By: Marina Ruggieri, IEEE fellow and professor of telecommunications at University of Roma “Tor Vergata”
The pandemic has had a huge impact on countless individuals and organisations on a global scale. Indeed, it has positioned organisations and employees in an unprecedented situation, with no choice but to adapt and continue operating as best as possible.
When lockdown restrictions were initially implemented, nobody could have predicted what the outcome would be. Amongst many other changes, remote working increased drastically, with 46.6 percent1 of people in employment working from home in April last year. The digitisation of tasks, combined with social distancing measures, has resulted in society relying on technology more than ever before. The urgency to adapt last year has altered working habits rapidly and it is unlikely that the workplace will ever return to what it once was.
Is technology the saviour?
Before the pandemic hit, the competition between technologies was colossal, particularly with artificial intelligence-based robotics. Today, this has become the norm, as innovative technologies are introduced into a variety of industries, such as healthcare and engineering, on a daily basis. With this, the conventional workplace has been transformed into a spasmodic need for cooperation between humans and innovation, with technology becoming the biggest ally. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, is no longer focused on job replacement, but rather a tool for streamlining processes and increasing efficiency. According to recent research2, 89 percent of employees agree that AI could support them in up to half of their workload, and 61 percent believe that AI provides a more efficient and productive day.
Although the pandemic has played a key role in speeding up the digitisation process, the workplace has undergone many changes in recent years. The workplace is now a new concept which is increasingly shaped around humans, rather than the specific tasks an individual has to perform. It is now a combination of physical and virtual elements, which creates an integrated and seamless environment for daily tasks. The cooperation between humans and AI-based robots is a key-enabler for the new workplace concept, as this relationship can take advantage of wearable and implantable devices.
The physical portion
The physical portion is related to a specific place which, in some jobs, can be unavoidable. That being said, if the last year has taught anything, it is that there are an enormous number of jobs which have transportable physical elements and, among these, technology will continue to be essential. Human and robot cooperation enables employees to be technologically and psychologically supported during tasks, and because they do not need to be located in the same place, effectiveness and efficiency is enhanced.
Despite this, the lifting of restrictions throughout the UK means it is likely that the physical workplace will make a swift return for many organisations. Although returning to a physical working environment will be a joyous occasion for many, it may not be commonplace if employees are able to complete tasks from the comfort of their own homes. According to a survey3 carried out last year, 15 percent of people in the UK preferred working from home on a daily basis and almost one fifth of UK businesses claimed they were switching to remote work entirely. This suggests that there could be a complete restructure in some organisation’s infrastructure, and a new mindset when it comes to the physical whereabouts of employees.
The virtual domain, which refers to the availability of super-data storage, five-sense based interactions and augmented presence of co-workers has been one of the most impressive outcomes of the new workplace approach. Connectivity is the key enabler here, allowing the integration between fixed physical, transportable physical and virtual components in a distributed workspace concept. It is based on the availability of broad coverage, low latency, high speed, capacity, security, reliable and flexible connectivity infrastructures.
An example of this can be seen with cloud infrastrutures, which have provided invaluable support to organisations that needed to rapidly increase data processing and management capabilities. Whether it is a global organisation or a small enterprise, cloud services have streamlined business operations while providing essential computing resources, infrastructure and data-storage solutions. The last year has seen a significant increase in cloud-based investment as well as the adoption of cloud services and technologies. By 20244, it is predicted that enterprise cloud spending will make up 14 percent of IT revenue globally.
Although some organisations are not keen to embrace digital transformation, we can expect the new workplace approach to accelerate investments and the overall utilisation of technology. The new workplace will put humans at the core of each job by using innovation to shape the workplace around the worker, and create a working environment with enhanced flexibility, performance, and efficiency.