Next-Gen Workspace: the intersection of AI and human intelligence

Next-Gen Workspace: the intersection of AI and human intelligence

Manish Bahl, AVP, Center for the Future of Work, Cognizant, on how AI is impacting the workplace and why we should design spaces that are upgradable and adaptable to match ever-changing organisations

AI in Offices, Digital transformation', Cognizant, Interviews, Changes in workplace

A community plaza for employees to gather, learn and play. Car-free zones and routes for bicyclists. Energy-optimised smart buildings; spaces to spark creativity within teammates; trees, trails, and transit nearby. A major transition has dawned upon the workspace sector and its pace is only increasing as time goes by.

Trends set in and fade away at the blink of an eye. Given this, Commercial Design explores the very aspects that shape the future of workspaces. We rightly so set off on this task with Manish Bahl, AVP at the Center for the Future of Work in Cognizant. A passionate futurist and advisor with a compelling perspective on technology and its impact on jobs, individuals, society, and the future of work, Bhal shares his thoughts on the future of workspaces by quoting from an e-book, recently published by the company, titled “From and To”.

The name of the report implies its format and structure: “from” describes where we are, and “to” describes where we’re going. The report covers 42 ideas organised around five main themes:
❙ The Way We Work: How we do what we do
❙ The Tools of Work: The apps, systems, networks, tools and processes that we use
❙ The Aesthetics of Work: What work looks like; how it feels
❙ The Issues with Work: When and why work is work
❙ The Meaning of Work: What gets us out of bed and makes us proud

One of the ideas, which is in complete contrast to our mandates today, is to go from ‘Free Wi-Fi’ zones to ‘Wi-Fi Free’ zones. He elaborates, “Everywhere we go today, restaurants, cafes or railway stations, we have a board that states ‘Free Wi-Fi’. But in the future, we would soon be witnessing several ‘Wi-Fi Free’ zones cropping up because, eventually, we will reach a point where we’ll need to start encouraging and cultivating human interaction.

He emphasises, “When we talk about the future of workspaces, we really need to understand the future of work itself, how is ‘work’ going to evolve and transform in the years to come.” And that is exactly what he delved into in this conversation —what would it mean from the standpoint of a ‘workspace’; how exactly would humans and machines work together; and what role would humans play in future work processes.

He starts off by expressing how difficult it is to be a ‘leader’ today. “In the past, it was so easy to conduct business. You just had to focus on two facets — to increase the company’s revenue and to reduce costs. But now, there is something very interesting that’s happening around us. The pace at which change is taking place has accelerated to such a high rate that it has become increasingly difficult for leaders of governments as well as businesses to figure out what is going to be relevant for the market and society tomorrow. And thanks to the fourth industrial revolution (characterised by the fusion of the digital, biological and physical worlds as well as the growing utilisation of new technologies such as AI, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, IoT, and advanced wireless technologies), We are now at the point of economic dislocation, where old ways of working are going to give way to new ones.

He continues, “We know that the first industrial revolution was driven by the invention of loom, second by steam engines, third by the assembly line, where China succeeded. And now the fourth is being driven by machines, machines that can think. We are at the early innings of this industrial revolution and are at the bottom of what we call the S-curve. It means that all the innovation, disruption, investments we’ve seen so far are nothing. Over the next few years as we move upward in the S-curve, we’ll witness rapid explosion in investments from governments and businesses in building the digital economy, there is going to be much more disruption and a greater pace of innovation as we move forward.”

Bahl affirms that the industry will change more in the next five years than it ever did in the previous 50 years put together. “Thus, one can imagine the pace of change that is coming along our way. Speed is the new currency of business. Market changes and cycles that would take place over a period of years and decades are now happening in weeks and months. It is speed that will determine whether you disrupt or you are getting disrupted; if you aren’t moving fast enough, someone else will. And at the heart of this speed and the fourth industrial revolution is Artificial Intelligence. After decades of being ‘in-the-making’, AI is finally out of the laboratory and infusing itself into each and every aspect of our lives.”

“We consume AI on a daily basis and don't even realise it. From our social media and online shopping platforms to hailing cabs, these AI platforms are already in action. It’s now the commercial aspect of AI that is proving to be the turning point. Eight out of 10 hedge funds in the US make approximately US$8 billion, purely based on AI algorithms; a human radiologist can read 20,000 films a year with 82% accuracy, and the machine can do it 30 times faster with almost 100% accuracy. AI’s commercials are becoming extremely dynamic.”

As Bhal explains, AI is transforming industries, it’s changing the way we conduct businesses, and will eventually, fundamentally change our operating models in the next five years. But the age of AI is also generating mixed emotions. On one hand, it’s a capitalist’s dream. Given the tremendous pressure on business leaders to reduce costs and increase revenue, there is no way they can ignore the enormous benefits of these new technologies. However, AI also means layoffs, a labour nightmare.

This is what should make us rethink the fundamentals of our institutions and the nature of our work. There are three scenarios in which AI influences our work — through job automation, job enhancement and creation of new jobs. Today, 90% of the conversation is in the job automation vertical. This is why headlines proclaim that robots are taking over human jobs. However, Bahl states that 90% of tomorrow’s colonisation is going to be in the other two verticals: job enhancement and creation.

It is estimated that only 12% jobs are the risk of being taken over by bots and 75% of existing jobs will be enhanced using the tools and capabilities of AI. This means that while the job remains, the job description, the performance metrics, outcome levels, etc, are going to get altered with the new tools and capabilities. In addition to this, there is a scope of 13% of net new jobs being created, making it critical to learn how to work alongside machines.

A recent survey across organisations enquired on the most important skill set of the future. Indisputably, robotics and AI ranked the highest at 82%. What's more interesting is that 80% organisations rated soft skills such as communication, problem solving, leadership, etc, as the second-most important skill. This points to the fact that, in a world of pervasive technology, things that humans can do naturally, but computers struggle with, will become more important in the future.

Now, constantly changing technologies demand for new type of organisations. Traditional ones that are more hierarchical and work in silos will soon be redundant. In their place will be wirearchy, a model that functions like a collection of network systems not based on one’s location or job title. This decentralised organisational model allows collective decision-making processes, making it a more social, mobile, adaptive, collaborative and dynamic community.

Bahl asserts that this is why workspace design too needs to change. Most companies state that the mundane back office will fade away and that the focus will be on enhancing customer service, creating new customer value, improving customer satisfaction levels, etc. So, it seems that workspaces will need to reflect this change and recalibrate themselves as per the processes and functions they house.

Despite the common belief that there would be a reduction in office real estate, leaders are clearly rejecting the “no office” culture. In fact, a 13% increase in both workforce and workplace size in the next five years is estimated. Just that these will be more inclusive and conducive for collaboration. Bahl shares, “We need to understand the future of work between humans and machines. While humans are capable of picking up visual cues, emotion, empathy, deciding on what's the right thing to do based on the context of the situation; machines are good at the size of the job; we can't beat a computer on number crunching.”

This is where the bifurcation of work into blue and red tasks comes in to play. Blue tasks are all about work that demands judgements, empathy and creativity, where people are better than machines, while red will involve data analysis, repetitive tasks and pattern reconigtion, which is better done by machines.

Using space differently can signal a cultural transition for the company as well as catalysing ideation, experimentation and co-creation initiatives. The design, furniture, layout and equipment used to create a blue space can be a reflection of a company’s changing working styles of its people. Blue spaces can also act as a magnet for in-house and third-party talent to ignite a startup spirit. These spaces work to break down silos and encourage new, cross-functional processes. Bahl recommends using blue spaces as a proxy for changing the culture. It’s not only the organisational system that can determine how people behave and feel but also the structural environment they work within as well. On the other hand, the red work can be done with the help of technology, sensors, and embedded softwares. This can be task ranging from booking meeting rooms, temperature modulation, lighting control, etc, roles that help humans focus on what really matters.

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