability to work from anywhere and stay connected through smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices allows them to work almost anywhere. This, while being in theory a boon for employers has also affected the level of control they have over their staff.

To help explore this topic the summit not only brought together a group of Property, FM and HR Directors, but invited Sabine Hauert, Assistant Professor in Robotics at University of Bristol and a leading member of the Royal Society’s Working Group on Machine Learning to offer a reality check on the impact of robotics on society.

Amongst her predictions was the belief that autonomous driving isn’t as far away as some might think and has the real potential to make our roads safer and greener. But Artificial Intelligence (AI) could also be of much significance to our aging population where one in four people will be disabled by the time they hit retirement. Being programmed to fetch an elderly person a glass of water or aide them to the toilet; AI technology would not replace the caregivers but take some of the huge stresses away.

Within the workplace realm there have been some alarmist preconceptions on the impact of AI and robotics; for example, a survey by software firm Opentext earlier this year found that a large proportion of the British working population believe they could find their job taken by a robot within the next 10 to 50 years. This is simply not the case. In fact by designing collaborative robots which work alongside humans and which can learn in a human centric way, our economy could really start to address the productivity gap. And we’re not about to enter some dystopian robot dominated world. It’s important to remember, said Professor Hauert it takes time to design an algorithm that requires a robot to do one thing very well, and the result is it will perform tasks not jobs. How this will impact on jobs may be complicated but as with every new development it will ultimately depend on how we deploy the technology.

In order to take advantage of the positive contribution technology can make to workplace performance we need to be sure we are creating workspaces that are designed for occupants. Are people being asked what is it they need to help them perform their work well, and what facilities do they need to maximise performance?

A lot of models for office design argued one speaker, are based on historical precedents taking a rear view approach rather than looking to what will be needed in the future. This is why when designing a building it’s important to begin by thinking about what you want to do in the future and how your building will facilitate these choices.

The impact of technology so far is that when you really begin to consider truly agile ways of working – for many people, the work day starts at home, looking at their calendar to check appointments, working while travelling and checking emails at Starbucks. This means that the role of the office itself will invariably be somewhere for collaborative and creative work.

This is why workplaces must be designed to support the customer experience by looking at the way in which occupant’s use the technologies, which is why we need to determine what data streams will be needed to help a person prepare for their day. Numerable data sources are already being utilised to drive this intelligence, from the smart phone to the smart building.

The debate over the way we integrate technology with workplace design isn’t of course the only area of debate with the development of the digital workplace. It’s also about gaining buy in from the board. From an HR perspective it was pointed out that it’s not automatic that everyone understands the concept of agile working, particularly at a senior level. This is why it’s important to build a case.

An example was given of a pilot within a legal office were participants were offered fully agile working practices and asked to prove how they subsequently performed. Because solicitors have chargeable hours all of those taking part were able to record their productivity and after a six week pilot could prove that they were 14 per cent more productive. There were no rules in that office and some of the senior partners were worried about losing control but the pilot proved the advantages of agile working.

The lessons here are, if you want to address changing ways of working you need to be clear about the purpose and about specifically what problems you want to solve; why you’re doing this and what are the opportunities. And are there external pressures you need to address as well?

Different spaces nudge different behaviours, you have to understand the different types of work that go on in an organisation. People will respond to the quality of space you give them, which is why inconsistent tech, too much noise, not feeling trusted by senior management when we do work remotely – all have a negative impact.

The speakers concurred, whatever kind of environment you create, don’t underestimate the amount of time needed to get buy in; for when it comes to embracing the digital age, it’s important to win over people’s hearts and minds. It’s a very exciting time if we can grasp technology and when we look at how it could empower people in the workplace, there is much cause for optimism.


About Sarah OBeirne


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