- As we move into 2021, increasingly the digital and physical worlds will collide to augment workplaces.
- AI will infiltrate existing workplace tech — including Zoom — but data privacy is a disaster waiting to happen.
- Allwork.Space’s tech writer Gemma Church sums up her 4 biggest predictions, and warnings, for proptech.
2020 was a year like no other, for many reasons. In the world of technology, we saw digital adoption rates skyrocket as the world went into lockdown.
But what will the year ahead hold?
1. Sensors sales will soar as the tech matures…
As mass digitisation reached every industry in 2020, workplace sensors have started to emerge as a growing trend in the last couple of months. These sensors can monitor occupancy levels and collect a host of additional data to help operators optimise their spaces and maintain physical distancing regulations.
Workplace sensors have also recently proved their worth in helping workspace managers monitor and improve hygiene, automatically notifying cleaning staff when a member leaves a desk and not marking that spot as available until it has been cleaned. This not only helps reduce transmission rates across spaces, but also provides members with reassurance on their cleanliness.
I predict these sensors will continue to be adopted in the months ahead, helping coworking managers maximise their occupancy rates and adapt to an increasingly hybrid world of work where people come and go in an increasingly erratic fashion. These sensors could start to collect a broader range of data and many may be integrated with environmental sensors and other monitoring tech to give managers a complete portfolio of information on their space.
But there’s one important difference to take into account when we compare workplace sensors and other monitoring tech. Workplace sensors rely on anonymised data. This is a huge advantage as data privacy becomes a growing concern in the year ahead.
2. … but data privacy issues will skyrocket
Monitoring technologies are now commonplace to track and trace everything from our location to whether we’re wearing a facemask or washing our hands correctly.
“The collection and use of such data to drive behaviors is called the Internet of Behavior (IoB),” according to a recent report from analyst house Gartner, and this will continue to “affect how organizations interact with people.”
While this all sounds plausible, we shouldn’t get too carried away about the IoB due to one looming threat: data privacy. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently voiced its concerns over the collection and use of all this information.
In a recent statement, the WHO said this phenomenon could have “significant effects beyond the initial crisis response phase, including, if such measures are applied for purposes not directly or specifically related to the COVID-19 response, potentially leading to the infringement of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
Microsoft doesn’t seem to have heeded this advice.
According to reports in the New York Post: “United States Patent and Trademark Office records indicate that Microsoft is staking claim over novel software that allows employers to monitor staffers’ body language and facial expressions during virtual and in-person meetings, and delivers a numeric “productivity score,” topping out at 800, for companies overall.”
In a company blog post, Microsoft denied that this so-called Productivity Score was invasive.
Either way, this is a trend that I don’t think we’ve seen the last of in the year ahead. As the pandemic continues to erode any boundaries between our private and professional lives, companies will want to know what you’re up to when you’re WFH. It’s an ethical minefield.
I predict increasingly strict legislation and standardisation of monitoring technologies will rear their heads in the coming months. And coworking managers must remain vigilant to dodge the potential fallout. In the next 12 months, this could all make GDPR compliance look like a walk in the park.
3. The digital and physical worlds will collide
Hybrid working is here to stay. But as the worlds of home and work continue to coexist, so will the digital and physical realms. As a result, our workplaces will adapt accordingly and become increasingly augmented.
Tech-wise, there are many different augmented options available to flexible workspace operators. Smart booking systems, for example, will allow members to not just book a room but also adjust the AV, order food and change the lighting levels to meet their exact specifications.
Maintenance and environmental alert systems can also help operators run safe and clean spaces. VR and AR training is also predicted to hit the big time in 2021. And I think we’ll see a lot more touchless technologies to make all of this happen and help members move around our spaces with ease (and minimal transmission risks).
I also don’t think we’ve seen the last of robot cleaners either – unlike thermal cameras (which are a false economy, in my opinion).
I predict AI could also take things up a gear, where machine learning algorithms could actively predict what a member wants from a space before they even have to ask. Imagine turning up to a coworking space to find your workspace is set up with everything you need, from your favourite hot beverage sitting on your desk to setting the perfect ambient temperature before your arrival.
While hyper-automated workplaces probably won’t be available in the next 12 months, humans must continue to sit at the centre of any future workplace experience – augmented or otherwise – now and in the years ahead.
Writing about how companies are striking the balance between office and remote working, real estate services company JLL recently said: “Work areas may need to be re-designed to provide the necessary tech infrastructure for staff working remotely and onsite. And workplaces themselves will increasingly be the social hubs where people interact and collaborate.”
Is it just me or does that last sentence sound awfully like the description of a flexible workspace?
4. Zoom will get an AI upgrade
2020 was the year Zoom and all its video calling friends hit the big time. But what will the next 12 months hold for online meetings?
Speaking at the Web Summit conference, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said he believed AI would bring a physical aspect to virtual meetings. “We believe that video conferencing tools like Zoom can deliver a better experience than face-to-face meetings in the future. I’ll be able to shake hands with you and, if we speak different languages, with AI we’ll be able to understand each other.”
It’s an interesting notion but I’m not exactly sure how this would work in practice. Many experts are predicting VR will finally hit the mainstream to make phenomena like virtual handshakes happen. I remain (ever) sceptical.
Personally, I’m hoping Yuan and his team are developing a workable version of Smell-O-Vision or a Star Wars-inspired holographic machine instead. That would certainly spice up my Zoom meetings a bit.
Or maybe I’m just getting a little nostalgic for a return to simpler times when phones were tied to our desks and humans walked free, untethered from our phones. I’d take a return to the 1980s any day compared to facing another year of never-ending Zoom calls.
Happy New Year everyone.