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AI and the agile workplace: what does the office of the future look like?

Fifty years ago, when speaking about the workplace of the future, people envisioned flying cars, silver space suits and teleportation to and from the office. Ironically, the one thing that never changed was their idea of the workplace, which is exactly what we’re seeing drastically transform today.

We’re facing the very realistic prospect that over half of UK employers will implement flexible working by the end of this year, and an even more innovative concept is being explored: the agile working environment. This article will explore what an agile workspace looks like, why it’s growing in popularity, and why artificial intelligence is helping to drive this idea forward.

What does an “agile” workspace look like?

If you were to ask anyone to describe agile working, they’d almost certainly come back to you with: “work is an activity, not a place”. These few words have come to symbolise everything about the concept of agile working, and in the same breath distinguish it from the common misconception that it’s the same as “flexible working”.

Put simply, flexible working should be looked on as a work pattern – the hours you work and the ability to spend some of them remotely if justified. This “flexi-time” is seen as a benefit given by an employer, whereas agile working means your employer opts for an entirely different structure. You’re able to work in whatever way best suits your productivity.

It’s about a company empowering its workforce and recognising that fewer constraints means stronger performance. In other words, instead of trying to make the modern, digital world fit into a pre-existing and outdated working day, it incorporates employees, their daily processes and objectives, technology and connectivity, to produce the best possible results.

So, what exactly does this environment look like? It will change from office to office – agile working is built to fit the organisation – but key features will usually include open-plan surroundings that promote a collaborative environment, with the technology and artificial intelligence readily available to support employees and improve their productivity. Creative workspaces will be available on premises, but the ability to establish a virtual presence in meeting is also provided. 

Why is “agile” becoming the new norm?

Clearly, not every job can be completed in an agile workspace, as some require a specific physical environment. However, as more and more jobs in the digital and technological fields emerge, we’re seeing a distinct shift into making all office and computer-based jobs employ this agile concept.

It isn’t difficult to see why it’s appealing either, as there are significant benefits for employers and employees alike. Where businesses are concerned, they experience:

  • Increased productivity, efficiency and performance from their workforce, with limited disruption from external circumstances such as weather, security and commuter problems
  • Reduced expenditure, with lower property and running costs
  • The ability to extend business hours, meaning more customers’ needs are met on any given day, and the ability to match their workforce to any seasonal fluctuations in demand for services
  • A more sustainable business, both in terms of their employee model and loyalty with a reduced turnover of staff, but also in terms of their decreased carbon footprint

However, the real benefits are to the employees of a company, who are more motivated, more engaged, more energetic and approach work with a renewed ambition to exceed business goals. On a personal level, they have reduced stress, more self-confidence from being empowered by their employer, as well as reduced travel time and associated costs, meaning those hours can be put into maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

How can AI be incorporated into an agile environment?

Artificial intelligence has slowly been transforming our lives, from Amazon’s latest Alexa device that controls lights, unlocks your car and orders groceries, to Netflix, which analyses billions of pieces of data to suggest films based on your previous choices. These systems are becoming more sophisticated by the year, so it’s only natural that they should invade our workspaces too.

One of the mail uses of AI currently is intelligent assistants; also known as “chatbots”, they’re computer algorithms designed to simulate a human conversation. Whether it’s advising a customer immediately when they land on your website, using it to recruit employees externally, answer HR questions internally, or personalise the learning process for those using online training platforms, AI has been adopted on a worldwide scale.

When looking at agile workforces, it’s helping to drive forward the adoption of this principle. In spaces where businesses no longer need physical premises anymore, virtual receptions and assistants are being used to create that same traditional client experience.

One of the main benefits to using AI is that it can strip away those simple yet labour-intensive jobs from employees, so that their time can be freed up to deal with larger company issues. For agile workers, this means having an intelligent assistant to synchronise diaries, schedule meetings, send reminders, take actions from discussions to be atomically forwarded and so on.

What about the office of the future?

While popular culture and TV shows may have convinced you that robots barely discernable from humans will in time replace us, in reality we know this is far from the case. When looking specifically at the workplace, artificial intelligence is something to be celebrated and embraced. The basic premise of AI is that machines have the ability to learn, reason, and understand in the way a human would, only with greater accuracy and efficiency. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine that one of the main contributions AI can make to a future workspace is in the field of training.

A simplistic form of this technology is currently being used to create consistent training experiences right now, regulating online platform and answering basic questions in chat functions. In future though, we can imagine a much more tailored experience, where complex questions from students can be answered with confidence by these machines, and entire programs can be delivered in a unique, agile environment. 

Another popular notion is that agile concepts and AI technology will be fully intertwined, where an increasing percentage of the population work in freelance, consultancy and temporary positions, moving from company to company. There’s no more “career” in the traditional sense, but instead we build a set of skills and move around companies, helping them to enhance and improve core business areas.

For now, we can only speculate about how it will be used – the way we consume information has changed so drastically just in the last decade, that it seems almost impossible to make predictions with confidence. One thing is for certain: “The pace of change has never been as fast as it is today, it will never be so slow again”. What an exciting time to embrace it.