How A.I. Will Drive the Future of Work

Artificial intelligence and apps will drive hiring, training, meetings and collaboration in tomorrow’s workplace. Here’s how.

Forget the idea of swiping through holograms in your flying car on your way to the office. On the surface, the future of work may look a lot less different from how it is today, but how you do your work will change in the coming years—thanks to artificial intelligence.

For instance, trusting your gut about who to hire for that associate job may get overruled by an algorithm. Or maybe, you’ll start valuing a new kind of education— “nano-degrees,” which recognize condensed education for hard-to-find skills—on applicant résumés. Email will go the way of the fax machine. Those staff trainings will be replaced by A.I. courses, and hackers will attack your business on all fronts, including your employees’ mobile phones.

That future is already starting to play out today. Here’s what to expect in 2020 and beyond.

Algorithms are in the hiring seat

Turns out, we as humans aren’t very good about sussing out the best people for the job. Interviews, in fact, are basically worthless, according to this high-profile article in The New York Times by Jason Dana, who has studied hiring for years at the Yale School of Management.

The wrong hire can be expensive, and artificial intelligence is here to help companies move beyond our inherent biases and what’s on a résumé to find those hidden hints that someone will be a good fit—albeit treading carefully with the technology.

HR managers are already using A.I. to determine which new college grads will be the best picks, which seasoned exec would be ready for a promotion and who is most likely going to quit their job. Managers are relying on apps with natural language processing and machine learning to create a psychological profile to determine if someone is a true fit for the company. They examine word choice or microgestures in recorded video interviews and assess whether a person uses the words “please” or “thank you.”

One app called Koru, for instance, uses predictive analytics to go beyond job experience and grades to pick the right candidate, assessing qualities such as grit or perseverance in past behavior. Another company, HireVue, uses algorithms to assess speech, personalities and qualities in an applicant’s video interview.

Yet, A.I. comes with inherent risks. Bias is a particular concern, especially since the field of A.I. and data science tends to draw programmers from a similar demographic: white males with like educational backgrounds. Men make up 88% of all A.I. workers and 80% of all A.I. professors. 

Relying only on past hiring data to build predictive algorithms could reinforce problems, continuing any hidden history of hiring discrimination. Software, too, may not always take into consideration context that real humans might. For instance, software might dock an employee’s performance review because of absences, not considering he has a child with a fatal illness. Or the computer might urge the firing of a manger without understanding the reasons behind high turnover on her team—say, perhaps, related to the seasonality of a business.

A new kind of degree

Artificial intelligence and big data are changing the skills we need from our employees. Sometimes, those skills aren’t necessarily taught at traditional universities.

HR managers may soon start looking at a different kind of degree: nanodegrees.

Nanodegrees are low-cost, online training in specific areas, rather than a broad education in various fields. Right now, most nanodegrees focus on things like data science, digital marketing, artificial intelligence, automation, but even extend to topics like design thinking. 

Training is typically fast, inexpensive and addresses in-demand skills. Classes take place online versus at a campus. Students pay per-term or on a month-to-month basis. 

This kind of education is already starting to take off with companies like Coursera, edX, Udemy, Udacity, Edume and Futurelearn running programs, which award “micro-credentials,” nanodegrees, and digital “badges.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard also offer such online programs.

As of now, HR teams are slow to recognize these degrees, and many colleges still look down their noses at them. But as the skill gap widens, expect this to change over time. A handful of large companies, including AT&T, Google and Disney, already run their own nanodegree programs to provide employees with additional training and career advancement skills.  

Email may finally die

In the future, there may be such a thing as an email-less company. As collaboration and connection increase, email may be viewed as less efficient for corporate communication. Companies may move away from email entirely.

Early email began in the 1970s, but our inboxes still seem to rule our days. Research at the Radicati Group estimates that business and consumer emails sent and received each day in 2018 surpassed 281 billion.

But we’re slowly changing how we work, thanks to productivity apps, which can reduce clutter and streamline messages among teams. Slack has more than 12 million daily active users. Microsoft’s Teams app has more than 13 million users. 

Some users appear ready to abandon email already, touting the promise of Slack. They say the app gives them a single place to track conversations, store audio files, random phone numbers, breaking news, and more. But just like email, messages and “channels” on these apps can also grow exponentially, leading to more confusion among teams. Take marketing startup, Drift. This summer, it saw its slack channels balloon to 950—not including the private ones.

Yet still, email means endless back and forth and time spent sorting through a deluge of messages. The average employee spends 28 percent of their workweek handling email, or an average of 11 hours a week.

Despite the unique advantages to email—the ability to reach anyone outside your organization and low cost—today’s communication tools will evolve to be just as ubiquitous, or change the way we communicate altogether.

And, as new generations enter the workforce, email will lose its luster even more, according to new research by SendGrid and Egg Strategy. Generation Z, the study suggests, considers email as less important in their lives compared to Millennials or Generation X.

Training with algorithms

The staff trainings held in dark conference rooms with stale donuts and coffee might be out the window in the years to come. Employers are increasingly using adaptive learning systems to onboard new staff and train employees as well as to hone specific skills. The content and exams can be customized in real-time, determining employee’s strengths and weaknesses and where she needs additional focus.

The big lure of algorithm-based training? It works. In a 2017 course on the open course platform HarvardX, students who learned via adaptive learning performed 19% better than those in a traditional online course. A number of companies are starting to serve these HR needs, including IBM, Microsoft, San Francisco-based NovoEd; London-based Pearson, New York-based Everwise and Knewton, Waterloo-based Axoni-fy, and Qstream in Burlington, Mass.

Voice tech will surge

The voice revolution has been called the biggest technology shift since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. We’ve already hinted in this piece how it will change the way you work in the future. But you can expect that down the road, voice assistants will be interacting with you at work—just like they do with you at home.

Imagine being in a meeting discussing the yield curve, but you’re not quite sure what that is. Apps like MindMeld will recognize who is talking and start feeding you topics or concepts discussed in real time. Salesforce has also developed a voice assistant called Einstein for the workplace that provides updates, opens dashboards, takes notes and assigns tasks—all with the power of your voice.

Voice could ultimately reduce multitasking and distraction, since people today often pay more attention to their phones than to each other. Rather than having screens open in meetings, voice A.I. can listen and capture important points, and assist in fast and accurate follow up.

The hackers will descend

The inevitable downside to new technology is that the bad guys always seem to find ways to exploit it. You’ll see more Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS), in which a hacker sends so many requests to a battalion of machines that it kills your entire network. Last year, one attack lasted 12 days.

You’ll also see more ransomware attacks, in which malicious code hijacks a company’s data, effectively locking out systems and devices, until a ransom fee is paid. It’s become a lucrative business for hackers, and simply backing up your data probably won’t be enough. Instead of just holding your data hostage until you pay, hackers now threaten to publish it online to the public.

Security will become even bigger for workplaces, as the next generation wireless network—5G— comes creeping onto the scene in the coming years. 5G will bring you even faster service, richer apps via your phone, allowing you to send far more data faster across networks. This could be a boom to productivity, but you’ll also be more at risk. Because when hackers hit your network, they’ll be able to siphon off huge amounts of data in less time.

Expect to see cyber risk insurance become the norm for businesses in the future. Rather than simply covering the theft of basic information, the insurance will also protect against damage to your reputation, loss of operation and costs for upgrades, according to research by the Future Today Institute.

The fuzzy crystal ball 

The future isn’t always crystal clear. There have been plenty of hits and misses. After all, back in 1959, IBM officials doubted that copy machines would be a thing in offices, and Digital Equipment Corp., engineer Ken Olson said no one would need personal computers. While the office may not dramatically change in the next few years, the groundwork is being laid for technology to subtly change everything from how we hire and how we learn, to how we communicate and how we protect what we build.