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The future of remote work is a hotly debated topic, with employees pulling for more time away from the office and many employers preferring to keep workers where they can see them. In the end, we will most likely settle on a hybrid work environment that blends various degrees of work-from-home (WFH) and in-office activity.
As vital as it proved to be during the pandemic, however, WFH was not without its drawbacks. Poor connectivity, potential security issues, and convoluted workflows plagued many businesses as they tried to keep afloat during the lock-downs. So if this model is to flourish in the post-pandemic world, new technologies will have to step up to satisfy the needs of workers and bosses alike.
AI drives smart support
Artificial intelligence has the capacity to vastly improve work-from-home environments, bringing much-needed support to communications, collaboration, workflow management, and even security. But getting there will not be as simple as loading new software and letting it go to work. Enterprises across the board will have to carefully consider the ways in which AI should support the workforce of the future and the level to which it can influence workflows and business models.
The best way to begin is to establish a strong AI foundation, says Alex Smith, global AI product lead for knowledge work platform iManage. Since AI thrives on data, a central repository for all enterprise data is essential, and this can only be done in the cloud. In a world where access to data must be maintained for workers at home, in the office and anywhere in between, only the cloud has the capacity to deliver such broad connectivity. At the same time, the cloud makes it easier to search and share documents, email and other files, plus it provides advanced security, zero-touch architectures, threat analysis and other means to ensure access to data is managed properly – all of which can be augmented by AI as the data ecosystem scales in both size and complexity.
Once this foundation is established, organizations can strategically implement AI across a range of processes to help ensure the work gets done, no matter where the employee is sitting. Knowledge management, for one, benefits tremendously from AI to help identify those with the needed experience and skillsets to accomplish a particular project.
In a way, AI’s capability to support hybrid work environments upends one of the biggest fears surrounding the technology. Not only will it not take away your job, it provides the means to work where and how you want. In Cisco’s inaugural Global Hybrid Work Index, AI features prominently as one of the key drivers of work in the future. From July to September 2021 alone, the enterprise saw a 200 percent jump in the use of AI for key aspects of remote meeting engagement. These included noise reduction, automatic translation and transcription, polling, gesture recognition and other tools needed to maintain conversational workflows both in-person and in virtual settings.
A time of need
One thing the pandemic did accomplish for the hybrid work environment is to demonstrate that necessity does, in fact, breed innovation. All of the leading work and collaboration platforms jump-started AI development in response to the rapid rise of remote work. Webex’ Chris Rowen recently highlighted the myriad ways AI was used to improve the platform’s performance and incorporate new features. Audio intelligence, for one, helps ensure that only relevant speech is getting through, not barking dogs or sirens, regardless of how far the speaker is to the microphone. Real-time translation and closed-captioning has also been added to Webex Assistant, giving users the ability to converse in more than 100 languages.
As hybrid work becomes normalized in the digital workplace, we can expect AI to provide more than just a supporting role but to become an active participant. Platforms like Moveworks are forging ahead with conversational AI, which gives chatbots the ability to mimic human speech. As CEO Bhavin Shah explained at VentureBeat’s recent Future of Work Summit, conversational AI is driven by three key transitions in the enterprise: SaaS integration, enterprise messaging and advancements in natural language understanding (NLU). While the technology is by no means perfect, Shah says emerging techniques like advanced spell correction and statistical grammar models will allow chatbots to become more adept at reacting to conversation rather than predetermining it.
To be sure, some enterprises holdouts will resist the transition to hybrid work, largely on fears that employees who aren’t monitored will lack the incentive to give it their all. But while employees’ time at their home workstations may be difficult to monitor, their productivity is not. And with AI at the ready to analyze performance throughout the enterprise at a granular level, most organizations will likely find that work flexibility will be a boon, not a bust, to the business model.