Collaborating with smart machines – future work, workers and workplaces

by Ben Ice
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FM speaks with Paul Edwards about Mirvac’s new discussion paper on augmented work, and how humans and machines will cooperate in the workplaces of the future.

With the assistance of co-author Jeremy Myerson, director of the WORKTECH Academy and research professor at Royal College of Art, Mirvac recently released the new ‘Augmented Work: how new technologies are reshaping the global workplace’ discussion paper. Among other things, it explores the role robots and automation will have in shaping the work, workers and workplace of the future. 

Mirvac’s report walks through a future of work where humans and machines work together to improve efficiency – offering glimpses into workforces catering for humans and robots, with robot service tunnels to dark room machine-only office spaces. Reassuringly, its outlook sees human jobs neither threatened nor replaced, but instead augmented, by machines. It breaks this work down into five categories:

  • Assigned: machines complete tasks, unaided, with different levels of instructions, typically input by a human operator.
  • Supervised: some level of automated decision-making is performed by the machine. A human operator retains a degree of monitoring as the machine flags unknown situations.
  • Coexistent: machines work alongside humans in parallel work streams. Space is shared and machines will need to be intelligent enough to navigate spaces together with (unpredictable) humans.
  • Assistive: machines help humans complete tasks faster, more accurately and to a higher quality. Machines at this level should be able to discern human goals and learn preferences.
  • Symbiotic: still emerging, this is the most advanced form of collaboration. Humans should be able to input high-level, abstract objectives and strategic aims for which the machine can provide appropriate output options. 

Prior to his promotion to general manager of strategy and customer in October, Paul Edwards spent the last four years at Mirvac working as general manager of workplace experiences. He was instrumental in producing this report. Speaking with FM, he shares insights into this new world and the new skills that workers will require to thrive in it.

FM: Tell us about your work on this report and at Mirvac.

Paul Edwards: My role at Mirvac has been around the future of work, workers and workplace, thinking about that from the context of ‘what does it mean for our future customer and what does it mean for the future products we want to deliver to our customers?’ And then, thereafter, what are the future experiences that we want to deliver to our customers? At Mirvac, one of the ways we approach that is to actually go and talk to our customers and find out what they think. We undertake scans. Last year, I undertook a scan of our customers, to talk to them about the future of work. And one of the things that became apparent is that, it sounds obvious but, technology is going to underpin the future of work; it’s going to be a real part of the enabler for the future of work in a couple of ways. 

One, is that it is changing the way that we work and then, second, it is really changing the structure of businesses and organisations. They are all becoming tech businesses, you know? A digital bank, a digital travel agency or a digital accounting firm – whatever it is, they are all layering much more technology into their businesses. And so, we started to think about, well, what does that mean for the future of work, and therefore the future of workplace? As we started to look into that, we decided to do this piece of work, which was to think about how augmented work is going to affect and reshape the global workplace. 

For us, augmented work is this relationship between human and machine, where they accomplish more together than separately. It’s not about human versus machine, it’s about human and machine to maximise their potential. 

The people you are working with and the clients you are scanning, how is their tech and future work literacy now? How much of your work is introducing them to, or reassuring them about, these concepts?

Great question. It’s really interesting, there’s such a diversity of levels of knowledge. I’ll give you some examples. If you go to a bank – some of the banks that we work with are like CBA and others – they’re very much focused on technology and will call themselves a digital bank. We’ve just created two new offices for CBA down at South Eveleigh. When we created those offices, CBA talked about the entire workforce being a ‘digital workforce’. You think about a bank these days, they’ve got apps and most of their presence is online. We all call up and we get chatbots that help us solve problems for ourselves, or online they have live chat. They’re already using augmented work to solve problems for their customers. 

They combine the human and the digital aspects together to try and create the best experience for the customer. All customers these days expect real-time, instant gratification and activation. We go online now and use our phone; we can do instant banking and then if we have a problem we may do live chat, which is a form of augmented work. So a bank would be very much at the forefront of this, but then other customers are still working through how all this impacts their businesses. 

The legal fraternity is a really interesting example because, during COVID-19, what’s actually happened is that they’ve started to see a transition to virtual courts – caused by the fact that we need to avoid being in the same place as each other physically. It’s been in the pipeline for a long time, but this has absolutely fast-tracked it. It has accelerated that whole process. Another obvious example is telehealth. It was actually in place before COVID-19, but COVID-19 has actually accelerated the use of telehealth. 

And, I think, for the sector we’re talking about today, the FM sector, I’m sure the ability of machines to support buildings in their endeavours around FM is growing. Access to information is a classic example, and the availability of data and number crunching to get instant information that you can then use as a facility manager has grown incrementally over time. We’re seeing that different businesses, different areas of businesses, even in different sectors, businesses are adopting augmentation at different rates, which can be caused by externalities that affect one sector more than another.

How do you think the training and education of these vocations must change to introduce skills for working with robotics and tech in this way?

There was a McKinsey report on automation and opportunity, and it estimated that 25 to 46 percent of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030. And people at work will spend 60 percent more time using technology skills. So, there’s really going to be that interesting switch where you’ve got a lot more focus on technology skills. But then the human aspect of it will be a little bit more about the tacit skills that humans are very good at but machines can’t deal with. All of that will mean that people are going to have to learn on the job and constantly.

Continual learning will have to become the norm. Businesses are still, I think, working through how this will take place. There was another thing, in creating this report, that I was reading. ‘Future Skills’ by AlphaBeta stated that Australians, on average, will spend one-third more time on education and training across their lifetime by 2040. People will just have to continually learn. The days when you were educated at university and then took that information into a job and you learned more skills about that specific job as you went? Now you’ll have to learn to keep up with computers and the changing nature of work from a technology perspective, which means you may be learning new skills constantly. It’s really interesting. People are going to have to give up more time for learning in their work week and businesses are going to have to recognise that that’s an important  aspect of maintaining a workforce that’s skilled at the level it needs to be.

What excites you about this space?

It’s a super exciting space. One quote I heard, which scared me, was the fact that we’re at the slowest point in technology advancement that we’ll ever be. Right now. 

That’s super scary. But the other thing that really excites me is the thought that you can have access to all this information at your fingertips. At the very start, I was a building services engineer. I remember trying to find a drawing was so hard. In my day it was paper; you’d lift the drawings off a rack and you’d flick through drawings to try and find the size of a pump or something. Whereas now, you can literally get your iPad out. You should be able to, with the advancements in BIM (building information management) modelling, with 6D or 7D, actually start to access all this different information at your fingertips, while maybe out in the field. And you’ll know everything about that pump, you’re going to link it into the manufacturing, you can have a live chat with someone if you want to. That ability to access informational data instantly is amazing. That’s a really exciting aspect of this future. Then, if you layer that with a future where you’ve got augmented reality or virtual reality, where you can actually look at a location, look at a space, look at a plant room maybe and hold a screen up in front of it and see the workings of that plant room and know that you could maybe turn a valve and see what happens when you turn that valve live? It’s super exciting. I think about what that means for work and the workplace. The workplace is going to change. We’re seeing it now, anyway. 

COVID-19 has almost created a quasi-experience when it comes to the changing nature of work. We talk about it in this paper. We always thought that augmented work would mean that a lot of task oriented jobs in the white collar workforce would start to disappear. And by that I mean jobs that are repetitive or process-driven in nature. If they were to disapear, the workplace would have to be really focused on bringing out those human-centred skills like critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, creativity, social perceptiveness. COVID-19 has actually driven the task oriented jobs to move home. Because while we’re all working from home at the moment, the one thing we’re hearing a lot is that people can do the task oriented jobs at home very easily. You know, the focus work – you’ve got a seat, you need quiet time to focus on work or do data input or process driven work. What you need to be back in the office for is the collaboration, working with others and innovation when you need to solve problems – to have those social and business interactions. And so, those task oriented jobs have gone home, but eventually they will go to computers. And so, the workplace has been accelerated in this change, of what the workplace may look like in the future. 

It’s kind of like we’re already starting to see, probably a lot earlier than we thought, this shift towards the workplace being much more around a place where you want to bring people together, to collaborate.

You work in this space full-time and put together this report. Were there any surprises in there, for you?

I don’t think they were necessarily surprises, but what is really interesting for me is the speed of change. There’s one company called Shadow Robot Company, which creates these robotic hands systems and wearable gloves that help you to move robots. I mean, you think about that, it’s a little bit space age in some regards. I always think of Minority Report, where he’s there moving things around on a screen. Or, DHL is now using Google Glass and augmented reality to help its staff with sorting and packing. All these things are really starting to gear up. And because the power of computers is increasing so much, these experiences, this blend of the digital physical experience, is happening a lot more. And it’s all happening a lot faster. To me, the surprise is how much it’s going already, recognising that there’s going to be a lot more, a lot quicker, than we probably ever thought. 

One of the things I always think about in that regard is car manufacturing. You saw robots start to get into the process line of car manufacturing. Manufacturing’s probably where robots have impacted more than anywhere else. They haven’t really touched the building industry or construction industry yet, but we’re already seeing in our own company how you now generate a BIM model to do a drawing and then it goes through these different layers and it can be used for the manufacturing process – because we’re seeing a lot more use of prefab solutions off-site where you’re building pods, which you then bring to site. Once it’s located on-site you can then see how the same drawing that was done can now be used in 3D modelling to identify where there may be clashes, and you take that into ‘well, now the maintenance regime is how the business is run’. So you get the feeling that while the construction industry and building industry is changing, it’s a long way behind where we’ve now got to with, say, the car industry. And so how do we put brick on brick, in very basic terms? That industry is ripe for a lot more change to come and so I think it’ll be interesting to think over the next few years how that business really starts to transition, given the insights and information that’s now available.

It’s a really exciting space. there will be more and more technologies coming out that really start to shift how people work in the future. There is just so much already happening that we don’t know about. 

That’s what makes it even more exciting: you find out about technology, you have a thought, and you think, ‘oh, this’d be a really good idea’ and then if you do enough digging, you find that someone’s already had that thought and has started to work on the technology to solve that problem. That’s what is really exciting. 


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