Rather than replacing humans, robots are set to facilitate work and to make it more rewarding.
The robots are coming, but there’s no need to be afraid. The promise of workplace technology today is not to take your job, but to give you access to tools such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) that will make your work easier, more rewarding and increase your value. For businesses, meanwhile, the digitally augmented worker can deliver a step-change in productivity.
“Many of the boring, repetitive manual tasks that all workers have to do today can be done much more quickly and efficiently with the help of these tools,” says Nigel Slater of KPMG. “They will free up the employee of the future to concentrate on work that is more rewarding, both personally and financially – and to acquire the skills needed to carry out that work much more quickly.” These technologies are increasingly being applied to not only support staff with the work they do today but to help create the workforce of tomorrow.
One big opportunity is to use these innovations to help people perform their current roles more effectively. For example, the transport group DHL is now using AR technology in its distribution warehouse: staff wearing AR glasses get real-time information on the most efficient routes around the warehouse so they can pick the goods they need as efficiently as possible. In the construction and maintenance sector, workmen are able to use AR in a similar way in order to find their way to faults – in pipes or electrical circuits, say – more quickly.
Another use of digital augmentation gives customers, rather than employees, access to such tools. Retailers are making particularly good use of this technology, helping customers imagine what they would look like wearing particular clothes or how an item of furniture might look in their home. Yves Saint Laurent offers make-up tutorials using AR to help customers see how they would look with different products. Such concepts provide sales assistants with powerful new tools.
In the future, businesses will use digital augmentation to solve labour and skills shortages. As populations age and factors such as Brexit threaten to shrink the workforce, this could be crucial. Real-time AR tools provide skilled technicians with the ability to direct the work of several less able colleagues from a remote location, talking them through a complicated installation or repair.
For example, the engineering business Thyssenkrupp is exploiting new technologies to help its engineers tackle an age-old problem – the out-of-service elevator. “In aggregate, all the elevators in the world rack up 190 million hours out of service each year,” says Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of Thyssenkrupp Elevator.
Thyssenkrupp’s solution is a collaboration with Microsoft and CGI which includes a sophisticated monitoring system in its elevators providing constant feedback on performance and enabling engineers to anticipate breakdowns and take precautionary action. Thyssenkrupp also uses Microsoft’s HoloLens technology, which provides AR functionality via Skype. Technicians can see a picture of the problem before they arrive on site, and once on site they can access expert technical advice from product specialists.
We will also see VR transform the way businesses train their staff. Already, Costa Coffee is using wearables to speed up the induction process for new baristas. At Boeing, the use of VR has cut the training times of engineers by a considerable margin. Such training supports the idea of embodied cognition, which posits that people learn more quickly when engaging in the physical movements required to complete a particular task, rather than being shown or told what’s necessary.
The next leap forward will be to combine more technologies to greater effect, says KPMG’s Ruth Svensson. She sees the potential for mixing AR and VR tools with machine learning, artificial intelligence, motion sensors and even bio-monitoring technologies. “We will be able to set people tasks that feel utterly real, monitor how they respond and understand what they found stressful by tracking metrics such as their heart rate and how much they sweat,” she says.
Employers will need to rethink the nature of the work they offer. As technology blurs the outlines of traditional roles – with workers requiring less skill of their own to perform certain tasks or acquire new responsibilities – the greatest gains in productivity will go to organisations that are able to reimagine how they operate.
“If you only apply technology at the level of the task, the impact will be limited,” says Robert Bolton, a partner at KPMG. “Employers will also need to think about how they change their processes and redeploy their workforces to maximise the potential of these new tools.”
That will require strong leadership, with organisations encouraging employees to engage with emerging technologies, even where there may be no clear picture of what the future looks like. “There isn’t going to be an end-state because these technologies and new ways of working will constantly evolve,” Bolton says. “The challenge will be to inspire your workforce with what might be possible, rather than scaring them off.”
At Thyssenkrupp, for example, Shierenbeck says the workforce is pleased with the new tools available. “We’ve been introducing these ideas slowly because we have very experienced engineers and we didn’t suddenly want computers or machines telling them how to do their jobs,” Shierenbeck says. “But they’ve welcomed the change – not least because they now have much better working experiences with customers, and they’re much less likely to have the stress of not knowing what the problem might be or how long it will take to fix.”
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