The term "4th Industrial Revolution" is popping up more and more as we try to wrap our heads around how much the nature of work has changed over the last couple of decades and how much it's expected to change in the next. The idea is that we've progressed in stages from the 19th-century advent of water and steam power to the mass production made possible by oil, electricity, and the assembly lines of the early 20th century.
Next came computerization beginning in the 1980s, and now, the argument is that we're in a fourth stage where technology is infiltrating everything - even our bodies with implants and wearables. Whatever you want to call it, tech is radically reshaping the workplace – and often for the better – with increased productivity, innovation, and an improved work/life balance.
Trend 1: Work never sleeps anymore
Perhaps the most visible change in the workplace over the past decade is the way it's become 24/7/365, mobile, and the steep rise in the number of people working remotely. Beginning with basic cell phones - and now with smartphones - workers became reachable at any time, which has blurred the line between work time and private.
Access to excellent tech in their personal lives means employees now demand the same standards at work and get frustrated when they don't. They also want to be able to contribute from anywhere at any time. The upside of working remotely for employees is that they get a better work/life balance. The positives for employers are flexibility, reduced office space costs, and a better selection of potential workers when not tied to a specific geographic area.
There are challenges though. Options like "bring your own device" (BYOD) and remote work bring security concerns and the need for robust and speedy infrastructures that support video conferencing and collaboration tools.
The coming upgrade to 5G mobile technology will mean even more options for remote work thanks to wireless data speeds equivalent to fiber connections.
Trend 2: Data and IoT bring better productivity analysis
Tech giants like Google were some of the first to master parsing big data for profits, but now many organizations are leveraging data to make informed decisions about workflows to improve productivity and look for opportunities for automation. That's been increasingly fueled by the explosion of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that make gathering data easy. Entire workflows can be examined in minute detail to look for pain points and repetitive tasks that can be automated. Sensors can even track the usage of workspaces and meeting rooms to determine what's working – right down to the furniture layout. While gathering data is easier, parsing it effectively remains a challenge for many. Gartner predicts the advanced algorithms in "Augmented Analytics" will help remove personal bias and help identify hidden patterns.
Trend 3: We have to define what is truly transformational
Digital transformation is reshaping workplaces, and it requires a culture change, which is rarely easy. Clear top-down communication of the value is required to convert the wary. True digital transformation in the workplace goes beyond changes like getting off paper and using digital communications. That's digital optimization of existing business practices - which obviously can reap significant gains - but transformation is an organization-wide philosophical shift to leverage the power of technology to create, deliver, and capture value. In other words, a metamorphosis of the business model. As more repetitive work tasks are automated using AI and machine learning, workers will need training on how to integrate with their new digital helpers for maximum productivity. Some will get it faster than others, and thought will have to be put into the best ways to lift everyone up.
Trend 4: Smart spaces equal smarter workers
Many organizations now look at offices and other workspaces holistically - instead of as a collection of unintegrated systems - as part of their digital transformation philosophy. Fifteen years ago, a desk was a desk, a computer was a computer, the overhead light was the overhead light, and the air conditioning was the air conditioning. Nobody put much thought into how all those things could work together to increase productivity and efficiency. Now, thanks to the internet of things, the desk, computer, lighting, and air conditioning can all talk to each other. In digital buildings, workspaces become integrated organisms with the end user at the center and all the systems in the workplace talking to each other in support of providing the end user with the best possible experience to boost productivity and efficiency.
In a smart space, the user experience becomes seamless and comfortable. Shifting to mobile devices over fixed desktops allows employees to move around and choose workspaces that best suit their personalities or needs at that moment. For example, a casual seating area might work best for a collaboration session with colleagues, but they'd move to a more private booth with walls if they're trying to focus. Advanced collaboration tools like smart screens in meeting rooms break down the physical barriers between remote workers and allow for simultaneous work on a project.
Lighting and air conditioning that's IoT sensor driven automatically deliver the right amount of light and temperature based on crowdsourcing the preferences saved in the end user's mobile devices. When users aren't present, then the automation reduces both, delivering significant energy savings.
Office furniture can even recall the user's preference and deliver desk heights or chair settings based on them.
Moreover, all of it generates actionable data that can be parsed to see what's working and what's not so that changes can easily and effectively be made.
Tend 5: We become symbiotic with our solutions, from collaboration tools, AI, VR, and automation to bots and robotics
Tying in closely with smart spaces are all the new tools that integrate the employee with the job in the most productive and efficient ways possible, from collaboration, artificial intelligence, automation, bots, and robotics.
The new frontiers in this area include voice-based technology - as generations who've grown used to asking Siri expect the same thing at work – and so-called immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality. Gartner predicts that by 2022, 70 percent of businesses will be experimenting with immersive technology for consumer and enterprise use.
Work will become even more symbiotic, with man and machine working together. The shift is already underway. For example, consider the spelling and grammar checkers we all use daily to sniff out embarrassing typos in our emails before we send them.
Bots can function as office assistants performing repetitive tasks at the command of the end user. Robotics can perform repetitive functions that require physical actions.
AI and automation also keep systems running smoothly and efficiently. For example, CompuCom uses Self Healing Technology to proactively sniff out problems with devices and networks to solve issues before they become problems that drag down productivity. Examples include connectivity issues, printer problems, servers that are on the verge of failing, or simply installing software updates and patches to thwart security vulnerabilities.
Trend 6: The rise of the geographically flexible worker
As the speed of business gets ever faster and more dynamic – while mobility increases – businesses looking for agile solutions will more and more assemble handpicked remote and in-house teams where each member brings the exact skill set required for a project. We all recognize that the days of a person working their entire career for the same company are long gone, but short-term contractual work will increase – contributing to the rise of flexible workers who go where the opportunities are by contributing remotely.
You need a plan
While the changes in the workplace are profound, with the speed of innovation that we're hitting, it's a safe bet we're just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg. While some of it can seem overly futuristic - with an unclear return on investment – much has real measurable value. Sifting hype from helpful can be a challenge, which is why you need an innovation roadmap with a clear path to end goals that create, deliver, and capture value.
Most solutions require an adequate and nimble digital infrastructure to support them, so the first steps to innovation often require foundational upgrades. Managed workplace services providers like CompuCom can help with the evaluation, planning, and implementation - or just handle the day-to-day IT support busywork so your internal IT team can get on with the strategic heavy lifting.
Every iteration of the industrial revolution has its share of winners and losers. Winning organizations will be the ones with the right attitude and the nimbleness to embrace and exploit change.