Computing Profession

The Future of Work

A woman having her temperature checked.
Many companies will require temperature checks before permitting employees to enter their workplaces.

With the world slowly returning to life in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a new normal is emerging, and with that, much discussion and many studies imagining the future of work. With many organizations discovering that people have remained productive while working from home, thanks in large part to collaborative technologies, tech giants like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have all said some of their workers can continue working remotely either for the foreseeable future, or even permanently.

Many observers expect we'll see a hybrid scenario, both in the workplace and educational institutions, where people will work and take classes remotely, as well as on campus and in the office.

"While most of the conversation about the future of work focuses on remote versus in-office employees, this actually misses the biggest change that will occur – we will be working in a much more hybrid world where some employees are working from home some of the time,'' says Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner's HR practice.

Gartner research predicts up to 48% of employees will work remotely post-pandemic.

Once employees start coming back to the workplace, "We expect to see almost half of all employees … in roles that can be done remotely to work remote at least some of the time,'' Kropp adds. "This hybrid scenario will be true of the workplace and educational institutions."

For the immediate future, when people go back to an office, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending temperature checks when employees arrive at their place of business. The CDC also recommends staggered shifts, placement of desks six feet apart, closure of common areas, and face masks worn at all times, among other guidelines.

A report titled After the Virus from IT services provider Cognizant envisions what the office will look like by 2023, written from a futuristic point of view. "Now, everyone must have a full health screen to enter any building, space, or country to prove you're not carrying any infectious disease," writes author Ben Pring, vice president and director of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work. By 2023, the report anticipates, scanning equipment will be ubiquitous in the lobbies of every office building, and cellphone-based contact tracing will be commonplace.

In terms of working from home, Cognizant predicts that by 2025, houses will be built with dedicated office spaces that include soundproofing, connectivity, and three-dimensional (3D) printers.

Business travel also is expected to change significantly. "In the blink of an eye, business travel went from a high-status activity to an embarrassment," Pring writes. "The virus delivered a cosmic message that our travel behavior needed to change."

Whereas prior to the pandemic global air travel represented one of the largest industries in the world with an anticipated net profit of $29.3 billion, the virus stopped it in its tracks and virtually overnight, millions of people stopped flying, according to the report. This led to a profound reduction in carbon emissions, and got people thinking about whether they actually needed to fly for business as often as they did.

"Business travel, it turned out, was not the engine of commerce we'd thought it was,'' writes Pring. "And those who still hop on a plane to get to a business conference find they've got some 'splaining' to do. Frequently flyers, it turns out, are no longer cool."

The role that AI will play in the workplace and whether people will be replaced by technology continues to be debated. Moshe Vardi is the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University, where he is leading an Initiative on Technology, Culture, and Society. Vardi says the focus of work in the future will not just be on automation, but also on being resilient.

"Technology has been pushing jobs away for a long time" to create more economic efficiencies, Vardi says. "Now, we're realizing that efficiency is just part of the equation, and the other part is we have to be more resilient," in terms of our ability to rebound in a crisis. As the pandemic has shown, he says, "bad things happen, and we have to ready."

Brad Denny, a principal with Deloitte Consulting and a leader of the organization's U.S. Human Capital practice for Power, Utilities, and Renewables, says organizations need to look for ways to integrate AI into teams alongside humans to better produce transformative results. "By augmenting humans with technology and complementing the skills of each, organizations can create 'super teams',  or collaborative and integrated teams that use technology to reinvent their work and ultimately expand their capabilities," Denny says.

While the implementation of these super teams will look different depending on the company, organizations in Deloitte's 2020 Human Capital Trends report said they are using AI to improve consistency and the quality of work, Denny says.

"For example, several utility companies in the report are exploring the use of remote sensing, cloud, data analytics, and AI to transform how infrastructure is managed and data is collected,'' Denny says. "These technologies are much more efficient and accurate than manual inspection processes and help identify defects."

Another example of how work will change is the increased use of chatbots to help answer common questions with readily available responses, he says. Some sales organizations are also using this idea to improve customer accuracy, Denny says. "For example, HubSpot uses a chatbot to qualify leads before connecting potential customers with a human salesperson. These machine-qualified leads are 40%  more likely to be willing to talk to the salesperson."

Growth in the use of AI, the cloud, and other technologies that enable efficiencies will help remote work to thrive. Vardi says the work trend toward "remote-ification" will be significant, but many people will want to continue working in an office, he points out. However, "We will see much more openness to remote work than we've seen before,'' he says. "It will address issues like the cost of living in places like Silicon Valley,'' because if you're working remotely, theoretically, you can live anywhere.

This will also force tech companies to develop better collaboration tools, Vardi says. "We discovered remote and it's not going away. It will be a major presence in our work life.''

Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.

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