How to Prepare Now for the Future Workplace
Workplace disruptors like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and virtual reality are shaking up businesses in the 21st century. These technological changes are coinciding with changing attitudes toward work, as a new generation is embracing cycling to work, banging out proposals on their laptop in a café and hustling in the gig economy.
Workplace Unplugged recently spoke with Adi Gaskell, director of Innovation at the VTC Group in London. He has worked across the private and public sectors to help trigger the innovation process at work. As the author of The 8 Step Guide to Building a Social Workplace, Adi has explored the challenges and risks involved in becoming a social business. He also writes various topics about the technology of business for Forbes.com, the Huffington Post and the BBC.
To kick off the conversation, we asked Adi to tell us a bit about his background and what led him to specialize in organizational behavior.
AG: I come from a tech background. I studied artificial intelligence and management at the University of Surrey. That was quite a long time ago, and it’s amazing how things have changed. After I left university, I created a startup to stream media and technology. This was pre-YouTube and pre-Facebook, so it was ahead of its time. That experience encouraged me to look at an organization’s function – particularly how startups can gain an advantage by operating in a unique and different way.
Since then, I have worked with a number of large and small companies and organizations – as well as governments and charities – to help them innovate a little more effectively. We are also looking at some of the technology changes that may influence their industries in the future.
Adi says his writing inspiration for his blog The Horizons Tracker comes from his love of reading.
AG: I’ve got quite a passion for learning and curiosity. It’s been a mission of mine to keep abreast of what’s going on, and to always learn about what changes may be around the corner. I’m constantly getting access to interesting new research, fascinating new startups and crowdsourcing projects.
There’s not a shortage of inspiring stories out there. It’s a case of finding them and joining the dots between what they’re doing and what other people have done in the past because things seldom operate in isolation. It’s generally a standing on the shoulder of giants concept where you take something that works in one area and apply it in another area. That’s what I do – I join those dots and make the connections that are relevant to them.
Writing for “time-crunched” managers, Adi says he particularly enjoys researching and unearthing the latest trends in health care.
AG: My target audience for my blog is time-crunched managers. Writing this blog is quite time intensive, so the Horizons Tracker for people who want to know what’s happening in the world, but they don’t necessarily have the time to do the research and do the legwork themselves.
My favorite area to write about at the moment is health care. There’s a shared load of technology and innovation happening – whether it’s in AI, mobile health, or with wearable technologies. There’s also a lot of big data-based developments going on, along with genome sequencing plummeting in price. The internet of things is making a dent in health care, as well as telemedicine. Robotics is growing in use as well. There are a lot of fascinating technological developments in health care.
On the other side, both the U.S.-based insurance system, and socialized care systems in Europe are struggling with an aging population, with a growing list of demands placed upon the health system. Costs are also going up. It’s an area ripe for change and significant disruption – at least from a management point of view. We’ve had a couple of generations of bringing people to hospitals in order for them to get well. That’s nearing an end now. We’re entering an era where we’re bringing healing to the patient by the use of technology rather than dragging the patient to the hospital. That will be a fundamental change from both a patient perspective and a provider perspective.
With Adi’s depth of experience in IT and innovation, we asked him to tell us what he thinks what aspect of workplace culture is most overdue for change and innovation.
AG: Open innovation is a big trend at the moment, and it’s only getting bigger. Organizations are getting to grips with the idea that they don’t have all the answers themselves, and they don’t necessarily need to have all the answers themselves. They need partnerships and development ecosystems where they can tap into insights. That’s a real competitive advantage. That’s a really big trend – not only for organizations, but for facilities managers because many companies are developing incubators and accelerator-type spaces where they are inviting startups and academics to do their work on company premises. The environment is a little more lax, exciting and innovative – it’s an employee engagement initiative. That’s quite interesting.
Also, the co-working boom is worth noting, and where that may take us. I can foresee a time when an employee is allowed a gym membership-type arrangement in co-working spaces so they don’t need to come into an office – they can go where it’s most suitable for them to plug in. That’s certainly something long overdue. The 9-5 workplace is a little outdated now.
We’ve got the technology now facilitating all these changes, and a selection of tools to make that change happen. As millennials become more of a force in the workplace, those attitudes will change.
Adi says AI’s impact in the modern workplace is only beginning.
AG: There are a lot of misconceptions about artificial intelligence and what it’s capable of. From an organizational perspective, it will be a decision-support tool in the short term because organizations are capturing more data than they ever have before. Not only is a lot of that data messy and unusable; they don’t have the resources or skills to analyze it.
AI can be incredibly useful in that sense in cleaning up the data and helping organizations to make sense of it and derive some insights from it. That’s where I see managers using AI in the short term – pretty much like the approach both DeepMind and IBM’s Watson are currently using. They are digesting a huge amount of data, and then looking for insights into that data.
There are many misconceptions about automation in the workplace. Adi says he would like to debunk the myth that machines will take over jobs.
AG: The whole notion of an automated system – for a machine to complete all tasks of a particular job – is quite unlikely, in my opinion. If you think about your own job and the kind of tasks you do that make up your job, then I would imagine those tasks are very diverse. You might get automated systems that can do certain tasks within your job.
The automation systems may help you do certain tasks better, or they may replace certain tasks in its entirety, but it’s very unlikely they will automate every single one of the tasks that makes up your job. If I can fix one misconception around the whole automation narrative, is that automation is going after particular tasks of a job – not necessarily going after the entire job. That’s a little too simplistic … and not completely realistic.
Adi has devoted several blog posts about creating productive workplaces. Here he shares his top tips for facilities managers to keep in mind while they are designing their workplaces.
AG: First, one-size doesn’t fit all, like open offices. We’re gaining a much better understanding now about the different needs of individuals – whether they are introverts or extroverts. Different environments could either energize or drain workers. Sometimes, a collaborative environment is energizing, but there are other times where employees need to focus. Those constant distractions can hinder productivity.
A slight addition to that theme is noise – constant chatter and working in an open office could kill productivity. A number of researchers found it’s quite common to have white noise filtered through office spaces to dampen the spread of chatter. Researchers discovered that if you replace this white noise with the sounds of a mountain stream or another sound from nature, not only are workers happier, they are also more productive.
Another fix is related to how people commute to work. I don’t think anyone likes their commute. One tech company in California, wealth-management software maker Addepar, wants to pay their employees to live closer to work. They say a closer commute makes their employees less stressed, and they did more work because they weren’t spending so much time traveling to and from work. Their work-life balance is more effective.
I would really like facilities managers to give that some thought in trying to encourage a shorter commute to co-working spaces, and facilitate more flexible working or making slightly less stressful means of commuting. One company in London is putting in 1500 bike parking spaces, along with showers to encourage people to cycle to work more. This makes people less stressed and a bit happier when they arrive at work.
With hot desking on the rise, Adi advises facilities managers to ensure the wellbeing of employees by banning the practice.
AG: Vodafone had a hot desking policy whereby every evening, managers wanted a clean desk throughout the workplace. If a desk wasn’t clear, staff would go and throw an employee’s stuff into the bin. An employee would pick up their stuff in the basement the next day. United Airlines has been in the news lately for overbooking their planes. It seems to me hot desking is a similar approach where you are building workplaces that aren’t big enough for the entire workforce. Hot desking is like overbooking your workplace. I don’t think it makes people feel appreciated.
A study earlier this year looked into hot desking and how it made people feel. Employees said they felt pretty unwelcomed in the workplace. When researchers analyzed workers’ behaviors, they found those who came into work early nabbed the best desks. Those who couldn’t make it in as early because they had to take their kids to school had to work at a lesser-quality desk space. Hot desk offices are not designed with employees in mind – rather, it seems managers are trying to squeeze a bit of money out of their property.
Looking ahead in the next five to 10 years, Adi says the biggest change in the workplace will be all about attitudes.
AG: From a facilities perspective, it’s the changing attitudes towards work that will make a difference in the next five to 10 years. For the younger population raised on social media, they are familiar with the sharing economy, as well as gig economy platforms. There will be a real shift away from this notion of work that only takes place in an office. Organizations need to be a little more flexible to deal with that changing approach.
To wrap up, we asked Adi for his advice for millennials in the workplace.
AG: One thing that is quite common and ongoing at the moment in the automation side is the need to be constantly learning and constantly updating skills and knowledge. University College London researchers released their findings in April 2017, looking into the kind of characteristics that make up a successful professional life, including health and finances. They identified five key characteristics:
- Emotional stability
That encapsulates personal habits and what people need to develop if they are going to make an impact on the workplace, and certainly survive if someone has between three-to-five careers in their lifetime. That even may be too small, given the pace of change we are experiencing at the moment. Workers have to be adaptable. If someone can have those kind of capabilities and characteristics, that will enable them to do so.
In terms of the impact millennials will have on the workplace, this generation has grown up thinking that flexible working is the norm. It doesn’t really matter when you do the work, just as long as the work gets done effectively and efficiently. That’s quite a big culture change.
At the moment, an older generation of managers still values facetime because that indicates an employee is actually doing something. That’s not the case at all for the younger generation – they consider that an outmoded way of thinking. It will probably not be until the millennial generation gets into managerial positions and starts to influence the culture of organizations – that’s when that kind of culture will be shifted out. Hopefully that will be taking place in the next five to 10 years when the millennials start gaining managerial status.