Live and kicking: five lessons from London for 2022

From the artificial intelligence fallacy to the art of delight, the flagship WORKTECH London conference brought five key learnings for the post-pandemic workplace to the table for 2022

After two years away from the live stage, WORKTECH’s flagship London conference made its grand reappearance at one of the city’s newest and most innovative mixed-use developments, Republic. More than 250 delegates flocked to East India Dock to meet and share the latest thinking on the future of work on 15-16 November 2021.

More than 50 speakers shared their experiences and challenges during

the pandemic over two full days of programming. On the whole, the speakers projected an optimistic message for the future of the workplace, one that emphasises connection to people and the role of human-centric design and technology. Here are five of the key learnings from the conference:

1: Creating delight at work

During this critical period of transformation for every organisation, organisations are now asking the question: how can we nourish the workplace and create spaces whe

re everyone can thrive? Dhanishtha Patel, workplace consultant at CBRE, explained that we need to re-evaluate the purpose of the office and build meaningful interactions and learning.

Patel shared insights from her research which found that people are voting with their feet – if employees don’t feel valued, they will leave. Organisations in the UK and the US are already feeling the affects of this through ‘The Great Resignation’. Patel’s research found that 40 per cent of employees don’t feel valued at their organisation, 20 per cent feel like they lack flexibility and a further 20 per cent feel they are discriminated by their age, colour or disability.

We have reached a point where organisations can no longer pay lip service to diversity and inclusion –  in 2022 employees will actively seek out companies that value their employees.

‘Sir John Sorrell highlighted the missing ingredient of workplace design – delight’

In tandem with creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, Sir John Sorrell, founder of the London Design Festival, highlighted the missing ingredient of workplace design – delight. Sorrell explained that workplaces often consider form and function but rarely associate this with delight. ‘We spend most of our lives at work – why shouldn’t we enjoy it?’, Sorrell told the audience.

Sorrell observed that happy people at work are ‘incredibly more productive’, therefore we should create spaces that have a real identity and ‘make it easy for people to buy into the idea of the office that you’re offering them’. Should we expect to see more ‘delightful’ offices in 2022? Sorrell believes we should.

2: The Artificial Intelligence fallacy

Daniel Susskind, fellow in economics at Oxford University and author of A World Without Work, offered a refreshing perspective for how AI might integrate with white-collar working in the future. He addressed the AI fallacy, which is based on the assumption that the only way to develop automated systems to perform at the level of humans is to mirror human logic and thinking. Although machines often come to similar conclusions and outputs, they perform tasks in a fundamentally unhuman way. The lesson from Susskind was that we cannot build AI systems to replicate human capabilities.

That is not to say there is not a place for AI in the workplace. AI is often dismissed as not capable of expressing three fundamentally human capabilities: judgement, creativity and empathy. However, Susskind explains that while machines can’t mimic the human thought process that sits behind these traits, it can deliver a similar outcome.

Humans need to exercise judgement when a situation is unclear or uncertain. Machines can deal with uncertainty better than humans because they can hold far more data and make sense of it at far greater scale than humans.

‘Machines can reach the same outcome using an entirely unhuman process…’

Creativity is used to produce original thoughts and create spontaneity designed to surprise people. In this instance, Susskind referred to the incredibly complex game ‘Go’ in which a machine developed by DeepMind beat the world’s best professional player by making a move that had never been done before, taking a global audience by surprise. There is now a whole realm of activity we previously thought only humans could do, but we are increasingly learning that machines can reach the same outcome using an entirely unhuman process.

Susskind referenced a McKinsey study which found that only five per cent of jobs can be fully automated. More than 60 per cent of the jobs surveyed involved specific individual tasks, of which 30 per cent or more of those tasks could be automated. The majority of those tasks are routine. The lesson for 2022 and beyond is that there is room to invite AI into the workplace. Instead of training employees to compete against it, we should be training people to build systems and machines.

3: Tension between data and judgement

Attendees at the London event agreed that the workplace needs to be re-evaluated to understand its purpose and that one of the key ways to do this is by analysing the data – but how far should we lean on data to inform design decisions?

Abigail Gilbert, head of research for the Institute for the Future of Work, argued that data should be human-centred. Her Institute’s research found that workplace data makes predictions about human performance but 64 per cent of workplace professionals were not sure how the data came to this conclusion. The data doesn’t identify all the tasks undertaken within a single day, therefore it cannot calculate a true reflection of production. Gilbert explained that decision-makers should exercise judgement alongside the available algorithm-led data to understand people’s performance.

On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Needham of Cisco explained how his company is strictly following the data to reimagine its workplaces. Referring to Cisco’s building in New York, Needham described how Cisco is creating an office that is primarily for collaboration and socialising – provisions for individual working will be significantly scaled back. When questioned on the rationale, Needham explained that Cisco has been closely monitoring the data and it all points to an office where people want to come in to socialise and collaborate with their colleagues. This raises the debate: to what extent should we balance data analytics with human judgement?

4: Be generous with experience

Tim Greenhalgh, Chief Creative Officer of Landor & Fitch, compared the workplace experience with the retail experience and posed the question: ‘To what extent is your workplace a flagship experience?’ Greenhalgh argued that ‘flagship’ is the ultimate experience and it should be applied to the workplace.

As the boundaries between our professional and personal lives continue to blur, employees expect the same experiences and delights from their working life that they get from their personal life. Greenhalgh explained that the labour force is longing to be inspired as employee expectations change, and suggested that there should be a new spirit of consumer experience which is all about generosity.

Generosity is a new essential for workplace experience. Organisations should co-design the workplace experience with employees to create services and amenities which make them feel valued in the workplace.

5: Maintaining culture in a hybrid world

‘Assessing and developing culture is like doing a treasure hunt without a map.’ This was the response from Ali Khan of employee performance survey firm Shape Global when asked how to build and maintain culture in a hybrid world of work. Khan strongly believes that culture is something that is plugged from the top of an organisation and amplified through management and leadership – this why different departments have different experiences of one company culture.

‘Assessing and developing culture is like doing a treasure hunt without a map…’

Khan spoke on a panel with Poonam Bharj of Condeco, Sophie Bollier of the British Council and Brian Marchal of Willis Towers Watson – the panel debated what culture actually means and how organisations can maintain culture and values when not everyone is present in the office. One of the ways is by communicating and connecting through technology. But Bharj warns that ‘everyone is looking at technology right now and we all need to ensure we understand our “why”. Technology must be of quality, be accessible and be communicated properly’.

The key learning from this panel is that culture sits at the heart of every organisation, and we need to find a human-centred way to spread one unified culture throughout a large and geographically dispersed company.

WORKTECH21 London took place at Republic London on 15-16 November 2021. View the full program of speakers here.
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