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Automation innovations such as chatbots can help businesses be more productive. Picture: 123RF/JIRSAK
Automation innovations such as chatbots can help businesses be more productive. Picture: 123RF/JIRSAK

Innovations in information and communications technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) have opened the door for a reimagining and restructuring of the traditional workspace. 

The application of new technologies combined with the acceleration of digital transformation as necessitated by the pandemic, means there will be new trends to look out for this year that will affect both employees and business leaders. 

Whether these trends are related to staff communication, the jobs of the future, the application and consequences of machine learning (ML), collaboration between businesses, or the role of education, it’s important to know what’s on the horizon and how it may affect the success of future business. 

Hybrid workspaces

2020 and 2021 were characterised by lockdowns. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses had to adapt to remote working situations to ensure operational continuity. And with this foundation in place, 2022 will be the year of hybrid workspaces.

Manifesting as a mix of employees working from a central company office and those working remotely from their places of residence, hybrid workspaces mark a fundamental change in how we’ve worked together over the last few decades. Many employees will manage responsibilities and complete tasks from the comfort and convenience of their homes, only coming together for situations that require a higher level of collaboration.

Businesses can make the most of this trend by looking at services that offer businesses and individuals entire digital workspaces that aim to encompass all professional functions into a single, collaborative online space.

Set out to automate the simple things

We’re already seeing AI-based automation being deployed in digital and communication spaces. Though a rudimentary application of a technology that has almost limitless potential, two common ways that businesses are engaging with automation are through chatbots, and automated email and web-based services.

Designed to carry out basic functions, such as addressing customer queries and data-related requests, companies can “train” chatbots to respond to specific statements and questions based on interactions determined by the specific product and service offerings of a business. Gartner predicted that by 2020, 25% of customer service and support operations would integrate the technology across their engagement channels.

With every innovation, automation becomes smarter and can help businesses be more productive

Automated web services take this function a step further. AI can be trained using innovative processes, such as natural language processing and optical character recognition in which machines learn to identify and respond to input text and visual data, and even analyse the sentiment of the written word. Customers can receive emailed responses based on their initial emails depending on what the bot has been trained to look for.

This is just the start. With every innovation, automation becomes smarter and can help businesses be more productive.

Jobs may be replaced, but new ones will be gained

With the proliferation of machine-based automation comes questions regarding its diminishment or replacement of human labour. SA’s youth face extreme difficulties when engaging with the labour market, with nearly half (46.3%) of those aged 15 to 34 unemployed.

Today’s automation targets a specific kind of work — that which involves strict routine, structured data, or rule-based tasks. From filling in application forms to the verification of information, these are the kinds of jobs that are ideal for AI-automated processes.

Though these jobs may be replaced, with automation comes growth in employment opportunities surrounding the application of this technology. There will always be a need for humans to interact with other humans, to create new things and solve problems, and have empathy for customers. 

There will also be the need for jobs that are required to keep the automation processes running smoothly. Coding, programming, and IT-related skills will become even more valuable, and an expansion of the field will result in different employment opportunities. 

Education, upskilling and business collaboration

Increased work opportunities in fields related to IT and machine learning mean that our education focus must evolve in response to these demands.

Whereas in the past a company may have had one or two people involved in IT, now they may benefit from three to four people in that function. Education, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) learning and expanded IT-related subjects, is key to that. 

What we are seeing in SA is proactivity from corporates when it comes to training and upskilling their staff. This provides the opportunity for leaders to get involved and fully understand the shift to an automated workspace and equip employees for future work processes. 

Not every business can adapt like this, though. Many simply do not have the infrastructure or knowledge to introduce AI processes or training into their operations. This is where SA’s start-up scene, particularly companies in the fintech and data science space, can make a difference. Small and medium-sized enterprises could partner with large corporates to build their capabilities, while they, in turn, receive support to grow.

These are the business collaborations, as accommodated by programmes such as those funded by Standard Bank's investment in Founders Factory Africa, that will help South African businesses use new technologies to make the most of the current workplace trends.

• About the author: Michael Daniels is head of group automation and shared capabilities at Standard Bank.

This article was paid for by Standard Bank.

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