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How the Coronavirus Could Accelerate Technology in the Workplace

Posted April 29, 2020

ESI Design’s Principal, Creative Layne Braunstein co-wrote this with our colleague at NBBJ Robert Mankin, sharing five technologies that will define the brave new office, from automation to kinetic infrastructure.

As the coronavirus lessens its grip in some areas, our offices will be one of the first places we go back to — and it will be an ever more critical space for us to socialize, ideate, connect and meet. For many companies, the workplace will no longer be a place for heads-down tasks that we can accomplish from home, but will instead serve as a “passthrough office,” one which prioritizes spaces for group work.

At the same time, the virus is also accelerating preexisting technological trends that will support this transformation, freeing us to reevaluate what matters in the office, such as deeper collaboration, meaningful personal connections and increased creativity. The office will evolve into a place of fulfillment rather than just a place of work, and “office culture,” for many individuals, will become their social outlet.

Here are a few ways the pandemic could accelerate technology in the office:

Kinetic Infrastructure

What is it? Hyper-flexible offices that shape-shift on command, to meet employee and team preferences — and evolve to address long-term business goals.

Why does it matter? As people return to the office, the great “work from home experiment” shows that many are productive in a variety of environments, and even shift how they work throughout the day, thus creating a need for more flexible office infrastructure. While current building apps can allow employees to find areas in their office with their preferred environment (temperature, lighting, etc.) the kinetic office concept takes the smart workplace even further: rather than employees adapting to the building, the building adapts to each employee’s needs and an organization’s business priorities.

What could it look like? Employees can easily and rapidly adjust workstations, expand or contract common areas and meeting rooms, remove or add interior walls and partitions, as well as use software to tailor the air temperature, ventilation, lighting and noise levels to create the perfect work environment. Moreover, flexible infrastructure will create a framework to accommodate current technology and integrate those not invented yet into the workplace in the future.

Smart Furniture: Nissan introduced a “self-parking” conference chair in 2016, which may provide a glimpse into how this could work on a furniture level in offices. Similar to the technology in self-parking vehicles, the chair’s position is detected by a series of sensors, which then help to guide it back to its “parked” position. As autonomous vehicles become more reliable and prevalent — and as 5G becomes more affordably integrated into buildings — this technology could be more broadly applied to furniture systems, and even room partitions, in an office. The potential is tremendous, from automating basic janitorial services to rapidly reconfiguring rooms for events or new uses.

Hyper-Customized Experience: Our offices may automatically flex and contract to the workforce more deliberately on an experiential level. Like our smartphones and homes, our workstations should express our personal preferences in real-time. We need to “own” our experiences. Every office element should adjust — not just the physical space — to reflect our moods: from music to lighting to interactive graphic presentation preferences.

Automation

What is it? Automation — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics that complete routine cognitive and physical tasks typically carried out by people in their work — may become more prevalent in the office.

The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate this trend, as ensuring both human safety and maintaining business function will become the main market drivers.

Why does it matter? Technology is a means of convenience, to offload the trivial or tedious, so we can focus more on what matters in the workplace. The office could become a place where jobs that prioritize high value tasks, such as critical thinking, creativity, and social skills, become even more essential. This could also open up opportunities for other types of employment. “A new category of knowledge-enabled jobs will become possible as machines embed intelligence and knowledge that less-skilled workers can access with a little training,” writes the McKinsey Global Institute on the future of tech and work.

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ESI Design

ESI Design, an NBBJ studio, transforms places into experiences that seamlessly weave the physical and digital worlds together.

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