The world of work is changing faster than most realize. Human-like robots can now deliver the news, service you in retail stores and restaurants, lift a patient from a chair or bed or even be your therapist. More than 70% of people around the world work remotely at least once a week. Billion-dollar organizations already exist without any company offices at all, and in some cases, without email either.
As technology advances and companies look for more ways to control costs and increase their competitive advantage, workers should expect increased interaction with artificial intelligence (AI), job reengineering, more remote working and a need to find new ways of ensuring meaningful human connections in a virtual culture and world.
- Interacting With AI
Most of us interact with AI on a daily basis. Your Netflix movie recommendations are driven by AI. So are your credit card fraud alerts, many call center interactions and, in some cases, even the job application process. AI is stealthily creeping into just about everything humans do today—most importantly, into the way we work and communicate with one another and the world.
If you visit high-tech manufacturing sites today (ones that have not transitioned to lights-out production, where few, if any, humans work), you are likely to pass intelligent robots carrying parts to line operators. You will also see people working side by side with human-like machines assembling products for customers. In the past, these interactions would have been exclusively human to human. Today, in advanced workplaces, AI and other technology commonly assist people in their work. While this is an impressive dynamic to watch evolve, the introduction of AI in the workplace will dramatically change working relationships.
In organizations that embrace the synergy between humans and machines, you may no longer be able to go out to lunch with your “co-workers” or boss, as they won’t eat human food. For example, Creating Revolutions offers AI technology that manages hotel employees. The company’s platform routes guest requests directly to the right staff member, then records and tracks the work through completion to ensure the highest level of customer service and efficiency. While it may be easy to see how such AI bosses can drive costs down and profits up, a bigger question remains: can AI interaction help humans develop and grow to be better in their jobs and careers?
As a writer, speaker and business leader, I am keenly interested in how my message will land with my audiences or those who work for me. I also want to know how my broadly distributed written communications will be received. The better I can communicate, the more job and career success I and those engaging with me will enjoy. The weight of connecting with an audience can be stressful, and may even prohibit some from saying what they want or need to say. This reality also plays out in one-on-one conversations, such as when a manager coaches employees or discusses performance.
Now imagine a world where you already know how your audience, direct report or co-worker will react to what you are about to say or send, giving you the opportunity to make improvements beforehand. Time travel? Actually, AI.
In Noah Zandan’s Quantified Communications article, “The Future of Human Communication: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform the Way We Communicate,” he explains what the future of AI-assisted human development and coaching could look like. It is mind blowing.
As these platforms continue to become more immersive and more accessible, speakers will have the opportunity to simulate speaking in their presentation space, in front of a packed audience. Speakers and their coaches will be able to recreate multiple rehearsal environments such as a lecture hall, a conference room, or even the TED stage. Users can leverage this technology to practice interacting with an unpredictable audience, and to become comfortable presenting in the room.”
Such AI could evaluate and offer feedback on the speaker’s clarity, tone, confidence, mastery, rate of speech, facial expressions, body language and, ultimately, the level of audience trust in what the speaker is conveying—whether the audience is one or 5,000.
AI is poised to transform human communication in many ways. It has the potential to improve a person’s confidence and sense of fulfillment, increase people engagement, heighten the impact of a message, reduce the time needed to deliver a message and improve overall business efficiency.
Workers of the future will need to become comfortable with the idea of AI delivering performance feedback, personal development, coaching and evaluation. Despite the potential benefits of this new human/technology partnership, some people still resist or feel afraid of advancements that may alter their work.
According to a recent study by the Center for Effective Organizations at USC Marshall School of Business, only 37% of employees would share innovation or automation ideas if they believed they would have to do different work as a result of such technology being implemented. However, when employees believed the technology would help make their job better, 87% of them said they would share innovation ideas with their employer.
Business leaders must be mindful and intentional about communicating why new technology and innovation in the workplace are important and must think through how to best implement the technology; these steps are critical to ensuring employee support and integration success. If people in your organization can’t see the benefits of the change or you can’t clearly articulate them, employees may not be aligned with your intended purpose or be able to support your desired business outcome. In fact, many AI solutions free workers up to offer more white glove customer service or allow them to do more interesting work.
To ensure that your organization has the right stakeholders at the table to implement and integrate new technology effectively, create an innovation council that includes people from operations, R&D, IT, HR and other key areas that represent your business, culture and people.
Many organizations today are missing the real opportunity to leverage technological advancements: they are looking to AI and other technologies only to speed up or increase accuracy in existing mechanical processes instead of thinking about how innovations can bring about radical improvements in the way we work. In his visionary 1990 Harvard Business Review article, Michael Hammer explains the current dynamic:
It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should ‘reengineer’ our businesses: use the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performance.”
To meet the innovation challenge and “create optimal human-machine combinations” that improve individual and organizational performance, Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau, recommend four steps in their book Reinventing Jobs:
- Deconstruct the job. To ensure an effective assessment can be made about the application of technology, jobs must be broken down into tasks.
- Assess the relationship between job performance and strategic value. Leaders must know how performance in a job correlates with the goals of the business.
- Ask what automation is possible? At this step, leaders determine technology options that include full or partial automation, robotic process automation (RPA) to support basic and repetitive human tasks, cognitive automation to support higher level mental work, social robotics (AI) designed to interact with humans or some combination.
- Optimize work. This step ties the first three steps together in order to leverage technology to improve job and business outcomes.
- Working Remotely
If you have ever had a chance to work remotely, you’ve likely experienced the benefits: work–life flexibility and integration, reduced commuting and meal costs, improved productivity, lower environmental impact, lifestyle and geographical choice and closer family relationships; for organizations, the benefits include enhanced talent attraction, engagement and retention. However, working remotely can present challenges, too. Remote workers have less interaction with colleagues, and thus miss out on the benefits of “water cooler” or impromptu hallway conversations that can yield helpful information. Those working outside the office may not be in the loop on opportunities for promotion and may have not had meaningful face time with those assessing the internal candidate pool.
The opportunity to work remotely is a desirable option for many people, but a remote workforce will also become a necessity for organizations of the future as they look to reduce their operating costs. Few companies enjoy excessive margins these days, and the pressure to stay profitable will require businesses to examine their general operating expenses closely. Remote working is low-hanging fruit for many organizations that can quickly shed the high cost of office space.
In line with the evolution of remote working and virtual operations, workers will need to learn how to shine and stay connected through screens or holographic images instead of through in-person interactions. They will also need to become adept at working effectively in virtual teams for tasks ranging from brainstorming to product design.
When it comes to screen interactions, employees will need to adapt their remote workspaces for maximum effectiveness and learn video basics to ensure their talent is noticed. They’ll need to consider elements like workspace setup, background, lighting and device positioning. Photographer Matthew Rolston provides a valuable resource in his YouTube video “How to Look Good on a Webcam.”
When it comes to navigating virtual work groups, technology platforms such as Slack and Basecamp can be immensely helpful in keeping teams connected and on the same page. These applications and others like them track, organize, prompt and record conversations, ensuring a free flow of communication for teams working together either remotely or in the same physical location. Such platforms also make life easier by keeping multiple work streams in one place, avoiding missed or lost emails.
- Maintaining Meaningful Human Connections
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone,” the late actor and comedian Robin Williams once said.
Williams’s quote referred to people, but in the future, much loneliness may derive from the void of meaningful human interaction created by our partnership with human-like machines or virtual organizations. As great as chatbots, social media and video screens can be, they don’t replace our basic need for human intimacy—most of these tech platforms offer superficial connections at most.
“More people say they feel lonelier than ever before,” writes journalist Johann Hari, who presents research showing that loneliness leads to depression and that drugs are rarely the solution. In fact, the World Health Organization reports that depression is now the number-one cause of global ill health. Depression and related illnesses cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity.
In Hari’s new book, Lost Connections, he outlines our need to reconnect with our human tribal roots, which go back to our beginnings on the savannahs of Africa, to avoid the beckoning road to anxiety and depression. He sums up decades of research focused on what is happening inside our brains—chemical imbalances thought to trigger certain emotions—pointing out the critical missing focus on external factors, such as the environment in which people live or work, that may influence feelings like depression.
Tribal communities look after and care for one another. They develop a thick web of meaningful social connections that support those who are sick, in danger or hungry. On the savannah, being alone was dangerous, and groups drew safety from their number. Staying physically close was the only way to survive, and this fact drove people to remain together or to find their way back to their group. Hari argues that we were wired with an evolutionary desire for meaningful connections. “Humans need tribes as much as bees need hives,” Hari concludes.
As interactions mediated by technology become the norm and as working remotely and physically alone turn into reality for many, finding ways to connect with others will be critical for our mental and emotional well-being. To ensure these connections, workers of the future will need to seek out and plan for meaningful interactions beyond texts, email and social media.
Scheduling regular lunches with co-workers, friends or family who are close by, visiting your company offices, if they exist, or joining social clubs that meet in person are ways to build and maintain important personal connections.
While work life and technology will continue to evolve at a rapid pace, the key to our mental and emotional well-being in the future will be understanding how humans and machines can best work together to improve humanity for all. Our close partnership with technology will also mandate that people embrace and be mindful of what makes us human to begin with, namely, our personal connection to others.
As doomsday predictions about the clash of humans and technology proliferate, it is important to maintain some perspective. In 850 B.C., the Greek poet Homer spoke of bot-like creatures that fulfilled the commands of their masters. In A.D. 1495, Leonardo da Vinci imagined a mechanical man. In 1961, robots started to assemble cars. Now, for the first time, there are more job openings than workers available to fill them (6.7 million versus 6.4 million). While work may change, people will continue to be the common thread and driver of creativity, innovation and progress.