Work, reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution
In an early May blog post, Google chief executive officer (CEO) Sundar Pichai shared the company’s vision for its workplace future—over a year after the covid-19 pandemic forced offices around the world to shutter almost overnight and employees suddenly shifted to working remotely using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and a host of other virtual collaboration tools.
“The future of work is flexibility,” he said, adding that Google was “reimagining a hybrid workplace to help us collaborate effectively across many work environments.” That includes testing multi-purpose workspaces and developing advanced video technology that “creates greater equity between employees in the office and those joining virtually,” he explained.
Google is far from alone in its efforts to keep up with an unprecedented post-pandemic office evolution. Citigroup recently announced that a majority of workers would be designated as hybrid, working at least three days per week in the office. Ford has said that 30,000 of its North American office workers would be allowed to work under a flexible hybrid model. Nearly every organization, across every industry is trying to determine how to navigate and respond to changing employee expectations and sentiments around how and where they work.
For example, EY’s 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey revealed that nine in ten employees want continued work flexibility, while more than half of employees globally would consider quitting their jobs if post-pandemic flexibility is not provided.
In addition, employee expectations for work flexibility don’t necessarily match that of their leadership. According to a recent report conducted by global market research company Ipsos and premium audio brand EPOS, 53% of decision makers think that the majority of employees will spend more time in the physical workplace over the next year, rather than remotely, whereas just 26% of employees think the same.
Employees are also demanding more and better technology to promote increasingly flexible ways of working and more sophisticated options for collaboration on and off-site. The Ipsos/EPOS study, for example, found that 89% of all end users currently experience challenges when having virtual meetings or workshops. The research found that some 63% of global end users experience issues during business conversations on a regular basis because of poor sound quality. The most common problems include background noise (32%), interferences on the line (26%), and asking for information to be repeated (23%).
The move to remote work has highlighted a need for resiliency, agility, and flexibility not just in how businesses operate but how their employees work. The current upheaval from an all-remote environment to hybrid possibilities is a similarly disruptive moment that requires technology innovation to equalize the work environment for all—those that work from home or another remote location, as well as those physically in the office.
“The onset of the covid-19 pandemic was like a time machine that suddenly propelled us tens of years into the future,” said Paul Silverglate, vice chairman and US technology sector leader at Deloitte, speaking about how networks, services, and devices rallied to effectively support the shift to working and schooling from home. “The underlying technology for these new behaviors was truly tested and, for the most part, held up under increased connectivity demands. As well as we have adapted, we have hit the limits of what our current technology can deliver.”
Investing in innovative technology is crucial for employee experience
As organizations emerge from the pandemic, more than two-thirds (68%) of CEOs plan a major investment in data and technology, while 61% plan to undertake a new transformation initiative, according to EY’s 2021 CEO Imperative survey. The question is, how can companies invest in innovative technology to boost the employee experience in a hybrid workplace? After all, it is becoming crystal-clear that the traditional conference room with a table, chairs and speakerphone will no longer cut it as people return to a new, hybrid workplace.
Firms like EY have made big investments, including a conference room that offers an immersive meeting experience with life-sized touch screens and integrated cameras and speakers. Increasingly, 360-degree cameras, microphones, and speakers are likely to be built into gathering places and the number of screens increased, transforming the conference room into a “Zoom room,” according to Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is revamping offices, including its own, for new modes of working.
Google too is creating a new meeting room called Campfire, where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with large screens showing the faces of people dialing in by video conference, so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.
These moves reflect the consensus from the Ipsos/EPOS study, which found that workers and leaders are continuing to see the benefits of holding meetings virtually. Some 79% of end users recognize the benefits of video for virtual meetings, an increase of 7% from 2020. Along with savings in time and cost compared with face-to-face meetings, 21% of decision makers say that video meetings help them feel closer to their team, and 17% believe it establishes trust in working relationships.
Whatever the future of the workplace looks like, it should be aligned with the company’s culture as well as its efforts to recruit and retain top talent.
Many financial companies, for example, considered in-person collaboration too important to lose so asked people to come into the office early on in the economic reopening. In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, some firms are giving up their headquarters and becoming fully-remote organizations.
The majority of companies, however, are taking a hybrid approach: Accenture’s 2021 Future of Work study of 9,000 workers around the world found that a vast majority of employees (83%) say a hybrid model would be optimal for a productive and healthy workforce.
“Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity more broadly—inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a recent report. “All this needs to be done with flexibility in when, where, and how people work.”
Find out more about EPOS’s audio solutions for virtual collaboration here. And listen to the EPOS podcast here.
This content was produced by EPOS. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”