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With the World Wide Web now 25 years old, it is almost impossible to comprehend how our working lives would be without the Internet, email or networked systems. In 1989, who could have imagined a device that could fit in your pocket and be used to access messages from colleagues, share and edit documents with teams around the world and send and receive a wealth of information on all topics? It is unlikely something of the seismic impact of the Internet will arrive soon, but what technological innovations are set to drive the next 25 years of workplace evolution?
Ricoh Europe recently surveyed employees from a range of industries – including financial services, healthcare, education and the public sector – and discovered how they expect their workplaces to be dominated by highly sophisticated technologies that will drastically change the way they work. The study highlighted some interesting predictions from employees, with the majority anticipating the arrival of a tech evolved workplace that will make use of innovations such as augmented reality, desk-based robots and drones. Of course, it is difficult to predict with certainty how companies will embrace such technologies. Yet considering the number of emerging innovations, all of the following seem capable of transforming the way businesses operate.
Robots and Artificial Intelligence
Cognitive machines that can pass the Turing Test – a means which determines whether a device has the ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human – have been mooted as a first step towards commercial applications for Artificial Intelligence (AI). Such technology could be paired with robots to perform time-consuming tasks or augment human knowledge. For example, a virtual doctor’s assistant could make a diagnosis and offer treatment recommendations based on what it has learned from medical books, observing how doctors apply their knowledge, and accessing information from an extensive repository of information.
As the technology evolves towards true AI, where cognitive computing is developed that can talk, learn and interact in a truly human way, potential applications within the workplace can only increase. Customer service, for example, could be entirely automated through virtual, AI helpdesks.
The era of smart accessories is dawning, where mobile phones and tablets will be replaced by wearable technology and the smartwatch market is also set to grow imminently, Meanwhile, augmented reality glasses have been successfully trialled and the existence of ‘smartrings’ has been mooted. Internet analyst Mary Meeker also estimates that as many as two-thirds of mobile uses could be taken over by wearable devices, including common workplace activities such as the sending of emails and web browsing.
Looking further ahead, wearable technology could one day be displaced by implantable devices, where nanotechnology would be surgically implanted and allow for activities such as thought-based information sharing and direct-to-brain downloads.
Star Wars anticipated the use of holographic messages as early as the 1970s, but the technology is now tantalisingly close to reality. In the UK, Brent Council has invested £12,000 in Shanice, a virtual assistant that ’sits’ behind a Civic Hall desk. While not a true hologram as it is projected on to a screen, this demonstrates how the workplace could benefit from holographic receptionists and assistants.
When combined with the more advanced interactive surfaces that are currently in development, augmented reality could take this technology to a more sophisticated level. It could potentially project 3D, interactive representations of colleagues from a workstation. Public sector employees would then be able to remotely attend meetings, run through presentations and have ‘face-to-face’ calls with stakeholders, without ever leaving their seat.
Evolution of the Office
The creation of an office that feels like home or a recreational space – as pioneered by tech-savvy start-ups – is becoming an increasingly popular concept. Organisations are building workplaces that employees want to spend more time in, where leisure activities are encouraged in a bid to increase productivity. However, as mobile networking and information sharing become even more sophisticated, the idea of working together may transition from physical to digital interaction. Here, time-intensive tasks would be carried out by virtual colleagues. Wearable technology, holograms and other advances would mean that instead of ‘living’ at work, people work as they live.
Ultimately, the workplace of the future might end up not being an office at all. Many millennial workers have already instigated a shift towards more flexible, mobile working habits, leading to a predicted reduction in office space. This demonstrates a heightened need for organisations to review and adapt their traditional ways of working, paving a more agile path to benefit from future digital innovations. A key part of this is the optimisation and on-going assessment of core business processes, along with the need to retire legacy systems while embracing newer and more advanced technology.