Guest blog post by  Sam Sahni, Unispace

The Circle – a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers – is a dystopian glimpse into the future of working among the internet giants that currently dominate business.  But it also carries a very definitive vision of the future of workplace from the eyes of the workforce, and it is far from complimentary.

The novel is an unflattering view of the campus workplace environment and there are some critical points within it from which our profession can learn. The author’s focus falls on new technology, data and the responsibility that comes with greater integration of both.

A Novel Approach to the Workplace

The book follows Mae Holland, a young graduate, who starts work at the campus of the Circle, an omnipresent tech company with billions of users. The campus is everything you might expect of the workplace of the future – devoted to wellness, beautifully designed, tech-enabled, and with wide open spaces. But in the eyes of the narrator there is something inherently unsettling with this approach.

The novel focuses on the deconstruction of privacy; how a move towards openness and transparency can leave power in the wrong hands. Total access to personal information divests the subjects of any semblance of self and every moment in life is imbued with PR artifice.

The Place for Technology

Despite the misgivings of The Circle, the integration of AI will, in theory, allow us to crack that thorny issue of productivity and start pulling workplace data into meaningful shape.  Getting a grip on performance data and understanding the outcomes of successful workplace design will revolutionise our market.  But what is so daunting about this prospect? What we must remember is that tech is put in place as a means to support the customer experience not BE the customer experience.

Artificial Intelligence: The Future? 

“People Analytics” as some are already calling workplace data, meets at that sweet spot where workplace, HR, and IT collide.  This area is the future of the sector and the successful integration of technology carries massive potential benefits. But if this kind of data on staff movement, presence, productivity, choice of location, utilisation and collaboration is readily available, then it will empower the workplace discipline.

The real difference will begin when AI enables frictionless working beyond the physical workplace. For example, we are working on combining calendar (meeting changes), transport (traffic/trains) and weather (clear; no rain) data for a user, which will give them back extra 15 mins in the morning. This is where the real power of this technology lies and where it can work to the benefit of the workforce.

Why is the adoption of this technology seen as so challenging?

The heated debate around the use of personal data has raised red flags at tech companies around the world.  And it has only given greater onus to the right to privacy and how data is being handled or used.  The workplace will be no different, and may even be more contentious.

To properly gather and use data required for AI, firms must take a three-step approach: anonymizing data by design, ensuring full transparency of what is available to view and where, and enable a fully transparent opt-in process that highlights benefits for each option.  The Circle plays on our concerns about what the power of data might allow others to have over us so we have to ensure that its use is fully open and accountable.

So, where is workplace getting it wrong?

In reading The Circle, I think the only conclusion to reach is that in workplace we have to be more honest with ourselves and question everything.  We should not fall prey to consensus-based decisions of what might or might not be right.  Collaboration is not the only mode of work we should plan for.  Co-working is not necessarily the future of workplace.  Productivity is not the only barometer of success. The campus concept itself is highly successful and new iterations are increasingly productive and well thought out. But we must not lose sight of the business and personal objectives that underpin and drive it.

About the Author:

Sam is Regional Principal, Strategy based in Unispace’s London studio. Highly experienced within the consulting and construction industry, Sam’s knowledge comes from exposure to a variety of sectors including Finance, FMCG, Real Estate and Engineering, proving him a dynamic leader, with the ability to build business, develop client bases and take accountability for complex projects. A thought leader among his peers, Sam has also been an author of organisational white papers and has presented at number of industry conferences.