FEATURE | The Digital Workplace

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“We live in an environment in which connectivity and cyberspace are transforming all workplaces, including the humanitarian workplace.”

Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross


The digital workplace is one where people, processes, technology, and the company converge to improve business productivity and employee engagement. It’s a workplace where employees have the technological tools they need to complete business tasks effortlessly and efficiently.

Technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Big Data, Advanced Analytics, and Blockchain, powered through the Cloud are enabling companies to innovate quicker, with less risk and to deliver business value more cheaply and efficiently. Human/Robot interactions are growing, and while there are fears that robots are going to take human jobs – and in many instances, they will – the latest thinking is that humans will work alongside robots in Centaur teams, each bringing their different strengths to the task at hand.

This feature takes a look at the digital workplace of the future, how the employee experience can be designed for the world of bots; what skills humans are going to need in an AI-driven world to stay relevant; the ever-increasing mobile workforce; how digital technologies such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have developed and are being used by various industries; and what the office of the future will look like.

Robots, humans, jobs and the employee experience

The debate of the decade is whether robots are going to take human jobs, creating global unemployment and leaving people without the livelihoods to sustain themselves. Although predictions are that millions of jobs will be lost to robots globally – particularly process driven, repetitive tasks, Brian Kantor – chief economist  and strategist at Investec, says when AI becomes ubiquitous in our places of work, we will also see the emergence of new kinds of jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet.

“While some futurists believe that AI will result in mass structural unemployment, automation could create more jobs than it displaces, bringing about new careers that we can’t even imagine. And it’s not just highly skilled jobs that will be created. Low skilled jobs that are hard to automate will also thrive.”

He adds that the difference between the 4thIndustrial Revolution (4IR) and the other industrial revolutions is that never before has technology replaced cognitive skills.

Rather than taking all human jobs, the more likely scenario is that humans will work alongside artificial intelligence to achieve an organisation’s strategic objectives and desired outcomes. Organisations must start embracing a blended workforce that comprises humans, data and intelligent software successfully working together, says Keith Matthews, Orange Business Services SA Country Manager.

What is certain, says Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of ManpowerGroup South Africa, is that automation is changing the skills companies require from workers. “Many organisations are investing in digital, shifting tasks to robots and subsequently creating jobs. At the same time, companies are focusing on developing their skills-development capabilities so that their human workforce can perform new and complementary roles to those done by machines.”

Bryan Hattingh, Cycan CEO, says robots will free up people to spend more time in the executive brain – in their genius state – enabling them to leverage their creativity while robots perform every-increasing smart functions.

Companies must be proactive when it comes to integrating robots and AI into workplace ecosystems, says JP Gownder, Forrester’s VP and Principal Analyst.

“Technology leaders must privilege humans in creating integrated worker-AI experiences. That starts with a user-centered perspective that doesn’t require human adaptation.” He adds that human traits such as creativity, judgement and emotional awareness need to be cherished.

Matthews agrees. “Change management needs to focus on the business processes but must put the users and customers at the centre of everything.”

Human/machine collaboration

Van den Barselaar suggests seven ways the human workforce can befriend machines and automation to their (human) benefit:

  • Leadership matters – executives need to be the igniters of change, innovation and culture to ensure their companies become learning organisations in an era of rapidly changing skills.
  • Ensure women are part of the solution: Women comprise 50% of the workforce and in 2017 became more educated than men. Create a workplace culture where women can thrive.
  • Understand what your workforce wants: By 2025, Millennials and Gen Z’s will make up more than two-thirds of the global workforce. Companies must respond by incorporating NextGen work models including contract, part-time and temporary work to attract and retain the best skills – 87% of workers are looking for this type of flexibility.
  • Know the capabilities of your people– Organisations need to use assessment, clean data and predictive performance to deploy talent in the most effective way and avoid creating skills silos.
  • Tailor training –Companies need focused strategies and guidance to develop critical, in-demand skills for their workforce.
  • Bet on soft skills – Organisations should fine-tune talent strategies to account for the fact that soft skills are often harder to develop than hard or technical skills. “The good news is that soft skills can be grown and nurtured,” says Van den Barselaar.
  • Enable humans to augment technology – Organisations must continuously upskill their workers and re-evaluate the skills they need to ensure their human talent complements automation.“This is how people will augment robots rather than be replaced by them.”

Job displacement as a result of automation inevitable

Job displacement in the short term, as a result of technology advancement, is inevitable, says Rudeon Snell, Director: Intelligent Solutions for SAP Southern EMEA. He says companies should be proactively driving programmes of upskilling and reskilling of their employees that fulfil roles that are at a high-risk of automation.

“If the situation is not proactively addressed, we will see an increase in the gap between the haves and have nots and quite possibly one of the biggest socio-economic disasters ever created, especially in developing countries where 70% – 80% of the economy is still predominantly supported by blue collar jobs.”

Snell adds that government and industry must get together to address this through structured programmes. “Individuals also need to re-think their value proposition, skills and expertise to ensure their value add and marketability in an AI first world.”

Cycan’s Bryan Hattingh says while digitalisation makes work increasingly easier for people, it presents a challenge for blue-collar workers and the less skilled, and that ways need to be found – particularly in South Africa – to create opportunities for these workers and the unemployed to gain new skills and remain employable.

Snell believes South Africa’s education system remains ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the technological changes that are on our doorstep. “There is a deep need to revamp and re-imagine our current educational system, or else we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass with irrelevant educational skills. Educational institutionswill need to focus on teaching students more relevant skills to improve employability – especially skills related to working with robotics and other emerging and exponential technologies such as Blockchain, AI, Internet of Things (IoT), Data Intelligence and Advanced Analytics.”

The need for new skills

The workforce of the future is going to require


The full article is reserved for our subscribers!

Read this Feature on THE FUTURE ACCOUNTANT by Max Marx, as well as a host of other topical management articles written by professionals, consultants and academics in the June/July 2019 edition of BusinessBrief.


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