AI, big data and bots! Oh my! You don’t need to be a troglodyte or tech-wary prognosticator to fear the future of work. Everywhere we look, the same trend is making headlines: less human, more artificial.
But is the future of work really inhuman? To answer that question, it is vital to understand the rise of tech at both the popular and professional level. While it’s certainly given us the ability to defy distance, only recent innovations have cracked the code, allowing us to truly relate. Many lament the perceived shallowness of this tide, but communication and collaboration are primitive desires.
We are, after all, tribal creatures who rally around shared purposes and common goals. Dangers exist, but the good news is technology is finally catching up with human nature.
Against naysayers, here are two trends shaping the future of work that promise to make us more human—not less.
The future of text
Any parent well understands how text messaging has radically reshaped communication. You call; they don’t answer. But text, and the reply comes back in seconds. Why? Because there’s a natural convenience to texting that phone calls and voicemail don’t provide.
Asynchronous communication—the ability to interact without being present in time—first seeped its way into work via email, but it now exists primarily in the form of burst communication. Take Slack, for example. Slack—and similar tools like Google Talk, Whatsapp, Jabber, HipChat and Teams—leverage the benefits of textual experiences to create virtual workspaces akin to both the watercooler and the team-meeting room.
By making text communication both instantaneous and archivable, few phrases are becoming as obsolete as “I left you a voicemail” or “I sent it in email.” Gartner predicts that by 2020, 50 percent of all team coordination and communication will take place on exactly these types of apps.
Not only will text dominate as the default medium of quick communication, but the future of work will belong to those who integrate content into text that goes beyond mere file sharing. We have already experienced this with the integration of multimedia on the consumer side. For enterprises, this will include “works in progress” along those same media-driven lines with extensions into interactive whiteboards and live co-creation of digital collateral.
Text excels as a gateway: the first line of communication. However, only when it’s combined with richer, though still asynchronous, elements does it mirror the kind of purpose-driven communication that fosters our humanity instead of negating it.
The future of video
When I was young—which is a dangerous thing to say in a piece about the future—photographs were a formal affair that many people shied away from. Today, we are perpetually “camera ready.” Why? Because the smartphone changed everything.
The camera is now pervasive, and it’s not just still images we’re comfortable with, but moving pictures as well. The more candid, the better. Similar to the development of text, FaceTime, Snapchat and Facebook Live now mean people skip right over voice and go straight to video.
It’s no surprise, then, that video has significantly impacted today’s workplace. Skype didn’t “invent” a new concept; rather, they carried over face-to-face communication from the real world into the workplace.
Before I worked at Polycom, I might have attended one video conference a week. But now my life revolves around them. I’m far from alone. A recent study revealed that a mere 29 percent of executives disagreed with the claim that video will be the “de facto” form of communication within their organization in the next five years. People are comfortable with video, recognize its benefits and in many cases demand access.
The hurdles to video will come from two sources. First, the assimilation of content. Video collaboration must do more than allow you to see, talk and share a screen. When people are together in a room, they share, contrast, annotate and cocreate content. Working across distance should be no different.
Tech needs to get out of the way and demand zero “geek” skills. Between the technology in the room and access to the cloud, users should not be required to “log into” multiple platforms. Instead, we need to foster connections through invitations native to the text programs mentioned above.
Rather than a barrier, technology must be an enabler.
Second, bandwidth. Organizations that don’t anticipate the mounting demands of access, prioritize compression and processing, and plant their flag on issues of net neutrality will be left behind—or find themselves left out. The increased need for bandwidth stems from both the richness of the media as well as the megatrend of moving into the network or cloud. Again, all this is about more human interaction and instantaneous connection to everything, anywhere, all the time.
Fortunately, technology is helping there, as well as with a continued ability drive more and more bits through the same glass fiber, wireless, spectrum or copper wire. While not the most exciting area, leaders must constantly assess their bandwidth needs and the many ways to address them.
Is the future of work “artificial”?
Naturally, the future of work will be driven by technology, but technology—at home and at work—is and always will be bound by the desires, wants, passions and needs of human beings.
Technology can do nothing apart from human approval. It’s what Intel CEO Paul Otellini dubbed years ago the “consumerization of IT.” After all, technology is made by us, for us.
As Jeanne C. Meister put it in The Future Workplace Experience: “Workers of all generations and cultures will increasingly come to expect a workplace that mirrors their personal lives, one that is transparent, connected, personalized, and offers choices.”
The truth is we can’t become less human. But technology can and will become more human within organizations whose eyes are open to the pitfalls and opportunities.