As companies become disrupted by technology, so do workplaces.

This is arguably one of the biggest impacts that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have. Numerous studies have shown that an enabling working environment gets the creative juices flowing. This in turn increases productivity, which results in increased profitability.

What will the workspace of the future look like? A recent press release by Kethan Parbhoo, Chief Operations and Marketing Officer, Microsoft SA painted a very unique picture of what this world may look like.

Modern technological influencers

Parbhoo points out that modern technologies like cloud, Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and mixed reality are impacting every industry and every company in South Africa and across the globe.

Companies need to innovate to stay ahead of emerging trends, take advantage of new opportunities, and meet growing customer needs.

Yet, businesses across the Middle East and Africa are just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible with one of the lesser adopted technologies of the list: mixed reality.

“In a recent IDC report, the company forecast that the mixed reality market will increase from $11.4 billion in 2017 to a massive $215 billion in 2021, which translates to a growth rate of more than 100 percent. According to the IDC, the Middle East and Africa accounted for about eight percent of global shipments in the second quarter of 2017, a figure which is projected to grow into double digits over the next five years,” said Parbhoo.

Massive potential

He adds that mixed reality has the potential to help businesses reimagine their processes, offering solutions that enable new experiences for how they can engage their customers while making their people more productive.

“In simple terms, mixed reality is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualisations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time,” said Parbhoo.

Mixed reality for information workers

Information workers are employees who use information to assist in making decisions or taking actions, or who create information that informs decisions or actions.

Parbhoo points out that mixed reality enables collaboration and remote work, allowing these workers to interact more naturally with the digital world through interfaces that help them connect seamlessly with others.

“For example, although they may be spread across South Africa or even located remotely in other countries across the globe, these workers can meet in real-time or asynchronously, bring in 2D and 3D content for easy collaboration, and even change the people or the location of a meeting in a matter of seconds. Imagine a virtual, holographic, remote meeting that allows employees’ virtual avatars to view and interact with the same 3D models in real-time, with audio, video and annotative functionality, mimicking the same experience as a physical meeting,” said Parbhoo.

This unlocks the potential for information workers to be more productive, which in turn means quicker decision making and actions that benefit the business.

And first line workers?

Often when we think about how technology can be used in the workplace, we think only of the information workers. However, it’s estimated that firstline workers account for 80 percent of the workforce – totalling over two billion worldwide.

Parbhoo adds that firstline workers are the lifeblood of manufacturing, retail, healthcare, government and many other sectors. They are the first in line to engage with customers, represent a brand and see products and services in action. Without them, the ambitions of many businesses would not be realised.

“Microsoft recently introduced Dynamics 365 Remote Assist and Dynamics 365 Layout, to empower firstline workers to do their best work and ensure they are connected with the rest of the company so they receive the same information, share best practices and can thrive in the digital age. These employees need information in context to apply their knowledge and craft. Not only on a 2D screen, but information and data in context, at the right place, at the right time, so they can produce even greater impact for their organisations. For example, a field service worker who performs semi-skilled and manual labour associated with the construction, maintenance and repair of public works, often needs to call for expert help. With mixed reality, it’s possible to bring the expert to them virtually. The expert can see what the field service worker is seeing and annotate into their space to help them solve the problem and verify that it’s been done correctly,” said Parbhoo.

Additionally, construction workers can make use of the technology to overlay virtual wiring and pipes over their real-world positions, ensuring greater accuracy and avoiding costly mistakes.

And already we are seeing how global businesses are making use of this technology for their firstline workers.

“For example, Chevron is achieving impressive results with its global HoloLens deployment. Previously, an inspector had to fly from Houston to Singapore once a month to inspect equipment. Now, the organisation has real-time inspection using Dynamics 365 Remote Assist and can identify issues or provide approvals immediately. In addition, remote collaboration and assistance have helped Chevron operate more safely, and serve as a connection point between firstline workers and remote support,” said Parbhoo.

Optimising productivity and employee experience

It’s essential for all employees in various sectors to be trained on new products, processes and equipment so that they remain relevant within the business, and so the business remains relevant and efficient. However, this training can be expensive and time-consuming.

“Using mixed reality, it’s possible to deliver immersive training to each employee – tailored to their position, and available for them to do in their own time. Nowhere is the more apparent than at Mercedes-Benz, who rely heavily on Microsoft HoloLens to conduct faster, more engaging training sessions, they say. Their training centre is now equipped with more than 100 HoloLens units.This goes a long way towards productivity and employee experience. Also essential for generating a productive and happy workforce is effective space planning. Mixed reality enables businesses to view their office designs with digital objects. They can see them at scale, walk through them and iterate before they have to make costly decisions,” said Parbhoo.

Helping drive the modern workplace

Mixed reality experiences will help businesses and their employees complete crucial tasks faster, safer, more efficiently, and create new ways to connect to customers and partners. Coupled with technology solutions like HoloLens and Dynamics 365, as well as AI and machine learning, it enables truly transformative experiences for the modern workplace.

A lot of the innovations around the future of the modern workplace will hinge on the influence of AI. A recent article on shows that this influence will be significant.

The article points out that instead of believing the one-dimensional narrative that AI will take over the world of work, how about we prepare for a future wherein machines and humans work together?

The ‘singularity’ world-view, wherein machines reign supreme, will not become a reality. This is because “despite many advances in narrow domains, AI is extremely far from achieving human-level general intelligence.” Hence, instead of worrying about machines becoming more intelligent than humans, we need to find ways to work together efficiently. This will open up new domains of collaboration and actually make the information, knowledge, and intelligence more diverse than ever.

The article adds that AI will enable competent decision-making by backing human capabilities with well-structured and analyzed data. In other words, the need for human labor will not fade away and it might as well become more prominent for the importance of human-centric abilities will be higher than ever. AI will help humans enhance their abilities in two ways: by freeing up their time and doing repetitive tasks, and by fostering richer connections between teams and organizations and helping them collaborate effortlessly.  It should then come as no surprise that 93 percent of the leaders in the study are implementing, experimenting with, or thinking about AI. More so, 75 percent of the leaders surveyed in the study said that AI will create new roles in their business and 71 percent believed that re-skilling of workers will be needed in the next five years.

While it is reaffirming to think and believe that the future will be more agile, productive, and inclusive, the transition to the said future will be anything but easy. However, simply being conscious of the challenges of today and tomorrow is likely to make a big difference. Humans have proven to be rather flexible and adaptive throughout history.

The Opportunity for Individuals

The article points out that the ‘workforce’ is often regarded as a single homogenized unit that will not be able to compete with AI. However, the fact of the matter is that even two people in the exact same role might do things very differently, which means that the way AI will impact their day-to-day work could be drastically different. The study analyses and contextualizes these differences in jobs in the framework of AI.

The article adds that for CEOs, AI can provide insights on decision-making in order to remove bias and maintain objectivity, help in assembling diverse teams, and further innovation. Intelligent systems could accurately point out weaknesses in decision-making or use natural language processing to understand how teams feel about their leaders. AI can also aid HR leaders in engaging employees, predicting impending people crisis, tracking immeasurable cues and metrics, streamlining learning and making routine HR tasks self-serviced.

Similarly, project managers, office managers, and supply chain managers can benefit from AI by formalizing innovation and ideation, handling complex scheduling and rosters, building relationships and enhancing collaboration. Customer service representatives could handle customer tickets and queries much more effectively by learning about the severity of the issue, the mood of the customer, and could benefit with better coordination with the backend technicians. Similarly, computer programmers could use intelligent AI systems to track upcoming innovation, identify upcoming academic trends, and shortlist relevant training material and courses.

The article points out that entrepreneurs and store owners could optimize communications, business processes, and marketing promotions to increase efficiency and save resources. Truck drivers would benefit by getting assistance, optimizing their time and planning, and picking the best routes. Journalists stand to gain by using AI systems to cross-reference news and happenings with reliable sources, new developments, and ensure consistency of information; thereby focusing on reporting reliably and giving news more context. The way intelligent tools and systems will help individuals work better is becoming clearer by the day, but the environment in which both will operate together hasn’t been clarified yet, which sets the tone for the final section of the report.

**The present and the future ** article adds that 80% of the companies that were surveyed or studied during the making of the report are already using AI for research and development, management and human resources, customer service and production. Furthermore, at the very core, the human attitude towards AI is more positive than negative, as more people think that AI will bring about a positive change and create new jobs than those who think that AI will replace jobs and humans.

The article adds that a majority of leaders believe that while AI will replace existing job roles, it will also create new ones. Leaders of both small and large companies are convinced that AI will have a positive impact and are preparing accordingly. Unsurprisingly, leaders who value cognitive diversity also believe that AI’s impact will be positive. There is also a very clear recognition of the fact that significant changes need to be made to the present way of working. The leaders stated that they are providing tools of re-skilling, aligning systems and processes to adopt AI, changing their product and service offerings, teaching their employees to function alongside AI, and also updating ethics and code of conduct policies.

“This is an interesting development and something that we will monitor and keep an eye on in the future,” said GTconsult Co-Founder and CEO Bradley Geldenhuys.