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Photo: AP
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How Covid-19 could change workplace technology

Among the predictions: Tools to make it easier to work from home, new ways to measure performance and more virtual reality

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing changes in workplace technology—or accelerating changes already in place—that will continue long after an effective vaccine is produced.

Among the possible changes: innovation in video communications that will allow people to use avatars to have one-on-one conversations during group calls; the increased use of artificial intelligence, which could both help and hurt employee engagement; and technological improvements that can help organizations enhance workplace safety.

We asked experts in workplace technology to peer into the future. Here are eight of their predictions.

No place like home

There’s a huge explosion of innovation to make working from home more effective.

For example, a big drawback of video calls is that there’s only one channel of communication. You can’t have a side conversation with someone who’s on the call.

When you are meeting in a room together you can turn to your neighbor and have a private conversation or speak loudly to the room. With current conference calls, space doesn’t matter. There are no neighbors on a Zoom call.

But in conference calls of the future, avatars will have us spaced out around the table. So we can talk directly to those nearby, mimicking what we experience with in-person meetings. The same will be true with video, giving us the ability to signal and show expressions to a few people rather than every participant.

It’s not just a matter of technology improving. People have to get used to it. At first, people couldn’t do the basics. Now you can lay on more products.

At home, our office equipment will be designed to fit into our domestic lives. Until now most office furniture and equipment was black and metallic, but that’s not what home offices, particularly those in apartments, will look like. So there is a surge in office equipment designed to merge in with home furniture—softer and more naturally designed–and indeed to be used for home living.

—Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics, Stanford University

The madness of crowds

Things at work won’t go back to the way they were. Covid-19 will become endemic like an advanced flu, and we’ll learn to live with that. In addition to Covid, there will be fear of what comes next disease-wise.

In the physical design of the workplace, you’ll need a balance between collaborative and private space. Before Covid, we were seeing a move toward open offices and dense co-working spaces. Now we might see a reversal of the densification trend. Workspaces will be redesigned to reduce density and to increase adaptability. Workstations will be spaced farther apart. Videoconferencing rooms will allow physical and virtual employees to work together seamlessly. Employees will rotate schedules and will work from home a few days and in the office on other days.

There will likely be a prominent increase in companies’ use of satellite offices in smaller cities, at the expense of big-city hubs. That allows companies to be closer to talent and to access talent that’s cheaper. There will be a greater emphasis on collaborative technology, allowing people to work with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Satellite offices will be equipped with modern videoconferencing and collaboration solutions. Teams will rely on project management solutions, which will allow remote teams to collaborate on projects.

People will realize they need to meet more frequently, but meetings will be shorter and more spontaneous—five minutes, 15 minutes. Shorter meetings are made possible by greater use of virtual meeting and collaboration software, which makes it easier for people to hop in and out of meetings.

—Mohanbir Sawhney, associate dean of digital innovation, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

Health check

Technology will increasingly be used to ensure the health and safety of workers. While the pandemic is still going, that includes determining whether someone has a fever and whether people are appropriately distanced. We knew before that tech is useful for safety, such as warning workers if they’re too close to dangerous machinery.

Going forward, some of the same kind of imaging sensors and computer vision that can help determine whether workers are wearing appropriate personal protective equipment or observing distancing guidelines could also be used to alert workers when they are lifting heavy objects in ways that could cause injuries. But worker privacy and monitoring will then have to be addressed.

—Michael Chui, partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The virtual conference

Conferences and events have shifted to a virtual format. There will probably be a return to in-person events after a vaccine is here, but events will likely retain a virtual component. No single technology provider offers a complete solution for large, multisession events. Such virtual events require organizations to combine webcasting, content delivery, event scheduling and analytics vendors.

We have seen an increase in inquiries about it. But there aren’t videoconferencing or meeting-solution vendors who can roll out the whole package, and it’s probably not coming soon.

Companies are looking for ways to engage workers and are using virtual whiteboards included with their meeting solutions. But some are going further, using more specialized whiteboard solutions or a digital canvas. Digital canvases are infinite in scale and can bring in richer content, such as Post-it Notes, pictures, embedded videos and links to files. More creative firms, like design companies, are particularly interested in these solutions.

Our clients are looking at hardware changes, too. With the increased use of videoconferences, some are starting to phase out their desk phones in an effort to save money. Companies will also likely bring videoconferencing equipment to smaller meeting rooms, because more people are going remote. Until now, companies have mainly put videoconferencing equipment in large conference rooms.

—Christopher Trueman, principal analyst, digital workplace applications, at Gartner Inc., a global research and advisory company

More AI in the workplace

The pace of adoption of artificial intelligence may accelerate post-pandemic. The disruption to businesses during the pandemic has forced managers to rethink their business processes and even entire business models. So it is a natural time for companies to think about how AI technologies can fit into their operations.

Automation solves some immediate problems for firms struggling to operate during the pandemic. Covid-based restrictions have raised demand for contactless technologies as well as technologies that can intelligently monitor the workplace for health and safety.

The pandemic has forced people to rapidly become accustomed to technologies with which they might not have otherwise felt comfortable. For instance, because of safety concerns, there could be increased acceptance of the use of wearables and other sensors in the workplace and perhaps growing acceptance of interactions with automated interfaces like chatbots.

There is also more data being produced at work. As we migrate to digital channels like video and voice chat, we generate more digital trace data. This is important because AI-based technologies generally perform better when provided with more data.

So this pandemic-led increase in digital interaction could impact not only the willingness of businesses to use AI technologies, but also the quality of data to build and train these technologies.

Of course, there are also major barriers. AI in the workplace introduces significant challenges related to privacy and how to integrate AI-based decisions into the workplace. We are beginning to see more regulation of how firms use data. How that battleground takes shape will probably have a large impact on how these technologies are integrated into the workplace.

—Prasanna Tambe, associate professor of operations, information and decisions, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

Buildings will get smarter

The pandemic has accelerated the focus on sustainable environments, and is driving a renewed emphasis on smart buildings and energy management. The built environment touches most every part of our lives—and accounts for 40% of total carbon emissions. Owners and occupiers will need to ensure that buildings adhere to health and wellness standards and new metrics must be developed for sustainability.

These healthy buildings will become the cornerstone of a responsible workplace reimagination strategy. We see a world where data, analytics and sensors will monitor things like temperature, air quality and water quality. And artificial intelligence will facilitate predictive occupancy requirements.

—Sanjay Rishi, Americas CEO of Corporate Solutions at real-estate services firm JLL

Flat and happy

My sense is that the pandemic will flatten organizations. That’s because we will see an acceleration of new ways to track the performance of front-line workers that will eliminate the need for midlevel supervisors.

This is already starting to happen. Organizations are using online monitoring tools. There’s software that can track the performance of people who are working online. In other cases, companies are using online surveys to ask customers if front-line workers did a good job.

Organizations won’t need human supervisors, because technology and data analytics will allow the organizations’ leaders to see who’s doing a good job. The net result is greater accountability and less privacy for workers.

—Darrell West, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank’s Center for Technology Innovation

A new reality

Companies are looking to enhance the corporate learning experience in videoconferences with augmented reality and virtual reality. Whether it’s enabling employers to recruit candidates, helping shoppers access products without stepping into a store, or training employees, virtual reality is changing the paradigm.

We’ve even used it at PwC for diversity training, so people can walk in the shoes of others. Once a tool associated with gaming, virtual reality is coming into more widespread use. It has shown promise for decades. Some of the issues hindering adoption tend to be social, not technological, when it comes to VR. That’s because it’s not yet completely understood and accessible to all.

Understanding what shapes workers’ willingness to adopt tech at work can go a long way.

With any new technology, people will have a learning and adoption curve. For example, people won’t adopt contact tracing easily because of privacy concerns. We must make sure that these things improve work life and productivity and that they’re user-friendly. If something is difficult to use, the chance to use it at scale is compromised. The human element is as critical as the technology.

—Bhushan Sethi, people and organization leader at accounting and consulting firm PwC

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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