November 16, 2017

How Is Technology Changing Our Life and Work?

"Better life breakthroughs" is a content series produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU) and sponsored by Standard Chartered Private Bank that aims to "analyse innovations that have the capacity to extend and enrich life, create new experiences and improve society in general." The EIU explains that "the first report in the series examined technology advances that are creating new investment opportunities for high net worth investors. The second report explores how the work environment may change under the combined impact of technology advances, shifts in workforce demographics and attitudes, and new thinking on workplace organisation and design." This post focuses on the second report, Labour pains: coming shifts in the world of work, which is available in both English and 简体中文.

Drawing on desk research and in-depth interviews with individuals whose job it is to think deeply about modes and places of work; namely, futurists, architects, technologists, entrepreneurs and corporate executives, The EIU report explores how the work environment may change under the combined impact of technology advances, shifts in workforce demographics and attitudes, and new thinking on workplace organisation and design.

The report's conclusions are listed below in its entirety:
  • Managing tomorrow's workforce will be a balancing act. Employers will go out of their way to accommodate the skilled talent – including on-demand workers – they need, for example by seeking to make the workplace a more pleasurable environment, as well as providing green spaces and other elements that contribute to employee health and well-being, all in the expectation of greater innovation and productivity. These may not result, however, if employers fail to address other challenges that are certain to arise, including that of strains developing between permanent and on-demand staff.
  • New tensions will need to be smoothed. To try and ensure that corporate culture doesn't suffer from the presence of a less-tethered category of talent, employers will look to equalize the treatment of both categories of worker to the greatest extent possible. Full-time employees, however, will worry about their longevity, particularly if their contract colleagues possess more advanced technology skills. The former are also likely to resent some of the flexibility enjoyed by on-demand workers, for example when it comes to remote working opportunities.
  • The work-leisure balance is likely to shift back again. Some experts also worry that too pleasurable a work environment will become detrimental to productivity, if protective bubbles form that lead to insularity from their customers. There will be a backlash against leisure and fun amongst some employers if productivity and innovation gains fail to materialize.
  • Some new technologies will be transformative, and also painful. Artificial intelligence (AI)-based automation, intelligent sensors and augmented reality, among other technologies, will give both employers and employees capabilities to operate in new ways. Productivity, creativity and safety should all benefit, but deft change management will be required, and employee worries about displacement by technology will be an ever-present source of workplace tension. New roles will open up for employees, some of which will emphasize their unique human abilities in communication, interaction and creative thinking.
  • Privacy will become a relic of the past. The future ubiquity of networked sensors and other emergent technologies means that privacy will be severely diminished in tomorrow's workplace. Sensors, for example, will enable much closer monitoring of employee performance. Even skilled, in-demand workers will recognize diminished privacy in the workplace as a necessary trade-off. Separately, tougher legal requirements for protecting individuals data will force companies to modernize the data practices used by all employees.
  • Work innovation will not be confined to technology companies. The technology sector is today the focus of most experimentation with new modes of working and workspace design. However, other sectors – notably financial services, healthcare, retail and logistics – are experimenting no less actively with technologies likely to shape work in the future, including artificial intelligence, networked sensors, augmented reality (AR) and others. As the boundaries between the technology and other sectors fade, the sources of work innovation in the future are likely to be more varied.
Asked to name the technologies that will do most to change work in the next decade, the experts interviewed all point to AI, networked sensors and augmented reality above others.

Artificial Intelligence 
  • AI capabilities will take machine translation to new levels, having conquered shortcomings in recognizing context and nuance in language. The advantages of multi-lingualism will not disappear but may recede in some support roles, such as customer service.
  • AI virtual agents will manage the IT service desk and will eventually become the principal interface between IT and technology end-users, using machine-learning capabilities to resolve issues on the spot. AI bots will also perform many more admin functions in HR, accounting and elsewhere in the back-office.
Networked sensors
  • Energy companies will monitor the health indicators of engineers working on hazardous sites with the help of sensors embedded in clothing, wireless devices, work tools and installed assets. Fleet managers will do the same for drivers via sensors embedded in these as well as vehicle seats and other components.
Augmented reality
  • Marketers and advertisers wearing AR-capable eyeglasses will be a common sight in offices as they visualize creative ads and other content they are designing for clients.
  • Mobile IT engineers will roam the floors wearing headsets enabling the visualization of networks schematics as they install new hardware or configure new systems.
  • Shop floor workers will follow instructions appearing in their eyewear about how to assemble or repair machinery, and the specific types and sizes of tools and parts to use.
Tactile internet
  • Surgeons will be able to perform surgery on patients, technicians to repair appliances for customers, and designers to manipulate models for clients, from distant locations thanks to advances in haptics, which create the sense of touch. The tactile internet will also leverage advances in AR and IoT sensors, as well as the advent of 5G mobile technology, which will enable the instantaneous response of remote machines to human movements.
In its conclusion, the reports says,
It is not difficult to envision scenarios in which companies in traditional industries become leaders in introducing new ways of working. After all, the tech industry may be the source of ground-breaking new technologies such as networked sensors and AI, but it is "old-world" industries that are taking the lead in deploying them. With the possible exception of driverless cars, the earliest pilots of AI have been taking place in the financial sector, especially investment management, and in healthcare. AI already has a home in the medical sector, where machine-learning software powers advanced diagnostics tools used by doctors, and self-learning robots are being piloted in supporting roles in the operating theater. Energy companies, consumer goods manufacturers, logistics firms and engineering firms are making widescale use of networked sensors today, some of them in combination with AI and AR.
Moreover, "Given the growing influence of smaller fintech, health-tech and energy-tech start-ups on their respective industries, we should expect to see experiments in workplace innovation expand well beyond the technology sector in the not-distant future."

Lastly, The EIU produced a video where Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace and Ray Yuen, principal and Asia workplace design leader of Woods Bagot, respond to an important question: how will the workforce and workplace change in the coming years?

How is technology changing your life and work?

Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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