Not every employee can easily work remotely. Those able to shift work location tend to be those with more autonomy, who also work mainly on a computer. This largely overlaps with professional and managerial work categories, as well as a growing number of clerical and administration jobs.1 However the categories of roles that can be performed remotely is rapidly expanding, catalysed by necessity. Teachers around the world now deliver class lessons from their loungerooms; doctors and other medical professionals offer telehealth consultations. From fitness instructors to landscapers, hairdressers and Michelin-starred chefs, COVID-enforced social isolation is seeing professionals of all types pivot their traditional business models to adapt to new, more virtual working environments.
When the pandemic eases, many people – particularly those whose home environments are not well-suited to virtual working and those who have been juggling unexpected additional parenting duties – are expected to eagerly seek to return to ‘normal’ work. However a surprising number of others may prefer the ‘new normal’ and choose to continue working primarily from home. Experts are divided, but many predict that by the end of 2021, at least 30% of the office-based workforce may be working one or more days at home.2
Beyond the glitchy video call
As more people work remotely, demand for more sophisticated virtual workplaces will increase – having a potentially profound effect on the way we work both at home and in the office. Beyond the glitchy video call, organisations will seek ways to better connect their people, facilitate collaboration for teams and foster meaningful cultures to enhance a sense of belonging. New challenges arise too in areas such as risk management, cybersecurity and knowledge-sharing.
“As consumers, we’ve witnessed a remarkable revolution in digital innovation. But step into the workplace and not much has changed since the ‘90s,” says Edo Segal, Founder and CEO of TouchCast, a next-generation communications platform. “To build the enterprise of the future we need to transform the way we communicate and collaborate across teams, businesses, countries, and languages.”
Putting artificial intelligence to work
Miki Edelman is Head of Strategic Client Solutions, Cash Equities, at Macquarie Group. For the past few years she has been working on a project to better serve clients by solving workplace problems around data and communication. Miki believes that by harnessing artificial intelligence, we can create more effective virtual workplaces that will ultimately translate to competitive advantage.
“The true power of AI is about augmenting us, amplifying our potential, not replacing us,” says Edelman. “Combining powerful algorithms, breakthrough new approaches to artificial intelligence, and access to vast amounts of data makes it possible to build an organisational collective intelligence that isn’t limited to documents and databases, but includes all of our insights, ideas and conversations.”
She gives the example of a Hong Kong client team that is meeting virtually with a Shanghai-based client about climate change. Using a collective intelligence platform, the client team can instantly access the best experts from across their organisation, live, real-time and translated into the relevant language for the client, no matter where those experts are based.
“There is that trap that AI is just a form of automation that helps us reduce our costs,” says Segal. “But in a knowledge rich sector like finance, where ultimately it’s all about information, our people are our best asset and we can now use this technology to really complement and enhance their existing knowledge and talents.”
While workplaces that offer comprehensive access to knowledge and enhancement of natural skills will appeal to many, engaging a remote workforce is a multi-faceted challenge that can not yet be solved by technology alone. However in addition to greater access to data, focus is also now very much on improving user experience. In the years ahead, improved virtual interfaces will deliver mixed reality experiences that enable more life-like virtual work environments. For example, a virtual worker may be allocated a desk in a virtual office, so that asking a colleague a quick question involves a virtual stroll to the colleague’s desk – no mask required – for a virtual chat. Perhaps soon it may even be possible to lunch together in the virtual restaurant of the Michelin-starred chef.
“Every decade or so, a new disruptive innovation appears,” says Edelman. “Now thanks to artificial intelligence, and spurred by COVID-19, we have the opportunity to evolve the way we work and give people new powers to do their jobs, and businesses a new benchmark for value and competition.”