Technology has been powerfully impacting the modern workplace since the late 19th Century, with innovations such as the typewriter and the telephone becoming common workplace tools that boosted employee productivity.
The early “business machines” (computers) of the 1950s, often made by IBM (International Business Machines) for banks and insurance companies, typically took up an entire floor, not to mention countless punch cards and programmers. By the 1980s, computers had become small enough to sit on a desktop and were widely adopted as workplace tools.
Today, we’re moving into a new phase as technology’s pace accelerates. Only a year ago, for example, generative artificial intelligence burst on the scene with ChatGPT 3. Numerous technology companies are now offering AI tools aimed at meeting the needs of businesses. This post will start from the beginning – explaining how today’s new technologies work and how businesses can deploy them to address multiple use cases/challenges of the modern workplace.
Tech 101: Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Automation
Ideas around artificial intelligence/AI became popular in the 1960s, often spurred in the public imagination by science fiction novels and movies about robots such as Hal from the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But sci-fi aside, the early development of AI was more of a fiction than a business reality. Not so today, as AI tools are proliferating and beginning to impact how work gets done.
What is AI?
Artificial intelligence, as the name suggests, is not the same as human intelligence. AI seeks to leverage computing machines and data sourced from human intelligence to help people make better decisions and predict future outcomes. Broadly speaking, intelligence can be defined as the ability to “sense” what’s happening within a given environment and “respond” in appropriate ways.
IBM’s website defines AI this way: “Artificial intelligence leverages computers and machines to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind.”
Amazon.com, for example, was an early pioneer of predictive models when the online retailer suggested “other titles” to book buyers. These predictive models use AI and historical data from other purchasers to fuel algorithms that make data-informed predictions about future purchases. Netflix leverages a similar prediction model for suggesting entertainment content.
Chatbots are another business example of artificial intelligence/AI, leveraging data sources (typically internal knowledge bases) input by companies to help interactively answer customer questions. You can think of chatbots as a more sophisticated version of a website’s FAQ page, one that learns from customer interactions and thus becomes more intelligent as it goes (i.e., it does a better job of “sensing and responding” to customer needs over time).
What is Machine Learning (ML)?
ML was a major advance in artificial intelligence. Instead of AI relying on static data sets and never learning anything else, machine learning is a technical process whereby the AI optimizes itself through iteration, becoming smarter as it collects more data and experiences.
In the last decade or so, ML has become more sophisticated as AI can now improve how it learns as well as what it learns (something called deep learning), seemingly mimicking the sophisticated neural networks of the human brain.
What is Automation?
Automation is a concept that applies directly to the workplace. It’s the practical application of intelligent technologies to perform work previously done by humans. It became popular in the 1970s when the first robots were installed in automotive plants in Europe and the U.S., doing narrow manual tasks such as screwing together or welding auto parts.
When it comes to understanding where automation can be applied, you can think of human tasks which are repeatable and subject to a linear process (such as welding or screwing in parts). These tasks can increasingly be done by automation and AI systems. The AI is “narrow,” meaning it might be deployed to do a single human task, such as recommendation engines or generating text for an email.
While automation may have started by impacting blue collar jobs in manufacturing, today AI-fueled automation can do repeatable, manual tasks that were typically done by white collar workers in an office. The intelligent workplace is here.
What is “The Intelligent Workplace”?
The intelligent workplace leverages all three of the more intelligent workspace technologies described above – AI, machine learning, and automation – to “sense and respond” to human needs in the workplace. More specifically, the intelligent workspace streamlines workflows, drives efficiency, and creates optimal office experiences through digital technology. At its most basic level, the intelligent workplace can address and anticipate human needs via intelligent workplace technology in order to:
- perform manual, monotonous tasks once done by people (eliminating much human drudgery),
- support improved (data-fueled) decision-making, and
- plan for future business needs based on a slew of valuable insights, including historical patterns and predictive models.
The intelligent (or smart) workplace takes repeatable, monotonous, and process-oriented tasks out of the hands of people and liberates those same people to perform higher-order, more human, and value-adding work such as collaboration, innovation, and creative problem-solving.
Tangible Benefits of a Smart Workplace
The intelligent workplace can offer countless practical benefits. Let’s look at some of the most practical.
At The Employee Level
Let’s look at a few examples of how an intelligent digital workplace can provide better employee experiences in today's work environment. If, for example, an IT employee has booked a desk next to her colleague Janet in accounting every Thursday for the last two months – because Janet and the IT employee have a Thursday working lunch to discuss financial issues related to the new digital transformation project – an “intelligent” desk booking software system could suggest the same desk booking reservation to both people every Thursday (as a default booking), confirm that both are coming in that same day via an alert, and even automatically suggest and/or send a lunch order for both based on individual preferences.
In a second example, if you always have a team meeting in conference room G every Wednesday morning, an intelligent room booking system could automatically make the reservation (as a default) and automatically send the meeting request to all attendees. If the meeting is catered with coffee and muffins, that catering order could also be made automatically.
As these simple examples show, the idea of a more intelligent workplace is to use data to help anticipate employee needs and address them automatically. The end result means people can focus more time and effort creating value by doing higher-level tasks, such as meeting with Janet on Thursday and with your team on Wednesday, and less time on repetitive, monotonous manual tasks that are better performed by AI, ML, and automation.
At The Leadership Level
Imagine automatically getting a report, generated each week, month, and quarter, customized for the key performance indicators that you’ve pre-determined as existing ones mattering most for your workplace strategy.
This regular workplace analytics report would give you full visibility and timely insight into how your workplace strategy is performing, say, on key indicators such as conference room utilization, and employee engagement, check-ins, and more.
An intelligent workplace would go even further, making suggestions for action based on the relevant data in the report. So not only can you see what’s happening based on the workplace data, you can have a list of “next steps” to consider for implementation. You could even automate the taking of some of these actions based on your past actions, creating default actions that you could override upon discussion among the leadership team.
In short, the intelligent workplace has a “sense and respond” mechanism that can be automated, so employees can focus on higher-level tasks and leaders can have the data analytics they need to make informed decisions and keep pace with the speed of workplace change.
Technology to Enable a More Intelligent Workplace
What does it take to build an intelligent workplace? At its simplest, it requires an organizational investment in workplace technologies such as desk and room booking software as well as workplace analytics that leverage your workplace data and AI-fueled automation to anticipate and respond to people’s workplace needs.
What specific technology tools do you need to enable an intelligent workplace? Before we dig in further, it’s essential to keep in mind that the intelligent workplace and the tech tools, mobile devices, and systems that create it must be integrated – all the tools need to play well with one another. Here are some of the most popular tools:
1. Automation and AI-Powered Tools
An intelligent workplace uses AI-powered software to automate manual processes and time-consuming, repetitive tasks to improve productivity and save employees time.
For instance, employees could be provided with AI-driven booking software as we’ve described previously to automate booking processes or with digital virtual assistants, that perform basic tasks like sending meeting reminders, booking travel arrangements, ordering lunch, and sending alerts for overdue (or nearly-due) tasks.
These tools empower people to stay productive throughout their work day at the office.
2. Wayfinding Tools
If you’re managing a large, spread-out office or multiple offices in different locations, it can be challenging and frustrating for new hires and visitors to find their way around your facilities.
Wayfinding technology, including digital signage, helps employees and visitors alike find their way through the facility, enhancing the in-office experience of both.
3. Space Booking Software
With space booking software, hybrid employees can decide to come into the office for work, see in real-time which physical spaces, desks and rooms are available, and book space in advance. Employees won’t have to scramble to find a spot or fight with other employees over scarce space.
4. Virtual Conference Software
Virtual conference software such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams enable employees to easily set up online meetings and video conferences. They simply need to check their coworkers’ calendars, view their availability, and send meeting invites accordingly.
Of course, providing these collaboration tools isn’t enough. People must adopt them. Organizations need clear and consistent communication about the benefits of these tech tools as well as help for people in learning how to use and deploy these tools to gain benefits.
An all-of-the-above approach to user adoption makes the most sense, meaning organizations should:
- Offer classes/coaching in how to use the tools,
- Empower and encourage managers to promote employee adoption of the tools,
- Incentivize and reward those who use the tools and help others use them, and
- Have leaders use and consistently advocate for the use of the tools by others.
How Does an Intelligent Workplace Impact Employee Productivity?
An intelligent workplace might be the best support you can provide for boosting people's productivity , enhancing employee engagement, and supporting better workplace experiences.
Once implemented, smart workplaces can free up significant amounts of time people previously had to spend on repetitive manual tasks, allowing them to focus on higher-order work such as creative problem-solving, driving innovation and improving collaboration.
In short, when the routine daily tasks of the office and work environment are managed via workplace intelligence, people can optimize their days and leaders have the timely, accurate data (and data analytics) they need to boost productivity and better plan for the future of flexible working.
Using Intelligent Technology for a Smart Hybrid Working Model
Want to begin the journey of developing an intelligent workplace that drives operational efficiency and helps your people optimize their work days in the office? At Robin, we build technology tools and systems, such as space booking software and workplace analytics, to help you do exactly that. Reach out to us for help!