Businesses and staff have seen efficiencies and other benefits offered by greater use of AI and automation and mix of home- and office-based job practices. Additional security and data protection will prove vital as companies increasingly rely on videoconferencing technologies and co-working spaces. Gilbert Wong specially for the South China Morning Post.
Technology has changed how we connect, consume and create in the workplace and caused a huge shift in the way businesses are run.
It has been about a decade since the start of the so-called fourth industrial revolution – a period marked by the merging of our physical, biological and digital worlds and the growing use of smart technologies.
The widespread adoption of automated tools featuring developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things – the online interconnection of everyday objects embedded with computing devices – has transformed manufacturing and industrial practices and the way we work. Last year’s outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic served to accelerate these changes.
Suddenly, adopting the use of new technology was no longer an option, but a necessity for employers. Commuting and the use of office environments were considered risky and remote working practices became the norm.
Our evolving workspace
Although the global roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines is offering hope that the effects of the pandemic will soon subside, remote working could be here to stay, now that employers and staff have seen the benefits it brings.
Heather Emslie, Asia-Pacific director at Google Workspace – the department responsible for the American multinational technology company’s cloud-computing, collaboration tools, software and other product services – believes companies will continue to embrace hybrid working practices, with staff working both in the office and remotely.
“We will continue to see new features and functionality in our tools that make the collaboration experience as engaging for people sitting in the same room as they are for colleagues who may be working from home,” she says.
Emslie will be among a group of expert speakers sharing their insights at a virtual conference this month, titled “The New Age of Hybrid Work”, which has been organised by EPOS, the provider of high-end audio solutions for enterprises and gaming.
Last October, Google extended its Meet picture-in-picture function – previously available only to Gmail and Chat – to its Docs, Sheets and Slides tools. The feature enables users to keep videoconference participants visible while navigating to other tabs or applications, and observe valuable non-verbal cues during a virtual presentation.
In turn, the trend of people using co-working spaces, where people share both premises and equipment, is expected to keep increasing. About five million people will be working in co-working spaces by 2024 – a 158 per cent rise compared with 2020 – reports the Global Coworking Growth Study 2020, carried out jointly by co-working resources company, CoworkingResources, and online co-worker marketplace, Coworker.com.
The study predicts that more than 40,000 co-working spaces will be in use worldwide by 2024.
Providers of shared workspaces, such as Singapore’s JustCo – which offers centres in cities including Jakarta, Taipei, Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Sydney and Melbourne – have noticed growing demand not only for flexible workspaces, but also those that are “intelligent” – where smart technology forms part of the workflow experience to improve productivity. JustCo has launched its Digital Future of Work initiative to help workers cope with changing working practices.
“JustCo is piloting two new innovations – Switch, the world’s first on-demand workspace usage platform, and SixSense, an AI-driven software for spatial analytics and social distance detection,” Kong Wan Long, JustCo’s co-founder and chief commercial officer, says. He will also be speaking at the forthcoming EPOS conference.
Switch offers users a pay-by-the-minute option for using work spaces at JustCo centres, other shared office locations and proprietary booths, some of which are in suburban areas so customers can be closer to home, rather than commuting to city centres. SixSense monitors how crowded various locations are and provides information to help ensure people follow safe social-distancing practices.
New realities of work
The growing use of smart and cutting-edge workplace technologies can include simple things, such as the installation of competent audio technology to ensure there is clear communication during videoconferences, or installing more complex tools, including augmented reality (AR) – using computer-generated images – and virtual reality (VR) – involving interaction with computer-generated 3D images or environments – to provide advanced interactivity.
The market research company, International Data Corporation, predicts that 20 per cent of workers in knowledge-intensive fields will use AI-enabled software or other digitally connected technology as a “co-worker” by 2024.
Another industry expert set to speak at the EPOS conference, Greg Unsworth, digital business leader at the professional services provider, PwC Singapore, believes AI-enabled businesses will fundamentally change the way we work, with those companies that accept this transformation benefiting the most in future.
“An effective AI-enabled business will be able to make faster and more consistent data-driven decision-making,” he says. “The effective use of chatbots, AI-driven financial investment decision-making, and manufacturing and supply-chain enablement are some of the examples we already see.”
The continuing introduction of AI and automation by companies will help to reduce the amount of work carried out by staff, with the US Office of Personnel Management reporting that about 60 per cent of America’s federal employees could see their workloads cut by up to 30 per cent and nearly half of government agencies’ workloads could be automated.
Some of Japan’s leading universities and businesses started working with the American technology company, IBM, last July to develop applications using quantum computing – an exponentially faster, more efficient method of performing calculations than traditional computers, based on probability – for use in the workplace.
Dario Gil, director of IBM Research, said: “Quantum computing has the potential to tackle some of the world‘s greatest challenges in the future.
“We expect it will help us accelerate scientific discovery so we can develop vaccines more quickly and accurately, create new materials to address climate change or design better energy storage technologies.”
It is important that companies not only invest in new technology, but also help their staff to adapt to workplace changes, says Amit Midha, Dell Technologies’ president of Asia Pacific & Japan and global digital cities.
“Opening opportunities for all – while cultivating a culture of inclusion – should be a business imperative, and technology should be an equaliser,” he says.
“Companies need to narrow the digital divide by advocating in investments of new technology, enabling technical skills development and forming partnerships.”
Adapting to future challenges today
Although the use of highly advanced workspace technologies, such as cloud-based technologies and enhanced communications tools, will allow staff to work with greater flexibility, it will also create challenges because of the open nature of remote work.
The global cybersecurity market is expected to grow to US$270 billion by 2026 – up from US$173 billion in 2020 – says a study published last year by AustCyber, an Australian not-for-profit body working to promote cybersecurity research and innovation and science in the country.
“Widespread remote work has brought to light the importance of security and data protection, and cybersecurity is vital for organisations, especially those whose business processes are based on data-driven technologies,” Midha says.
In future, it will be important for governments and businesses to work together to reduce the risks of adopting new workplace technologies, while maximising the benefits that such evolution brings.
The EPOS Virtual Conference, titled “The New Age of Hybrid Work”, will take place on March 31, from 4pm to 6pm (Singapore time). Visit the registration page to sign up and check out the full overview of the programme and speakers.