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Work, reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

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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.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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