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Workplace 2040

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might our workplaces and working environments evolve over the next 20 years?
A Healthy Workplace

A healthy workplace makes good use of the latest insights on human behaviors, wellness, and achieving sustainable performance, and deploys the cutting-edge work tools of the times. A wide array of ever-more powerful technologies is becoming part of the core design of organizations—from artificial intelligence (AI) to 3D printing, we now assume they will be part of the fabric of work and the workplace. So, what might these factors mean for the different possible futures of the workplace?

The Boundaries Between Us and Our Devices

The workplace of the future could potentially manifest many of the technological possibilities being developed today. Hence, there are a range of views about how the boundaries between us and our devices might play out in a world of super computing power, particularly in the world of work. Many future visions of work depict an entirely evolved workplace with smart buildings, natural spaces, and advanced architectural elements.

One perspective is that computing will disappear into our environment, and we will command everything by voice, gesture, and thought control. We won’t know where the images we are seeing are being projected from and we won’t know if the computing is being done by the table, the walls, or the photo frame on the desk. Computing in this scenario becomes ubiquitous, all-pervasive, and highly intelligent. It would be managed by our personal AI assistant to deliver what we want, when we need it, and will continually learn from and adapt to our behaviors and needs.

Another view is that most of what happens will be done in the cloud and then we’ll have small chip inserts that provide the local functionality, image projection, voice interface, and connection to the god-like system in the cloud. In many future of work scenarios, the notion is that information will be distributed and managed over the cloud via super secure intelligent blockchains. The whole environment we operate in is likely to be supervised by multiple layers of AI from our personal assistant through to the all-powerful, all-seeing global AIs that manage everything, protect against misuse of our data, and are on the constant lookout for other AIs displaying rogue behaviors.

AI and the Built Environment

In general, the coming wave of AI in business and society could impact the future design, use, and management of buildings in dramatic ways. Key design features, including construction, security, monitoring, and maintenance, could become coordinated by highly automated AI neural networks.

Will the future workspace be a central hub containing key people and activities that all parts of the organization need to tap into, for example advanced meeting facilities, resource libraries, perhaps a foresight center? In these tech-centric work scenarios, how much space might we need for these core functions? With the rise of artificial intelligence, some parts of the organization might run on algorithms alone with literally no human staff. Back office functions could be a prime focus for such an approach. For example, there could be deep automation of HR roles—particularly the management and execution of the recruitment process. Similarly, smart contracts might replace most manual contract creation and administration tasks (e.g. invoice payment), thus reducing the requirement for staff in such roles.

With so many viable visions of the future workplace in the social imagination, how do we plan and rehearse the future effectively? Rather than predict the way future offices will look or feel, let’s look at two different time horizons—five to ten and ten to twenty years hence—to examine how the futures could play out.

The Next Ten Years

Cybersecurity—How might our cybersecurity challenges evolve as work becomes increasingly automated? Cybersecurity risks will continue to grow as our reliance on technology deepens ever further. Integrating all our input streams into a single flow has huge elegance and efficiency advantages—it also makes us far more susceptible to be rendered cut off from the digital world by cyberattacks. Despite the ever-growing investment in cybersecurity protection, the hackers and cyberattackers will always be ahead of us because they can move faster, don’t care about failure, and are super clear on their goals—which can’t always be said about those they are attacking.

Future buildings and workspaces may need to place the need for a constantly evolving cybersecurity infrastructure at the heart of the design process and every aspect of the design of smart environments will need to be parsed through a cybersecurity filter before being approved. Architects working with AI experts, Internet of Things (IoT) specialists, and white-hat hackers might become an increasingly common design team model.

Artificial intelligence, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Tomorrow’s Workplace—Our expectation is that AI will be embedded in every aspect of our world—it already governs domains such as internet searches, smartphone applications, navigation systems, automated share trading, airline autopilots, and mortgage and loan processing. Augmented and virtual reality will play a part but will only go truly mainstream when the devices become unobtrusive and the applications become faster and cheaper to develop. Virtual reality/augmented reality might be built into the environment of certain spaces as an educational/collaboration resource. Walking VR tours might help with orientation, creativity, and relaxation—helping people explore labs, discovery processes, and nature trails from an enhanced VR space in the building.

A Living Building—The future workspace could become a “living building” with flexibility at its core. We don’t know all the intended uses or how they might evolve. Today we might need office space and an incubator for new ventures. Tomorrow we might want a freer flow of people through the space with no requirement to group by function or project. We may also want the capacity to mock up physical environments for the projects we are working on—from a retail street store to a classroom of the future.

Flexibility implies starting to think of buildings as large tents where the activities within can change over time. While we might start with relatively fixed structures, over the longer term we might start to see more use of pop-up 3D printed internal walls and offices, with 3D printing on site of permanent and temporary (project/experiment related) buildings and other facilities. In such an environment IoT sensors and information sources could increasingly be built into the building’s components.

Visual Technologies—We can anticipate increasing use of visualization such as on-demand imagery and holography. Facial recognition and smart glasses/contact lenses could, for instance, help us identify everyone we pass in the building and be used as an access control mechanism.

Green Space—Access to nature and natural light within our buildings is likely to remain a design priority. Internal garden and community work areas, use of renewable energy sources (wind, new generation solar paneling), and electric vehicle charging could all be integrated into the design. Integrated vertical farming might maximize use of natural processes and be located in public spaces and atriums in buildings. Vegetation could actually feed the occupiers plus provide a “green” working environment.

Individualized Work Environments—Light, temperature, sound, and imagery all impact how we work. The future workspace could have a strong focus on natural and environmentally friendly workspaces with adaptive personalized light and temperature control, freedom of movement, and spaces for multifunctional collaboration. Individualized flexibility could extend to sit-stand desks, movable walls, and support for seamless integration with remote workers, be that via the desktop or mobile robots.

A combination of IoT connected devices, sensors, and tools could monitor every aspect of employee productivity including keystrokes, time away from the desk, and social interactions. The technology could then intelligently nudge us in personalized ways that encourage productivity based on our performance history. The use of building interior design to evoke certain feelings and enhance moods and creativity, and the use of behavioral insights to motivate the workforce, could provide an important advantage in the new “cobot” normal of humans working alongside intelligent robots.

The Next Ten to Twenty Years

Creativity—In the highly automated future vision of work that many envisage, we could find workers largely doing highly creative tasks with a potentially greater sense of purpose and connection. In this future, the work environment would become the ultimate enabler of cross-boundary working and a place of inspiring beauty. There could be a focus on inclusivity in terms of breaking down boundaries of industries, organizations, and teams, combining digital and physical spaces seamlessly for hassle-free collaboration, creativity, and innovation.

Intelligence in Action—Over this time frame, we can expect even existing technology environments to be retrofitted at relatively low cost to enable on-demand provision of the capabilities required to do whatever the task may be, or to configure the technology solution from a range of plug and play models. Some firms might see the benefit of sharing their IT systems infrastructure with their local community as a support initiative and with their wider business ecosystem to enhance spontaneous collaborations. For larger businesses, conference rooms and support staff could even be shared with guest tenants, which could include technology start-ups, graphic designers, and consulting firms. When not being used as office space, buildings could be used for pop-up adult education courses, retail shops, and civic meetings. This strategy could help build a presence in the community, giving a local feel to a global firm.

Responsivity—We could see growing use of neuro-architecture to build work environments that incorporate biometrics to monitor employee well-beingJuly1960, read moods, and respond to people’s needs. Entirely personalized and adaptive control would help maintain people’s productivity in the organization by varying lighting, temperature, background music, ambient smells, and digital wallpaper displays according to the changing needs of each individual.

Should current promise be fulfilled, then next generation 4D printed smart materials would allow us to create structures that can change their shape and properties over time—such as space dividers tailored to the needs of each individual. Over this time frame we might also see sufficient advances in genomics to enable us to grow building structures. At the same time, DNA computing could see the fabric of the building storing data and performing computing tasks.

Autonomy—To manage all of these diverse elements, we can envisage the spread of AI-enabled buildings management systems, drone and robotic internal transport, and AI managing energy usage and optimizing consumption. Increasingly, autonomous building environments might also incorporate energy harvesting (e.g. piezoelectricity), kinetic energy capture from motion around the building, and intelligent, adaptive, “robotic” infrastructure components such as walls, windows, and cabling infrastructure. Collectively, these developments may remove humans from the facility management equation altogether.

As reality catches up with science fiction, many changes are in store for tomorrow’s workplace. Smart, human-centric, sustainable, healthy, autonomous, anticipatory, and even intuitive might be some of the terms which will be used to describe the future of workspaces and buildings. While the technological advances in particular may eliminate many jobs entirely, they will also enable a far more personalized, personable, and conducive work environment. As in every field of development, we have to make sure the trade-offs are always serving the best overall interests of humanity. We can help a maintenance worker retrain and find a new job. It is much harder to help someone recover from the impacts of a stressful or unhealthy workspace.

 

  • What are the key workplace changes that would contribute to a very human future for you?
  • What impact will—or might—smarter work tools have on daily work activities in your job or organization?
  • How can the focus on smarter and healthier workplaces be sustained in the facing of increasing cost and competitive pressures on organizations?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

This chapter is based on an interview given to Forbes India.

Image: https://pixabay.com/images/id-329574/ by geralt

 

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