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PHOTO: Nicolas Cool

The past couple of years have upended traditional notions of the workplace and the nature of work. We’ve witnessed the birth of the “gig economy,” the evolution of “work anywhere” arrangements, and a re-evaluation of how mobile technologies really fit into a modern enterprise.

In 2019, as part of bet-the-company commitments to digital business, forward-thinking companies are likely to further transform their workplaces in ways that will significantly improve productivity and collaboration and give them a competitive advantage.

Fueling this trend will be a widespread surge in digital transformation in the enterprise. By 2018, the proliferation of mobile devices, the consumerization of IT and the ability to access data from just about any location had already changed everything. Digital transformation has made it possible for enterprises to truly enable the mobile workforce, and employees expect to complete tasks in ways that suit them best, with a spectrum of devices to achieve maximum efficiency.

Redefining Work Roles

As technology has evolved, so has the role of the modern worker. Work has become more about the tasks or activities that are part of a broader plan or strategy, leading to growing ranks of independent workers and the growth of the gig economy.

Many people are living the gig model today — even some of those who have only one employer. Jobs are increasingly being broken down to project and task levels, with decreasing emphasis on the number of hours someone works. Instead, the focus has shifted to the activity and its role in the completion of projects. Each activity is frequently part of a broader ecosystem or strategy, and it has constituents and stakeholders and other players.

Today, jobs aren’t so much a single person performing a single role as they are a collection of people performing a collection of tasks. One person can be involved in many activities, and much of the work is accomplished by teams of people who switch roles and tasks seamlessly.

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Redesigning Workspaces

When employers first started adopting mobile technologies, their goal was to make it possible for people to work from any location. However, while it seems empowering to tell people that they have some flexibility with regard to when, where and how they do their jobs, companies can deliver a much more positive experience by providing the right spaces for employees to do the things they need to do — areas to think, create, communicate, collaborate or connect productively. Every activity requires a certain type of environment: a private room for conducting interviews, an auditorium to present an idea to a large group of people, a coffee shop to get to know a new mentor, or an office where people can present proposals to clients.

Designated quiet areas may not be practical in every building, but thoughtfully designed office layouts, with both open and enclosed areas, make it possible to create spaces for ad hoc team meetings, intense project reviews, personnel interviews, performance reviews and quality thinking. Facilities, IT and HR teams can all work together to create compelling spaces that enable people to be more productive. Enterprises that get this right can dramatically improve employee morale, output and collaboration.

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Reimagining Workforce Capabilities

As influential as trends such as those have been, 2019 will see the maturation of several next-generation technologies that could have an equally profound effect on the workplace.

For example, as artificial intelligence (AI) evolves, a combination of machine intelligence and automation could augment human performance to make it possible to, say, proactively fix devices before users are even aware of problems or automatically translate, transcode and document discussions conducted in meetings.

The next generation of mobile internet connectivity is also making its way to the enterprise. With 5G networks, we will begin to see cellular performance on a par with traditional Wi-Fi. Workers will be able to use real-time video or virtual reality (VR) technologies without performance impediments. Improved handoffs between Wi-Fi and cellular connections will create seamless experiences for people as they move between environments.

At the same time, data at the edge of networks — coming from devices connected to the internet of things, for example — will provide local context, enabling people to make quicker decisions based on the data. This will allow very small, very specific applications to run in lightweight environments on devices in that people carry in their pockets or wear on their wrists — even devices embedded in people’s arms or installed in office desks.

Use of VR systems that allow people to engage with avatars of their team members in virtual environments featuring simulated project work areas will become more prevalent, in part because the technology’s performance will improve. That will enable people in multiple locations to work together to carry out tasks that require a good deal of engagement, such as brainstorming. Project teams will become increasingly dynamic as people join, contribute and move on as needed. Technology will likely make it possible for people to support many projects at the same time.

Many organizations are already using augmented reality (AR). For instance, a field engineer could use AR to “bring in” a specialist to help fix or certify a repair remotely. Linked via real-time AR, the engineer and the specialist could observe the same problem and collaborate to solve it.

That next wave, however, will require simplifying IT environments to free up money to invest in new technologies. Companies will likely move more workloads to the cloud and set up the digital frameworks that will make those advances possible, integrating digital environments with their current IT infrastructures and then deploying their digital systems at scale. They will need capable partners to help them do that.

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Recognizing the Impact

As companies adapt to the new order of work, more discoveries await that may reveal the true, far-reaching nature of the changes that are occurring. Technology has redefined expectations about how and where we work. It will be up to the workforce to fully embrace the changes.