Robots, smart drugs and stand-up meetings

in The Times -

Look into my crystal ball. Let us gaze into the future and, as the mist clears, we can begin to see the workplace of tomorrow – a strange place where… where… well, what do you think we’d see?

We asked more than 50 entrepreneurs, academics, chief executives and other business leaders how the workplace will change over the next decade. Naturally, there was a lot of disagreement. Hierarchies may disappear or prove stubborn. Offices will mutate into strange playgrounds of whimsy or stay pretty much the same. But there were a long list of insights which are clearly founded in fact and reason. Here are the best.

Mandy Rutter, workplace psychologist for employee wellbeing consultancy Validium, points out the rise of pharmaceutical turbo-boosters is just getting started. “Smart drugs are likely to be at the centre of a storm of debate over ‘natural’ versus artificially supported work performance,” says Ms Rutter, who believes we’ll think of “work as a form of extreme sport”.

The drugs are already popular in universities. This will increase. “These kinds of drugs already exist, and a number of research programmes have been carried out and are underway relating to their ability to improve memory, motivation and other work-related qualities,” she says.

“Drugs like Ritalin are usually prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Modafinil for narcolepsy, but there have been streams of anecdotal reports on the use of these and metaamphetamines by stressed managers, as well as their known use by the military and among emergency services staff. In principle, smart drugs will help people to work harder, work longer, and feel more motivated.”

Ritalin and Adderall are routinely used by the US Army. Office foot soldiers won’t be far behind.
As well as drugs in the office, we may also have robot assistants. A dream? The people who know when we’ll be chatting to artificial intelligence secretaries are at Nuance, the speech recognition giant behind Apple’s Siri.


Seb Reeve, director of product management at Nuance, says: “One of the biggest trends that will change the way we work is artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent systems,” he says. “AI-driven virtual assistants will simplify the often overwhelming volume of content, services and capabilities that we have access to through phones, PCs, tablets, TVs, cars, apps – and now watches, thermostats and an expanding array of consumer electronics. To render these devices more capable, intelligent and useful, it’s critical that these attributes are matched by the ability to reason and understand what you and I want, need and expect out of them.

“We’re starting to see these virtual assistants appear across a range of sectors, including the banking industry where ING Netherlands recently launched Inge, a new AI-driven voice feature on its mobile banking app. Inge uses Nuance’s Nina technology, an intelligent virtual assistant for customer service, which provides an innovative, simple and hands-free alternative for customers to do mobile banking. This technology not only improves the customer experience, but reduces the drain on human resources for the company.”

One trend gathering steam is for big firms to solve the innovator’s dilemma in which newcomers disrupt markets, while incumbents try to maintain the status quo by latching on to funky startups. Brian Millar of Sense Worldwide is a keen observer of this. “One big trend we’re seeing is large corporates starting to think more like venture capitalists, both internally and externally,” he says. “This is driven by the demand for every company to innovate at the pace of technology companies, from FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] to drinks, even to cardboard-box makers.

“Few internal research and development teams can keep up with that demand, so companies are turning to entrepreneurs and incubating them, spreading their bets across a number of ideas.”


Blue-chip companies are investing big sums, he says. “Nike has opened an incubator in Portland. Shell is incubating tech companies in Bermondsey. Telefonica has Wayra centres in South America, London and the US.”

The startup culture where roles change, offices are hives of improvisation and autonomy is commonplace may be the most attractive recipe

Naturally, the incubator model needs to ensure the money is flowing in the right directions. “Of course this comes with issues of its own,” Mr Millar concedes, “as internal innovators compete for budget with entrepreneurs, who may get a much bigger upside if their idea becomes commercial.

Meanwhile the tempo of corporate innovation has to adjust to entrepreneur speed and vice versa.”

Pound and dollar signs are not the only metrics that matter. It is clear that many firms are working hard to give meaning to their firm. And to make it fun.

Matt Kingdon, founder and chairman of creative consultancy ?What If!, says the Millennial generation will demand far more than financial rewards. “Variety is the spice of life. They don’t expect to be doing the same thing for long – no one aspires to work their way up one company anymore – so you need to keep them interested and fresh and they’ll feel like they are being challenged, adding skills to their repertoire and avoiding the death of boredom.”

The startup culture where roles change, offices are hives of improvisation and autonomy is commonplace may be the most attractive recipe for Millennials and their peers, no matter what the size of firm.

So what can we expect? With so many differing opinions on how an office should look, behave and cater for its staff, we can surely expect to see a profusion of varieties of workplaces. We should brace ourselves for some of these to be radically different from anything we’ve seen before.

John Newton, founder and chief technology officer of document management firm Alfresco, puts it succinctly: “According to Moore’s law, in ten years’ time computing will be about 64 times more powerful, storage capacity will be about double that and network capacity probably about 50 times greater than today. This means that any problem will not be constrained by computing or space, but by imagination. As Bill Gates has said, ‘We always overestimate the change that what will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten’.”

Robots, smart drugs and offices, where dreary office hours are a thing of the past, may soon be upon us.

Read more