Diane Coles Levine: How to plan for the workplace of the future

How can we plan for the workplace of the future? Diane Cole Levine, the President at Workplace Management Solutions, at IFMA’s World Workplace 2017 talks about how to prepare.

We are in a perfect storm that is called the NBICS convergence. Like the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, this convergence is unlike anything humankind has ever experienced. Innovations are exponentially occurring simultaneously in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive sciences. Our work and workplaces will be significantly impacted in every industry across the globe. Additionally, The Internet of Everything is here and as it evolves, so will workplace strategy. Gartner estimates that by 2020, the Internet of Things will be a $3 trillion market. The potential for high profits in IoT and smart cities will drive exponential change in our field. With climate change and more connected devices, business resilience and cyber security will become even more important concerns for CEO’s and consequently workplace strategists.

The impact of Robotics and AI

Artificial intelligence and robotics are changing the jobs in the industries that FMs serve, making workforce planning doubly challenging.  For example, a new Deloitte report predicts that over 100,000 legal jobs will be lost to robots within the next 20 years.  A “robot bankruptcy attorney called Ross, has been marketed as “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney.” Powered by IBM Watson, Ross joined the ranks of the New York law firm Baker Hostetler, which employs about 50 human lawyers just in its bankruptcy practice. According to Ernst and Young “Robotic Process Automation (RPI) is the future, and the Finance and Accounting fields need to start preparing for it.” As a result of RPI, Walmart recently cut 7,000 office jobs after automating their accounting and invoice functions.

Moreover, according to a United Nations report, robots could displace millions of jobs around the world. Every industry and geographic region will be affected. However, these losses can be offset by the creation of new highly skilled jobs.  But what are those jobs and how can we plan for them?  While there is movement in the human resources industry to become more strategic in workforce planning, they are not there yet and, keeping up with all this change is perplexing.  Without good workforce projections, workplace strategists will keep going back to the drawing board re-planning for unpredicted employment changes.

How will we plan for these robots in the workplace and who will manage them?  Human Robot Interaction (HRI) is a burgeoning multidisciplinary field encompassing human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, natural language understanding, robotics design and social sciences. Studies in HRI show that many people prefer a robot boss to a human boss. We are seeing an increase in FM Robot Technician jobs and some industries like health care are using robots for FM operations: security, deliveries and janitorial services.  FMs are already managing these robots and will need to heighten their technical skillsets and HRI knowledge.

Workplace alliance, futures thinking and scenario planning will result in better workplace decisions

Furthermore, the life of a building lasts 30-40 years which is much longer than the exponential pace of change.  How can we design and plan for buildings for an unknown future with an unknown human/robot workforce?  Workplace Strategists now more than ever need to pay attention to not only the business strategy but also the future outlook of the industries that they serve.  Accordingly, Futures Thinking and Scenario Planning will be required knowledge.  The ability to craft alliances with the executive team, HR, IT, Finance and others to lead change with an interactive and creative diversity of perspectives will also be expected for success. While the future is hard to predict, we can give it our best guess by helping the C-Suite understand how a workplace alliance, futures thinking and scenario planning can result in better workplace decisions.

As a case study example, I recently worked with a state-wide Organ Donor Network organization in the United States that did just that.  Population growth caused an increase in organ donations and consequently an increase in staff with no available workspace to meet current demand.  The Organ Donor Network was forced to decide whether to expand on their existing site and build a new parking structure or move elsewhere.

In our futures thinking and scenario planning exercises, we looked at the impacts of NBICS on the organ donation industry along with social, economic, environmental, political and demographic factors.  In each area and with each technology we asked two questions: “What if?” and “So What?”   For example: What if 3D printers are used to grow human tissue?; So what if, in the future, kidneys will can be transplanted in 5 days rather than 4 hours?;  What if a new heart can be grown with your own stem cells?;  So what if some experts predict fully autonomous vehicles by 2025?

Surprisingly, in our research, we found that autonomous vehicles are going to reduce organ donations by nearly 20%.  Why?  Studies show that by taking the human factor out of driving, autonomous vehicles will reduce auto accidents.  And, one out of five organ donations are a result of an auto accident.  Think about how this discovery impacted our strategic planning.  Autonomous vehicles are also going to unbundle real estate, change where and how we work and repurpose parking structures.  In some cities in the United States, there are new buildings codes in place for parking garages requiring easy transformation for multi-use purposes.   For these reasons, one question the Organ Donor Network asked was “why build a parking structure? And, what is the future of parking structures?”

Our futures thinking exercise allowed the CEO, Operations, Finance, Human Resources, IT and Facilities leaders to align and develop three possible scenarios about alternate futures that were equally possible today.  By agreeing on one final scenario, the team presented to their board of directors; a future-forward business strategy along with workforce projections, an IT strategy and a real estate and workplace strategy.  This process resulted in more informed workplace decisions that save costs, enhance productivity and attract millennials which ultimately gives the Donor Network a competitive advantage.

CEOs need to start thinking differently

A recent study I conducted with Susan Wiener on planning the future workplace shows that “when considering a major move or renovation project, CEOs do not consider their FM as the person to lead these projects.  They prefer ‘someone who is a visionary and knows the intricacies of the business.  Nevertheless, CEOs do understand the need to form an alliance comprised of those with an enterprise view (CEO, CFO) and functional views (Facility Management, Human Resources, Information Technology, Sustainability) to participate in these projects.

Clearly a move can be a long-term decision.  With exponential change stirring, CEOs need to start thinking differently; people, place, process and technology are inextricably linked. It follows that workforce, workplace and technology strategies are interdependent. Therefore, to be successful, companies need to create a formal alliance among the relevant executives and look beyond their annual strategic planning process to futures thinking and scenario planning.  As Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce, once said “You must always be able to predict what’s next and then have the flexibility to evolve.”   Crafting an alliance can help build flexibility to understand and accommodate the ever- changing business landscape.