Technology is often described as an enabler, but technology trends and concepts can also shape how we view the world.

Depending on your point of view, you might see the workplace as a complicated human-powered machine that needs to be maintained for peak performance. Or you might think of it as an organism that needs to be shaped as it grows and changes so it can thrive. 

When social software emerged and reached the mainstream both inside and outside the workplace, the workplace was viewed as a hyper-connected network of people to be influenced. 

These perspectives influence how we manage and, in the context of technology, determine what we see as the role of a particular solution. Does it streamline, engage or connect people together?

Enter the threat of artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

None of our previous conceptions have prepared us for the prospect of these new automation technologies coming to the workplace. Beyond considering what happens when we replace humans with robots, we have to think about the changes coming to the very nature of work as we currently know it — for the worse and possibly for the better.

How Can Artificial Intelligence Benefit the Workplace?

Rather than thinking in terms of mechanizing the workplace or dehumanizing it, we can also think about the work we do alone and together. 

Workplaces are plagued by soul-destroying business processes and activities that waste human potential and creativity. As much as digital-based automation will bring disruptive change, there's hope that it will play a role in re-humanizing the workplace too.

Alleviate Email Traffic Jams

Take email as an example. Email remains the lowest common denominator collaboration tool in the workplace. Unfortunately, email also causes stress because of inefficient workflows and information overload. 

For many office workers, managing email is the digital equivalent of a copy clerk from days gone by: they spend their days sorting, distributing and archiving information. But this effectively bureaucratic use of email does not intrinsically create value for the business or bring satisfaction to users.

Most attempts to reduce the burden of email have focused on shifting transitory conversation to other channels, such as instant messaging or chat-based solutions. To significantly reduce the burden of email, we need help that deals with low value interactions. 

One example of an email conversation that automation can address is meeting requests. In fact, an interaction like this represents the tip of the iceberg for what the time-saving bots that understand natural language can accomplish. 

Such bots might even help to eliminate some of the meetings people were emailing us about in the first place.

Reduce Spreadsheet Errors

Spreadsheets are another critical, but poorly used tool. Despite the overarching benefits of other solutions, users have typically resisted spreadsheet alternatives because of poor usability or restrictive functionality. 

Artificial intelligence promises to eliminate the time-consuming activities that encourage poor data management practices and can introduce mistakes through human errors in data entry or calculations. Using machines for the heavy lifting of data analysis and presentation, users can focus on understanding the problem and asking the right questions.

Increase Thoughtfulness?

If we can remove the noise issue in many workplaces, speech-to-text technology in particular offers an interesting opportunity to introduce greater mindfulness to the workplace. 

The theory goes that speech to text interfaces require users to think more carefully about what they have to say. Thinking more carefully in turn requires us to slow down, which brings a number of benefits both in terms of our ability to focus and our relationships with others.

In this respect, speech-to-text is the antithesis of rapid-fire real-time communication offered by tools such as Slack. But there is no reason why future workplaces will be unable to support a mixture of real time and “slow time” collaboration.

Call Me An Optimist

Skeptics might feel wary hearing about the improved experiences that yet another raft of digital technologies can bring — and with good reason. Our recent experiences with such tools have seen them increasingly dominate our attention and downtime. 

We also didn't touch on the current debate about automation in the workplace causing job losses and restructuring of industries. 

But call me an optimist. I believe artificial intelligence and machine learning will actually make our digital workplaces a whole lot better. I look forward to a world where smart digital assistants help make my work easier so I can focus on what is really important and where my innate human capabilities add the most value.

Title image "The office" (CC BY 2.0) by  jlcwalker