The Future of Work: The AI-Enabled Workplace

The workplace of the future will feature more remote, distributed teams augmented by artificial intelligence.
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COVID-19 WILL HAVE a massive influence on all areas of our lives, from employment to government debt. One area that will see significant effects is the workplace. In particular, the pandemic will bring more urgency to several trends that we have been observing for many years. These include remote working, dispersed teams, the deployment of artificial intelligence, and a need for portable job skills. At Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute (FoWI) in Perth, Australia, we have been studying these trends for some time, and now we are seeing how they are being accelerated by the pandemic.

Remote working is the one that’s gotten the most attention. In recent years, we have seen more acceptance of flexible, part-time, and off-site work, but we haven’t experienced the multi-job fragmentation we were expecting. That might change now that so many people successfully worked from home during the crisis. 

However, the way companies integrate remote working after the pandemic will vary greatly from firm to firm. It will depend in part on how good their remote work experiences were during the crisis and in part on what their cultures were like beforehand. Any company that was highly controlling or bureaucratic in the past will have plenty of opportunities to recapture that approach in the future. Even though many people are telling employers that they love the flexibility of working from home, once employees are back in the workplace, companies will begin instituting new rules and requirements about social distancing. Managers will say, “Oh, it’s a safety issue—we have to follow new regulations.” But pretty soon the cultures will ossify back into their original positions.

There will be a few employers, such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who will say “It’s all changed forever!” and allow employees to keep working from home as much as they want. But I think those firms generally will be smaller, younger, and more technology-based. Many of the larger firms will struggle to remain flexible as they manage the back-to-work process. Sustained efforts will be required for remote working to become more generally acceptable. I think it will require collaboration and communication among corporate leaders who adopt new standards and workers who proactively seek more flexibility.

CONTROL…OR COLLABORATE

Even so, remote workplaces will not become common until companies become serious about how to manage them. For instance, in the future we might see some companies institute central operations centers, where management teams oversee and direct nodes of employees who might be working at home, in the field, or in another country.

These new operations centers might follow a command and control approach that features high monitoring and direction, or a more coordinated and collaborative approach that enables new forms of communication.

REMOTE WORKPLACES WILL NOT BECOME COMMON UNTIL COMPANIES BECOME SERIOUS ABOUT HOW TO MANAGE THEM.

Which path an organization follows will depend not only on the type of task it manages, but also on the way its leaders, designers and workers approach the future. As an example, in Perth, a major hospital is introducing an operations center to oversee patients who might need critical care. The team in the operations center monitors the well-being of patients, relying in part on sensors that track heart rate and blood pressure, and feeds the information to medical experts who are providing care—to patients in that hospital and elsewhere. The operations center not only monitors day shift workers at the hospital in Perth, but also remotely monitors night shift workers at a hospital in Atlanta. The innovative design of the center aims to increase collaboration and ensure workers in wards and the center share knowledge and continually update their learning to improve patient outcomes.

These operations centers can work in all kinds of sectors. In policing, there might be one main control room that oversees nodes of individual officers on bikes or in patrol cars, all connected through technology. In mining sites and on gas platforms, such as the ones we have near Perth, operations centers can control critical tasks. Some command centers can even control satellites, which are just remote sites up in the air.

Centrally located operations centers can be used in almost any kind of workplace that needs to communicate with far-flung team members. However, I think most organizations will be slow to implement such workplace structures. For instance, there aren’t many examples of successful operations centers in the education field, where many are just figuring out how to use Zoom. While most classes and a few advising functions have moved online during the pandemic, many of the changes have translated basic tasks without taking advantage of new collaborative opportunities.

The different ways of managing an operations center mean it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it enables people to work remotely in their node locations, whether they’re at home or in the field, and this creates great opportunities for flexibility and innovation. On the other hand, an operations center that controls everything will narrow the tasks people are entrusted with, whether employees are working in a gas plant or at a hospital. An operations center can encourage micromanagement because of new opportunities for observation and scrutiny. As operations centers coordinate more activity, we need to remember that these centers are monitoring intelligent human beings as well as robots.

At FoWI, we focus on what constitutes meaningful work, and we have identified five key themes that result in positive work outcomes. We call this SMART work: It is stimulating, offers skill mastery, provides workers with agency, is relational, and consists of demands that are tolerable. These themes are unlikely to change, and companies that rush to Big-Brother-type control and monitoring will ultimately deter the best talent from signing up in the future.

CRITICAL SKILLS

To be comfortable in environments that combine teamwork, remote jobs, AI, and robotics, tomorrow’s employees will need two distinct skill sets. Many experts talk about soft skills and technical skills, but at FoWI we identify a different pairing—the ability to deal with uncertainty and the ability to stay interconnected.

People work effectively under uncertainty when they can adapt to new environments and also know how to proactively engage and innovate in unfamiliar working conditions. These abilities are especially important when work is not predictable—which describes the world right now.

People who are interconnected know how to interact and communicate with other people, whether they’re leaders or team members. They can participate in networks that are local, international, professional, or cross-disciplinary. The capacity of technology to enhance connections does not mean that we have the skill to use this capacity for greater effectiveness and health. For instance, people can communicate with anyone in the world via their iPhones, but scrolling through Facebook posts and YouTube videos is not an advanced networking skill. For people to participate in complex networks, they need new skills that capitalize on the network’s ability to link them readily with diverse geopolitics and business cultures from around the world.

BUSINESS SCHOOLS SHOULD HELP STUDENTS DEVELOP SKILLS FOR UNCERTAINTY AND CONNECTEDNESS.

Business schools might create program offerings that help students develop skills for uncertainty and connectedness. To become more at ease with uncertainty, students should work on problems that require innovation and have no clear solutions. To learn about interconnectivity, students should gain applied experience through work opportunities or through simulations that go beyond traditional teamwork games.

In both cases, educational institutions will need to cooperate closely with businesses to create these opportunities. I hear a lot of companies say, “We need A and B skills, but you don’t teach those to your students.” Universities respond by saying, “But we turn out students with C and D abilities, and they are really important!” Companies and universities must work together to identify the skills businesses will need tomorrow as well as meeting today’s demands.

Employees also will need to develop skills that are portable and can be applied in diverse industries, because many workers will switch jobs frequently during the course of long careers. While individuals can master some of these critical competencies in schools, ideally they will continue to learn in the workplace.

However, many companies do not see the advantage of training employees in portable skills that can be taken to other jobs. That’s particularly true for organizations that have a boom-and-bust cycle, like many of the resource companies here in Perth. These businesses often have relied on economic cycles that produce more workers when companies need them.

But that type of thinking seems to be changing because of the pandemic. In a time of crisis, we have to think about how we survive and hold on through the bad times. At FoWI, we anticipate that industry, academia, and governments will begin coordinating more closely to make sure the workforce is trained in critical competencies.

We see this collaboration happening most often at the city or regional level. Government policy makers realize that, if they want to attract people to their cities, good jobs must be available. But if those jobs are cyclical, people won’t stay unless they can move across industries. Therefore, policy makers see a clear need to devise initiatives designed to retain a population base. Policies to support this outcome might include creating tax incentives for companies that offer employees broader training. In this way, local governments, key industries, and universities can work together to ensure a successful future. 

READY FOR THE NEXT WAVE

While I’m cautious about saying the pandemic has been good for anyone, a few positives have come out of it, and one is an understanding of how uncertain the world is right now. If anything, the pandemic has proved that efforts to control even a fairly short-term future can go terribly awry.

Today, companies are asking what they need to do to be more ready and adaptable. That’s a driver for allowing people to keep some of the flexibility they’ve come to enjoy during the pandemic and for teaching employees the skills they’ll need to move on to new career opportunities. Companies have realized that the more they try to control people, the less ready they’ll be for the next wave of disruption—and they know that wave could be coming next month.

 


Mark Griffin bio photo

Mark Griffin is the director of the Future of Work Institute at the Faculty of Business and Law at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

 


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