The Future of Work
By Stephanie Delgado
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new digital workplace. The future of work as we know it is being discussed, re-imagined, tested and created across all industries. In this series, leading industry professionals, entrepreneurs and academics have compiled a few of their thoughts and strategies on building a successful path forward.
Stephanie Delgado is a globetrotting economist who leverages innovation for the benefit of small businesses and the public sector. Here, she discusses how the future of work could be almost entirely digital and may even include mixed reality technology for certain industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations around the world to re-imagine what is physically necessary to perform work. There has been a dramatic shift in the value placed on customer and employee safety. This is creating enormous demand for enterprises that can offer contactless, or reduced contact, working environments that still remain engaging and productive for their workers. Companies that produce or enable augmented reality and mixed reality experiences are in a position to not only succeed but thrive in this new workplace.
Many people are already familiar with augmented reality whether it’s through Instagram filters, playing Pokemon Go or even browsing furniture websites such as Wayfair that virtually let you view furniture in your home before you purchase. Online retailers, entertainment, social media and any companies that create content or provide real life context for conceptual questions, such as will this chair look good in this room, have found that working with AR can provide buyers with valuable and interactive information. This information aids in decision making without in-person contact.
However, augmented reality will have little to no utility in industries that require at least part of the physical world to be involved in the transaction. Retail, hospitality, food and beverage, live entertainment and so on were the industries most disrupted by the pandemic. The employees in these industries need to simultaneously communicate and access information virtually while also safely interacting in the same physical space with colleagues and customers.
This is an example of where mixed reality could offer immediate assistance to ensure the survival of these industries in our new socially distanced reality. Unlike augmented reality, mixed reality involves technology solutions such as headsets or glasses like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 or Google Glass. These technology solutions could allow workers to add virtual components to their physical labor so they can maintain safe distances from costumers and colleagues.
Mixed reality may sound like technology from the future, but it already exists in our everyday life and is even used in multiple industries. If you can see it on a phone screen and swipe it, you can see it in the air in front of you and interact with it. Until now, manufacturing and medicine have been at the forefront of mixed reality’s practical application. Due to productivity and safety measures, these industries have a substantial need for interaction with the physical world while the employee’s hands are already occupied.
Companies such as Airbus and Ford use mixed reality throughout their production process from conceptual design, to testing and even the onboarding of manufacturing workers. Airbus is currently partnering with Microsoft in order to use Microsoft HoloLens 2 devices to train and assist aerospace production workers by providing them with virtual information and instructions. These headsets now take the place of binders and manuals as well as ensure that workers can obtain information while their hands are occupied.
Mixed reality is also growing exponentially in the cargo transporting industry. Industry leaders such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are using Microsoft HoloLens devices to train employees tasked with packing freight crates which reduces staff turnover rate and improves efficiency.
The industries with the highest risk for COVID-19 transmission, or those that are experiencing surges in demand, will be the next wave of mixed reality adopters. Pre-pandemic mixed reality seemed like an unnecessary expense for these industries. However, these devices and their programming may now be the best available option.
Mixed reality can assist education, security, retail and other industries in our current digital world. Imagine students being able to perform physics experiments from their homes, the way NASA does with rockets. Driving schools could provide headsets to both the student and driving instructor so the student can be in the car physically alone. The US military is also expanding mixed reality usage to assist with mapping capabilities.
Outside of the pandemic, mixed reality can allow companies to expand their market to remote or rural areas. Using mixed reality, companies could send a device with digital instructions. The customer could also call a remote expert instead of the company sending an expert to the physical location. Thus, a farmer could fix their commercial farm equipment themselves with the help of their hands-free mixed reality headset and an experienced mechanic supervising from afar.
These devices perceive, record and integrate with other data allowing organizations to quickly act on new information. Managers can see where workers encounter stumbling blocks and instantly provide needed information which significantly reduces adjustment cycle time.
The nature of work may look a little different than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic but it’s actually more of an enhancement than a complete change. Mixed reality devices are useful tools that keep workers safe and make their tasks easier to perform. The new reality of work may be augmented but it’s still all about how organizations and the workers themselves utilize these new instruments.
The success of a company will revolve around corporate culture, the transparency and honesty about the strengths and weaknesses of human resource practices and the way these new systems and technologies are utilized by employees.
If a company isn’t digital yet, it’s already behind. However, it’s very clear today that even companies that have made all the right investments in these new digital systems, must consistently and collaboratively analyze their usage as well as troubleshoot the procedures they’ve put in place. If a system didn’t work as expected or wasn’t effective pre-pandemic, its failure will be inevitable in our socially distanced digital world.
The future of productive work requires that companies listen to and trust their employees when they offer negative feedback on existing systems. Whether it is complaints about digital platforms being too complicated, that they double the workload or that they delay project completion, it’s important that companies are open to improvement and empower their workers to assist in these improvements.
Reiterating the benefits of costly systems can go a long way to building buy in from users throughout the company. Systems without users are a failure of leadership, one that will become increasingly detrimental as work becomes more complicated. Thus, successfully managing the employees who use these new digital platforms is as important as maintaining the digital platforms themselves.
Most people have worked with someone who refuses to use new digital platforms or is actively working against them. Maybe it’s the administrator who has been there for 20 years and, “has always done it my way” or it’s a vice president who, “isn’t into computers.” Day to day, the problems this creates aren’t visible so these individuals are allowed to do as they please. However, these actions become apparent the moment a department, that normally moves paperwork at a leisurely pace, suddenly finds themselves unable to keep up. Now, the company is behind because the “not into computers” vice-president has used a paper-based approval process that requires multiple people, all of whom are now working from home, to sign papers physically that could have easily been signed electronically. The same goes for the “always done it my way” administrator whose spiral-bound notebook records are inaccessible to the rest of the team.
These scenarios happen because nobody wants to incur the cost of placing large-scale changes on employees, especially those who are unwilling to adapt but are invaluable and experienced. This is a liability that reduces trust between team members and prevents the decision makers from knowing what to expect from their team. It’s the equivalent of Lucy, Charlie Brown’s teammate, pulling away the football when she’s supposed to be assisting his kick.
Systems that a company purchases that are not used company-wide are a waste of time as well as money. Doing double entry from paper to digital is not only wasted time but also allows opportunities for error. Looking ahead, key personnel should not be given special exemptions when converting to new digital platforms because both digital platform and employee shortcomings can have irreversible impacts on the company.
Performing ongoing evaluations of employees and new digital platforms can be uncomfortable. However, change is never comfortable. For a company to be successful in our new digital world, its crisis response and disaster recovery plans cannot be centered around systems that are not being effectively utilized.
As a leader, being vulnerable and honest about company shortcomings is difficult and goes against traditional leadership training. However, today’s teams aren’t looking for leaders on high. They are looking for leaders that know where they want the business to go and can clearly articulate that path. This leader is able to convince their team that the COVID-19 digital work age path is correct and empower them to get there together.