Technology’s role in the workplace is well-established, but the pandemic introduced unforeseen challenges that created new opportunities in this space. From ensuring workplace safety to supporting employee well-being and hybrid work arrangements, technology played a significant role in helping workers stay connected, safe, healthy, and productive during the pandemic.
Many of these technologies are likely to remain in use even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat, while in some case more innovative technologies will emerge to support changing business needs. Let’s look at four areas where workplace technology evolved over the past year and how it will continue to evolve in the post-pandemic workplace. I’ll also discuss key factors that organizations should consider if they want to be successful in their efforts to leverage new technologies and digital tools.
1. Supporting hybrid workplaces
We all witnessed the sudden surge in collaboration tools like Zoom during the pandemic, and these tools are undeniably here to stay. It’s estimated that by 2024, only 25% of meetings will take place in-person, compared to 60% today. Given this shift and the transition to a hybrid way of working, we’ll see the introduction of new technologies designed with remote workers (and remote meeting attendees) in mind.
For example, many employers will convert existing conference rooms to Zoom Rooms: cloud-based room systems with plug-and-play hardware. According to Nemertes Research, over 80% of enterprise organizations are either currently using or plan to adopt room systems by 2022—a 30% increase from before COVID-19. Some companies may also follow Google’s lead, and offer meeting room setups where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with large vertical displays for remote workers.
In the somewhat more distant future, technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) could become critical tools to ensure that the hybrid way of working is inclusive of remote workers. VR and AR have been talked about for years now, but absent a true necessity for these technologies, they haven’t become mainstream in the world of work. However, the widespread adoption of hybrid workstyles may change this after the pandemic.
In fact, these immersive technologies are an ideal way to connect remote workers with those who are in an office. And they aren’t only useful for meetings—they can also integrate with collaboration tools to create hybrid physical-digital spaces that employees can use to work together on a project. VR and AR could even help to create spontaneous digital–physical interactions. In a recent PwC article, Gensler’s Brian Stromquist explained: “You could potentially interact with a colleague’s avatar that you come across as you’re walking down a digital corridor or passing by ‘virtual dashboards’ that are positioned through the open [physical] office.”
2. Boosting employee well-being
Many employees shifted to remote work during the pandemic, and some will continue to work remotely (at least part of the time) within the hybrid model. However, the past year revealed that while remote work offers many benefits, it has also led to increasing rates of burnout and overwork. Now, companies are left contemplating how best to support remote worker well-being, absent a physical workspace and opportunities for in-person engagement.
Of course, there are already plenty of apps and wearables in this space. But more futuristic technologies are on the horizon. For example, Deloitte recently highlighted earbuds that can measure the brain’s electrical activity and analyze levels of stress and distraction, providing immediate feedback that can be used to improve employee well-being, performance, and safety. Depending on brain activity, these devices may suggest that workers take breaks when they’re tired, change the difficulty or format of a training module when an employee is unfocused, or switch an anxious employee to a less stressful task.
In the near-term future, virtual care is set to emerge as a key benefit that employers can offer to support employees’ health, no matter where they are. A study of 36.5 million people found that during the first four months of COVID-19, telehealth visits accounted for 23.6% of all interactions—compared with 0.3% of contacts during the same time period in 2019. But there’s still room for growth in this space, so employers should continue to expand virtual care coverage, communicate with employees about virtual services, and ensure they can access virtual care through intuitive technology.
Workers may also increasingly look to technology to support their mental health. In a study conducted by Oracle and my company Workplace Intelligence, we found that 82% of people believe AI can support their mental health better than humans and 68% would prefer to talk to a chatbot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work. Given these shifting preferences, as well as research confirming the potential of chatbots to improve mental health, chatbot companies are investing millions of dollars to develop programs targeting employee health.
3. Ensuring business continuity
Many companies who were unable to find workers during the pandemic turned to automation technologies to stay afloat, most notably robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Robots, for example, were widely deployed to clean floors, patrol empty buildings, and handle manufacturing tasks. Not only were they filling vacant positions, in many cases they were also taking over dangerous, physically demanding, or mundane tasks.
During the pandemic, incorporating robots also allowed companies to ensure greater safety for their workers by reducing workplace density. For example, Procter & Gamble found that adding robots to its assembly lines made it possible to keep more workers on the job—and produce more goods—while complying with social distancing guidelines. In fact, research finds that workers in companies that are augmented by automation technologies are 31% more productive, and the workplace itself is 33% more likely to be human-friendly.
Recent data reveals that the surge in robotics is likely to continue well after COVID-19 is no longer a threat, with companies benefiting from greater efficiencies and reduced labor costs. According to the Association for Advancing Automation, robot orders in the first quarter of 2021 were up 20% over the same period in 2020, with substantial increases in purchases coming from non-automotive industries like life sciences/pharma and food & consumer goods. And, 2020 was the first year on record where orders of robots from non-automotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders.
Similar to robotics, there’s also been a surge in the use of Artificial Intelligence to ensure business continuity. Chatbots or automated voice systems have been the most commonly adopted technologies, replacing call center workers, customer service representatives, and even drive-thru window attendants at fast food restaurants. And just like robotics, these AI technologies are often replacing jobs that are repetitive and tedious, and therefore typically see high turnover rates.
4. Keeping offices safe
Technology played a pivotal role in promoting employee safety during the pandemic, and will continue to do so as safety remains a top concern during the back-to-work transition. IoT devices and digital contact tracing apps emerged as especially critical tools to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, with nearly a third (29%) of CFOs planning to evaluate the technology as part of their office reopening strategy. Currently, the most widely deployed sensors can detect elevated body temperatures and monitor physical distancing and occupancy density without capturing facial features.
Touchless fixtures and processes will also become increasingly prevalent, in everything from elevators and conference call equipment to food ordering and pick-up. Palo Alto Networks, for example, is moving towards a completely “touchless” environment to reduce potential transmission. That includes everything from espresso machines that scan QR codes, to motion-activated faucets, to hands-free sanitizing.
New and evolving apps will also help workers stay safe in the post-pandemic workplace. Many commonly used workplace apps already support tasks such as booking meeting rooms and finding available hot desks, but these features will take on new importance by ensuring that employees can maintain safe physical distancing when they go into the office. Apps will also contribute to a contactless workplace, for example by using near-field communication instead of keycards to give employees access to a building, or allowing employees to request an elevator via their smartphone.
Implications for businesses
The rapid adoption of new technologies and digital tools after the pandemic will have far-reaching consequences, not only for businesses but also for the broader composition of the workforce. For example, McKinsey predicts a growing demand for people in STEM occupations who can create, deploy, and maintain new technologies. They also anticipate that time devoted to technical skills will rise across all occupations, and that roughly half of workers will need new, more advanced skills to move to occupations in higher wage brackets.
The digitization of the workplace—coupled with an increasingly dispersed workforce—has highlighted the need for a strong focus on cybersecurity in the wake of the pandemic. According to one estimate, the global cost of cybercrime will rise to $6 trillion a year by the end of 2021. With this in mind, companies need to do their due diligence around any new products, adopt a multifaceted approach to cybersecurity, and implement robust employee education programs.
Businesses also need to ensure that their workforce’s data is protected, especially with respect to contact tracing apps or other technologies that utilize employees’ location data or health information. In fact, this issue is so pressing that multiple acts have been introduced in Congress to address this: the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act and the Exposure Notification Privacy Act. However, employers also need to take ownership around this and ensure that the proper protocols are in place when adopting any new technologies.
A digital mindset will support recovery and growth
Technology (in its various forms) helped solve numerous challenges that businesses faced during the pandemic, but even after COVID-19 these solutions will remain critical for business success. Hybrid workstyles will require new tools to support remote employees, and technology will be key when it comes to keeping physical workplaces safe. While there are certainly challenges that come with implementing new workplace technologies, there’s no question that this is the way forward—and it’s clear that leaders will need to adopt a digital mindset in order for their organizations and their people to thrive.