man or machine?
What does 2018 hold for the future of work? These productivity experts weighed in with what they see as growing trends PHOTO: Samuel Zeller

How people work has been evolving for some time. Our connected world provides more flexibility than ever before in where we work and what devices and applications we use to complete tasks. Unfortunately, a nasty symptom of the digital infrastructure and the countless apps created to make our lives easier exists in how we tie them all together — or rather don’t tie them all together.

This is why a big focus in the coming year will be around context: understanding individuals’ work patterns across all their apps and services. Microsoft’s launch of its Graph technology is helping to fuel the fire around using work context, such as the network of people an employee is connected to, to help unearth important and relevant information in the workplace, mitigating the impact of increasing information overload. Microsoft has positioned Graph as its most strategic data asset, one that could enable IT departments to deliver artificial intelligence (AI) to information workers.

Meanwhile, Box has also announced an offering called Graph, positioning it as an enterprise tool that supports intelligent content recommendations for business users. But how exactly will this benefit businesses and workers?

Consider this: In a recent study, found 41 percent of people said they can find all the information they need to do their day-to-day work just by opening a few apps. However, 35 percent said they have to open multiple windows to find the information they need. Additionally, 67 percent said it would be easier to focus on work if important information from all of their apps appeared in a single window. 

This is why context is more important than ever: By linking important topics — say by using proper nouns, like a project name, a campaign name or a key customer name — workers can begin to find meaning within the chaos of today’s crowded cloud environment. An effective enterprise graph will add a layer of topics to better categorize events, but it would also have to encompass events from all cloud service vendors.

While single-vendor solutions like Microsoft’s and Box’s are helping to make the enterprise graph a reality, this is only the beginning. Other context-based developments are going to shape the way humans work over the next few years. Members of the newly formed Humanizing the Digital Workplace Consortium, a multidisciplinary group of authors, researchers, academics and thought leaders brought together by, had several other views about how context in email, AI, HR and collaboration will impact enterprise productivity in 2018 and beyond.

The Beginning of the End of Email

While email is the epicenter of many of our work lives, Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work" and a professor at Georgetown University, believes its days are numbered.

“We have become so used to a workflow in which we constantly send email messages and IM chats back and forth to each other in an unplanned and unstructured manner that we’ve lost sight of the reality that this is not the only way to work in the digital knowledge economy,” said Newport.

“We’re going to see more and more organizations step back and question what work would look like if you didn’t have a general-purpose inbox to tend all day and, more importantly, ask whether some alternatives — though perhaps less convenient — might end up producing more value for the company, ” he added. “Ad hoc messaging is a crude tool in an increasingly competitive era of business. Its time is running short.”

Humans vs. Machines

While the narrative about machines eventually replacing humans at work proliferates, we’re already seeing AI change the way we work in a more pragmatic — and positive — way. So-called augmented intelligence — systems built to assist humans, rather than replace them — is taking shape before our eyes, according to Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

“Areas with high repetition, high volume, high nodes of interactions and high complexity will most likely be moved to automation and AI,” said Wang. “Skill sets that require creativity, new levels of complexity and physical presence will remain in human hands. This augmentation of humanity will reshape not only how we work, but also determine where we work, what we work on, when we work and why we work.”

A New Path to Employee Engagement

Manfred Leu, a director of IT and head of digital workplace user adoption and consulting at Swiss Re, said he sees a future in which knowledge workers will adapt quickly to new ways of working with information and collaborating with colleagues. But only if employers can inspire them by offering creative and user-friendly solutions, and surprise them with exceptional service at any touchpoint throughout the entire user journey.

“Young talent will choose their employers based on a modern working environment and their perceived working culture,” said Leu. Adding a layer of context through graph technology is critical to delivering on the promise of a productive and collaborative work environment, and businesses that fail to create this experience are at risk for attracting and retaining employees.

HR as a Service

Like many disciplines, the field of human resources (HR) is being driven by the proliferation of automation, mobile and cloud-based technologies, and many HR professionals are worried about those disruptive technologies displacing them, according to Alexandra Levit, a workplace expert and author.

“The cloud is already the dominant delivery model for new human capital management systems, and software residing in the cloud is more flexible and customizable,” said Levit. “HR managers can get real-time updates without relying on IT personnel, and they can allocate resources depending on demand. In turn, employees can access cloud-based information and services when and where they need them. Modern HR pros must become proficient in cloud computing — or ‘HR as a service’ — mobile, predictive analysis and virtual reality to survive.”

It will be interesting to see the work trends and technologies that take hold as we enter the new year. While we can predict what the future of work will look like all we want, the only certainty is that it’s constantly evolving — and the enterprise needs to be ready.