The future of work is remote— at this point, this assertion could easily double as the proverbial war cry of tech’s most prolific armchair experts. Undoubtedly, there’s ample evidence to support their claims. Over the past decade, growth in remote work careers has ballooned to the tune of 91 percent, with nearly 5 million Americans engaging in business from the comfort of their couches.
Even still, there are numerous barriers preventing this lifestyle from becoming the norm, with geographically-dispersed workforces facing seemingly insurmountable challenges of fragmentation, isolation, and miscommunication. But fear not, office dwellers— artificial intelligence, the most buzzworthy technology trend of modern computing, offers a number of capabilities that may soon serve as the most critical infrastructure in the remote work revolution.
Intelligent Content & Application Aggregation
No longer limited to the rigid confines of a firewalled corporate sandbox, remote teams now have the flexibility to embrace Silicon Valley’s latest flavor-of-the-month, whether it be a seductive new CRM system or the next “game-changing” collaboration tool. With each wave of reinvention, the platforms in question assure their devotees that productivity will soar thanks to a shiny new set of functions and features. Despite their claims, marginal gains in efficiency and performance are quickly spoiled as workers struggle to keep their heads above water in a sea of fragmented systems and processes.
Executives have a tendency to pin the blame on a widespread lack of motivation, demanding workers “be agile” in the face of new challenges. Unfortunately, even the most capable of employees only manage to scale these immense learning curves through the sacrifice of meaningful work, advancing protocol over productivity.
Although humans are limited in their capacity for adaptation, AI is not — machine learning has enabled unprecedented levels of process automation, obsoleting the drudgery of routine work. Soon, this capability will allow remote workers to remain agnostic to the protocols routing their data, obfuscating these networks under the hood of intuitive, interactive interfaces.
In the same way, smartphone users don’t have to worry about the source of a voice assistant’s weather updates or location information, digitally-native professionals will largely be able to ignore the applications serving up business intelligence, allowing them to redirect their energy towards collaboration and creativity.
The Proliferation of Personal (Virtual) Agents
After half a century of experimental refinement, chatbots have matured far beyond their roots in simple scripted responses. The majority of modern businesses have already trialed proof-of-concept renderings of intelligent agents, and the benefits are clear. So clear, in fact, that IBM Watson executive Rob Thomas forecasts that, within the next 3 years, 100 percent of companies will have integrated virtual assistants into their systems and processes.
Traditionally, companies have the most frequently deployed chatbots to consumer-facing domains — resolving common queries, providing product recommendations, and collecting feedback — essentially serving customers as a dynamic, always-on FAQ aide. As conversational entities begin to evolve from monolithic applications and web plugins into modular API interfaces, however, increased flexibility will enable more granular, customizable virtual assistants.
Simultaneously, remote work is enabling businesses to distribute labor across the globe, spawning a sprawling network of intellectual resources across an asynchronous collection of cultures and timezones. While this presents a variety of opportunities, many challenges have also emerged in the effort to coordinate these scattered coalitions of contributors. To some degree, the most essential of these workers are pressured for 24/7 availability, corrupting the work-life balance once evangelized by remote work’s most optimistic advocates.
The liberator of these overburdened telecommuters will be none other than the humble chatbot — standing in as a virtual secretary, conversational assistants will help remote workers schedule meetings, transcribe and summarize conferences, and offer insights for improved productivity as workplace habits become gently ingrained into the fabric of the bot’s architecture. With the ability to communicate a team member’s preferences, expectations, and requirements at any hour of the day — all while seamlessly accommodating for cultural and linguistic disparities — virtual assistants will become an indispensable pillar of remote workforces.
Restoring Empathy to Online Interactions
Body language, for better or for worse, is an integral element of human interaction. Nonverbal cues, by most estimates, comprise the majority of what we communicate — UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian estimates that as little as 7 percent of the information we impart upon others is transmitted via our spoken expressions (not including tone of voice).
For this reason, it is entirely unsurprising that interactions facilitated over digital mediums tend to lose their luster. Although the introduction of emojis, memes, and various other manifestations of visual pageantry have infiltrated the recreational realms of social media and SMS-based exchanges, written conversations within the professional world remain starkly impersonal.
The direct and detached nature of business dialogue can produce a variety of unintentional misunderstandings — straightforward emails can be misinterpreted as demanding or aggressive, while seemingly lighthearted jokes may come off as harsh and sarcastic. In the digital arena, we humans are simply incapable of removing our own egos from the communication equation, our perceptions oscillating uncontrollably under the intoxicating influence of mood and bias. Inevitably, the quality of corporate correspondence will only continue to deteriorate if enterprises refuse to reinvent how conversations are conducted, both internally and externally.
While remote workers are bound to fall prey to the occasional linguistic misstep, our faithful AI companions may yet manage to stabilize the inconsistency in our delivery and understanding. The San Francisco-based startup Grammarly continues to make impressive strides in this domain, offering a browser-native extension with a knack for advising users on grammar, tone, and clarity.
As Natural Language Processing technology continues to evolve in scope and function, these applications may soon begin to incorporate bias detection, conversational context, and even personality profiling into their advisory abilities. Paradoxically, with the assistance of AI, remote workers may finally succeed in restoring empathy and humanity to online discourse.
Security & Trust are the Most Essential Components
In theory, contemporary consumer-facing virtual assistants such as Siri or Alexa currently embody the cognitive capabilities to unlock many elements of the functionality discussed — yet the majority of institutions will require a much more robust solution for serving the sensitive needs of everyday business.
By infusing AI with the capacity to alter critical business records, manage inflexible itineraries, and monitor essential enterprise data, companies will expect not only a far greater degree of modularity and extensibility— but they will also require that cognitive platform providers ensure unprecedented levels of security and privacy.
Will AI architects succeed in alleviating these crucial concerns in an increasingly interconnected, cloud-driven computing world? Until then, the remote work revolution hangs in balance.