Why intelligent workplaces are the future of working

by Ed Phillips

20 January 2021

Three people working on laptops with masks

Topics in this article

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COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the way we live, play and work. Most, if not all, organizations have had to respond to a large percentage of employees working remotely. As we’ve taken tentative steps towards a post-COVID world, it’s clear that organizations who have invested in technology to support flexible working and intelligent workplaces have more productive and engaged employees  driving better business results.

I recently sat down with leading industry experts, and clients who managed workplaces through the crisis, to discuss what the future blended workplace might look like and how technology will play an increasing role in this, from greater, more intuitive user experiences to compliance and social distancing. I was joined in this by Vanessa Sulikowski, Distinguished Systems Engineer at Cisco, Michael Caltabiano, Australian Road Research Board Chief Executive Officer and Lee Hodge, Sparke Helmore Lawyers IT Director.

An overnight shift to a new way of working

The overnight transformation has highlighted how businesses had already started shifting the way their employees work, even before the pandemic. Some organizations were just starting with remote working, while others were already on their way to a more flexible model, promoting employee engagement and productivity. The Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) had begun the journey several years prior to the pandemic, as Caltabiano notes. They wanted to ‘set the performance criteria that all staff should be able to work anywhere in the world and be completely connected to our business.’ As part of this journey, ARRB undertook a fundamental refit of their offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth with one common theme  technology and connectivity.

Conference call with kids on lap

The needs of individual employees need to be catered for in the new blended working environment

Hodge agrees that Sparke Helmore Lawyers underwent a similar process, spending the last four years transforming their technology landscape and upgrading almost every aspect of their environment. Central to this was the need to understand the different needs of individual employees  from parents who needed to home-school children, to those living in shared houses needing to be mindful of their housemates, and veteran employees who’d never worked outside of an office.

The blended workplace of today

The blended workplace is more integral than ever. Even before the pandemic, many organizations were promoting flexible working arrangements with a number of key workplaces emerging, including homes, offices and ‘working on the go’ as Sulikowski put it. As we continue to see new and changing demands on the workplace, intelligence and automation will be key, according to Sulikowski, and will build on the work already done around flexible workplaces.

With almost every organization having to adhere to social distancing guidelines and space restrictions, splitting teams into ‘a’ and ‘b’ teams is critical. With a blended workplace teams split between office and homes, the role of technology becomes even more crucial in enabling teams to remain connected and drive productivity.

Today’s technology for tomorrow’s workplace

As we continue to work in different ways and with teams split across multiple locations, the value of technology can’t be understated. For this reason, intelligent workplaces will be the next evolution of workplace transformation, something that has been a key focus for Cisco as they continue to create secure virtual work experiences and enhance the architectures that support secure and resilient remote working.

AI: Artificial intelligence has been a key technology over the last few years, with Cisco building and acquiring in areas like machine learning and natural language understanding. However, the current climate and new distributed working reality means these innovations are being applied to become relevant in new and different ways, such as cognitive interfaces and interactions.

Web assistants: Cisco Intelligent Proximity and Cisco Webex Assistant are two key examples. Intelligent proximity recognizes when someone enters a room, instantly pairing the person’s device to the Webex endpoint reducing the need to touch common surfaces. The Webex Assistant can provide voice-activated interactions using conversational AI so users can control not only the meeting, but also the room environment itself.

BYOD: ARRB has similar technology in place in its Melbourne office, with all activities operated via employees’ mobile phones  from security access to finding meeting rooms and seamlessly connecting within these meeting rooms. The next step for them, and for many businesses, is to continue operating and thriving in a remote environment. According to Caltabiano, the answer is high quality technology that understands humans as people and has an intelligent view of future infrastructure needs.

Remote reservation: Remote reservation technology has applications both in the current climate and beyond. During COVID, technologies like the intelligent reservation model from Cisco are being used to manage room reservations, extension of time and notifications  meaning that when a meeting finishes, the room can alert cleaning staff to sanitize common areas. In the long term, it could automatically release a reserved room if no-one is in there and can be integrated with location analytics to understand where employees are and what collaborative spaces are available near them.

Speech: Most organizations have only started their AI journeys in the past few years and there’s still a number of new opportunities being explored. The quickest and most natural interaction for the vast majority of people is speech, and AI technologies can be enabled to look at both audio and visual cues to understand the intent and context of the situation and respond accordingly. This can be taken further to implement speaker identification to recognize individual speakers so that the technology recognizes who is speaking and can assign specific actions to them.

Innovate and invest for tomorrow, not just for today

Productivity is such an important part of our working lives and many organizations have realized that workplace technologies and practices can remove geographical boundaries to drive innovation and maintain key market differentiators. As we look at developing these future technologies, organizations need to understand what is important to the business as a whole as well as to individual employees in order to support personal and business productivity.

Organizations who were ahead of the curve when it came to implementing technology to support flexible working and blended workplaces were better prepared when the world was thrown into remote working. This only serves to highlight the importance of investing in technology for the future, not just for today. There is no way of predicting what will happen next, but intelligent workplaces and new technologies are a key part of enabling productivity, efficiency and attracting and retaining talent.

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Ed Phillips

Ed Phillips

General Manager of Intelligent Workplace