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PHOTO: James Peacock

Back in 2014, Richard Branson said “one day, offices will be a thing of the past.” Looking at it today, Branson's prediction might just come true. 

The velocity of technological advances over the last decade has had a dramatic impact on the way we work. Today, working with distributed teams is normal. We're also seeing increased automation of various work processes (bots, machine learning, deep learning, etc.) driven by artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the optimization of team interactions through collaboration. Collaboration is taking on new forms too, as it goes from human-to-human interactions to also encompass human-to-machine interactions. 

Over a decade ago, I pointed out that not only would offices disappear, but with automated cars, we will have to decide what to do with all the empty parking lots. This change in work style will necessitate many more accommodations. For example, a decade ago, you would need an engineer in the room to make a complex video meeting work. Today, most meetings are done with one click, and we even have bots that will set up the meeting for you.

Scheduling and Meeting Bots

X.ai offers a conversational interface, called Andrew Ingram, to set up meetings and Microsoft acquired virtual assistant provider Genee and bot developer XOXCO to provide the same for Office 365 and Microsoft Teams. Tools like Meekan, Clara, Julie Desk and Evie all can help set up meetings rather than using a time-consuming process like Doodle. On the HR side, tools like Xor.ai and VCV (both from Eastern Europe) provide full service bots that not only help HR acquire and filter candidates, but also set up the initial meetings between the recruiter and the candidate. 

This frees the recruiter up for other tasks as well as allows them to spend more face time with candidates. It also gives the candidates a better feeling towards the hiring company. Roughly 70 percent of the time in hiring situations, the candidate gets no response at all, and so has no idea what to think about the potential employer, other than “they ignored my application, and they suck!” With bots, 100 percent of applicants get at least one response, usually within a few minutes.

Related Article: How Bots Are Streamlining the HR Recruitment Process

Digital Teams

The digital transformation sweeping the workplace is putting a lot of focus on teams and how they work. 

Some large companies — including Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna and IBM — have cut their telecommuting programs in recent years. Whether you view this as the swan song of a company scrambling to compete with more nimble startups or the result of internal productivity data showing that productivity increases when everyone is together, a lack of remote working may be a losing strategy in the long run.  

Granted, dealing with large teams is a challenge. Have you ever tried to coordinate a remote team of 1000? It can be a nightmare, no matter what software you use. But with millennials making up half of the workforce in the US and, on average, predicted to change jobs at least 15 times in their career, many will not join larger companies that require their butts in a seat every day. 

Companies like Buffer, with 80 employees, and Basecamp, with 54, are at the other extreme. Everyone works remotely as there is no headquarters. Companies like 10up, Arkency, Articulate, Edgar,  Fire Engine RED, Flexjobs and many others are also 100 percent distributed organizations.

Personally, I have worked from home for 30 years, and have no problem with it. I am much more focused and productive than when working in an office because I can control the environment. Since I have ADD, this allows me to eliminate stimuli that I would find distracting in an office. Even though I work from home, I am in a variety of teams that meet virtually. Today it requires very little equipment and software to do this, usually only involving one click to join a meeting. 

However, joining a meeting does not mean you are part of a team. It may mean two or more individuals with their own agendas meet up to exchange information. A team requires more than a bit of coordination: it also requires trust, respect and common goals. If you've ever been part of a high-performance team, you know what I am talking about. I have been on teams that have accomplished remarkable things with almost no resources. And I have also been on well-funded teams that get stuck in “analysis paralysis” and never come close to accomplishing their goals.

Related Article: What Does it Take to Build an Effective Digital Team?

AI Work

AI has been around for a long time. I wrote frequently about expert systems back in the '90s. Unfortunately, the technology at that time overpromised and underdelivered. Although research continued, commercial widespread adoption still didn't happen. However, around 2010, research in machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP) and other AI features started to progress in leaps and bounds. This was followed by massive VC investment, and a huge number of startups applying these techniques to commercial processes. The AI market is estimated to reach $169 billion by 2025, from $4 billion in 2016. 

In many ways, AI evolved to solve specific work-based problems. The solutions we have now are “Narrow AI,” in other words "highly scoped machine-learning solutions that target a specific task,” such as automated cars, doing language translation in real time, or which use complex algorithms to optimize a specific task.

Below is a short list of specific areas of work that have been updated by AI technologies today:

  • SAP CoPilot — Optimizing purchasing contracts, aiding with collaboration, optimizing virtual assistants.
  • Deloitte and Kira Systems — Using machine learning to create a model for reviewing documents and contracts.
  • Recruiting and talent management — Initial interactions with candidates, filtering, setting up meetings, and helping with recruitment.
  • Provide additional bandwidth to support organizations, by providing more interactive FAQs.
  • Using AI to boost security, against malware, insider threats, cybersecurity and virus threats.
  • Creating personalized learning systems, using learning styles.

Related Article: Want to Use Chatbots and Smart Speakers in Your Workplace? Think Big

Digitizing the Office

Most of what used to be on your desk is now digitized. Email instead of letters, mobile phone instead of a desk phone, phones for recording, pictures, instant messages, etc. But other office stalwarts are also becoming digitized. The lowly whiteboard is a good example. It is great for a quick diagram, a list, to tally a vote or brainstorming session. A wide variety of tools, such as Bluescape and Oblong’s Mezannine, provide a high-end solution that moves into the digitization of the meeting room. Simpler whiteboard digitizing software is also available, including StormBoard, Kaptivo and others.

A Perfect Storm?

In Sebastian Junger's book “The Perfect Storm,” the combined amplitudes of each of the factors (wind, water, etc.) produces an unexpected result. 

The office today is not the result of a perfect storm, but more like a boat tossing in a stormy sea, where each wave is a new factor: increasing technology velocity, changing human roles and behaviors, increase in global and mobile working. Every time a wave hits the boat, it rocks in response, and then returns back to an even keel, only to be hit by another wave. While today’s workplace is being battered around, it is still moving forward, supporting changes in every aspect of work, from who to where and how. 

Although the changes hitting the workplace are multiplying, it is important to remember that work is about human behavior. Human behaviors and habits change slowly — not at the pace of technology. It is this interface between technology and human behavior where I believe the most interesting advances will occur.