How Technology is Shaping the Workplace

An overview of the past, current, and future technological advancements

Talking about the workplace is much like discussing society — business (or trade) has been the driving factor behind the advancement of the human race for millennia — and much like society, which is the platform that illustrates the progress of Man, the workplace is the place where business advancements strike the eye. You can argue that technology has been a part of business since ancient times (as cliché as it sounds, the wheel was perhaps the first technological invention that changed our business practices).

Fast forward several millennia to the Industrial Revolutions back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and you can already see examples that still appear today. Think of electricity allowing us to work at night, more efficiently and effectively; think of the assembly line; think of steam power, chemical advancements, the telegraph, the telephone… the list goes on.

Classical business

The last item, however, would arguably have the most impact on our workplace (and society), throughout the 20th century and even beyond. The reason is simple: the telephone enhances communication, and this is the most important element of business because it precedes, facilitates, and succeeds trade.

One of the earliest call centres: the Birmingham Press and Mail call centre (1960s). Photo courtesy: callcentrehelper.com

The latter part of the 20th century was predominantly characterized by the use of the telephone — cold calls, conference calls, follow ups, telemarketing — all classical examples of business practices. Concurrently, the computer was evolving and demonstrated exponential growth (described by Moore’s law) in terms of components, speeds, and technology adoptions. For instance, the first ENIAC computer (1946) weighed more than 27 tons. Less than twenty years later, computers were many times more powerful and could be mounted on a desktop — which meant you could use it for business. The computer eventually entered the homes of consumers (and businesses en masse) in the late 70s and early 80s with the introduction of MS-DOS and, eventually, Windows OS.

But as we were reaching the end of the century, something happened that changed our world forever.

And then… came the Internet

The Internet, despite under a different format, was around as early as the 70s but it was not until 1990 when the modern version of the Web came to life. Tim Berners-Lee would establish the “www” format, the HTTP, and HTML that shaped the entire industry and allowed the technology to spread worldwide. This led to the full commercialization of the internet by 1995 and, consequently, the dot-com bubble that shook the industry. Without going into too much detail, the simple reasons behind the bubble were the high hopes of investors and their desire to capitalize on a booming industry.

Labeled as one of “the worst deals in history”, the AOL-Time Warner $164B merger became a mark for failure in those years. Photo courtesy: Ruby Washington/The New York Times

When the bubble burst, few companies survived but some of them eventually became one of the biggest corporations by revenues — such as Google, Amazon, Oracle. This era also signified the openness of people to new technology and their eagerness to be up-to-date with innovation.

There are numerous ways in which the software and hardware advancements of the early years of the Internet affected our workplace, and here are the most important technological improvements:

· Emails became the dominant form of business communication

· Skype and other similar applications allowed for effortless conference calls and international communication

· E-Commerce platforms enhanced the selling and purchasing of goods

· Online media developed into a major platform for industry updates, innovation news, and investor insights

· Online advertising opened up a new field for marketers

All these and more set up the infrastructure of which today’s business world is built upon and opened up many avenues for innovation as well as multiple insights into the practice of coming up with inventions. The product lifetime cycle as well as the innovation cycle significantly reduced, leading to a more turbulent and dynamic market. What started in the last quarter of the 20th century was essentially another period in human history called the Digital Revolution, which marked the beginning of the Information Age in which we live today.

The world of today

Now, more than 15 years after the dot-com boom, we see another similar spur in inventions — apps. It goes without saying that this is possible due to the introduction of smart devices, which is arguably the main reason behind the revolutionary innovations of today. There are many examples of systems already in place that affect our business, and the numbers keep growing:

· Text and voice-over apps to further facilitate customer relationship management (CRM)

· Cloud computing: think about Gmail, Google Docs, Dropbox, and many more services that allow seamless sharing of documents, photos, videos, etc.

· Automated systems that change or even replace employee functions (applicant tracking systems, or ATS)

· Sales platforms to enhance communication between different business units

· Online payment services improving banking services

· Automated logistics solutions to ensure speedy and accurate delivery of e-Commerce items (both B2C and B2B)

· Social media, to encompass all of the above and change the customer interaction experience forever

Unlike the dot-com bubble though, this new boom will not end in a collapse — not only are investors more savvy (as well as existing policies to prevent such a collapse), but also startups have a different focus. Instead of flooding the market with solutions that “might work”, companies are focusing on pain points and improving every single detail of our lives.

It is mind-boggling how fast technologies develop and how each new invention enhances the introduction of the next, to the point where new industries are emerging within several years. Think about a simple example — could you have predicted that the commercialization of drones opened up a completely new area of operations (Amazon Prime Air), photography (check out these amazing shots), and laws in the span of several years? Drones have now become an everyday object. Virtual reality devices are another example — such technology was quickly adopted by the market and can now be used in video conference calls, “virtual estate” tours, and even VR offices.

This is how some of us already experience having our product orders delivered. Photo courtesy: amazon.com

Much more can be said about the business world of today and all the applications of new technologies; all you need to do is look around and think, “how was this made possible?” A quite interesting (and optimistic) fact is that, much like the exponential growth of technology, technological revolutions get both shorter and more disruptive. Although the names and durations of the following are up for debate, we can summarize technological revolutions as follows:

· Agricultural revolution lasted for about 140 years

· Industrial revolution took 60 years

· Technical revolution — 50 years

· Scientific revolution — 30 years

Finally, the Digital revolution started 30 years ago and (arguably) ended a couple of years ago when customer experience became all about the experience (as coined by The Guardian). This description perfectly fits the next step in technological advancements — technology changes the way we do business but also the way we think about business.

The future

Given all we have seen and read about up until today, what can we expect from the future? I have summarized some of the innovations that we might see in the near future:

· Holographic imagery — this technology is rapidly advancing and can have far-reaching applications for our lives, and business. You are not a fan of putting on a VR helmet, even if costs go down? How about a holographic conference call, without headaches and without all of your teammates having to put on the helmets with no awkward adjustments after you end the call. We might see this in the next 10 years.

Photo courtesy: holocenter.org

· Robotic Process Automation (RPA) — there is a reason I did not mention this in the previous sections, even though it will have a major impact on our workplace. Although robots were around for a long time in our factories, they can only become smarter if they can start to learn on their own, which was not possible until recently. Google’s DeepMind is a prime example of self-adjusting AI algorithms (this is still considered “robotic”, even if there is no physical robot), that allows for image recognition, and can even detect diseases. This technology is already here but we can anticipate a wider implementation within 5 to 10 years.

DeepMind beating 18-times Go champion Lee Sedol. Photo courtesy: forbes.com

· Li-Fi — current Wi-Fi technology has been unchanged for quite some time, relying on radio waves that do not allow for high broadband speed. A lot of companies use fiber for this exact reason but this is a costly installment that can sometime affect system reconfiguration. Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) uses light waves to transmit information and can be installed in any location that uses lighting. The limitation is that light does not travel through walls but the speeds achieved can be up to a hundred times higher. Although already in use, this technology would likely not completely replace Wi-Fi but can certainly find applications in indoor environments (and that means business). Expect to see it gain attention in the next 5 to 10 years.

This could be your router in the future. Photo courtesy: inhabitat.com

· Quantum computing — this is arguably the most important technological advancement for the future of mankind and is right there next to nuclear fusion. Quantum computers would require a separate article on their own but it is a technology that will spark a new “Quantum revolution”. Such computers are already being tested and innovations in the field are picking up speed. I would recommend you to do a Google search and learn more on this as it is definitely something to look out for. Although some specialized forms of quantum computers could be used in the next 5 to 10 years, introducing the ultimate machine to change our world will likely happen between 15 to 20 years from now.

D-Wave’s quantum chip. Photo courtesy: Google/wired.com

To conclude, technology has, is, and always will shape our world. It is the greatest product of human intelligence and it is what allowed us to improve nearly every aspect of our life. If you think there are many problems with technology (disconnect from the world, piracy, hacking, “dumbing down”, etc.) always remember that what matters is not the invention itself, but how you use it. Five years ago many people believed social media, music sites, eBooks, and smart phones meant the death of simple human experiences but we can already see revival of many “old-school” items: vinyl records sales reach 25-year high, increases in book sales, Kodak revival.

All of those suggest people are not mindlessly feasting on technology, but rather, it means we are embracing the new while maintaining our sense of what experience is all about.

The future is bright and it is up to us how we use its light to shine on our society.

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Anton Bonev — a Bulgarian expatriate — is a marketing professional with a Master’s degree in Marketing Management from one of the top research universities in the Netherlands. Currently working as a Digital Marketing Consultant at John Clements Consultants, he is assisting the company in becoming the leading digital recruitment solutions provider in the Philippines.