A woman wearing a black dress standing on a stage speaking to a room full of women. Behind her is a sign that says European Leadership Academy.
Aleksandra Przegalińska. Image: European Leadership Academy

What are the biggest tech trends for the future of work?

24 Aug 2022

From wearables and automation to the metaverse, Harvard University’s Aleksandra Przegalińska unpicks what will really stand the test of time in workplaces.

Click here to view the full Future of Work Week series.

The technology we use in work is rapidly changing and will continue doing so in the future, with innovations from automation and AI to wearables and the metaverse.

But which of these are for the betterment of the employees and will lead to a better working world for all, and what role did the past two and a half years play in bringing these trends forward?

Aleksandra Przegalińska is a senior research associate in the labour and work life programme at Harvard University.

She was a speaker at the latest edition of the Schools for Female Leadership in the Digital Age, run by Huawei’s European Leadership Academy. Following her talk, I caught up with Przegalińska to hear more about the work she is doing around automation.

“The programme [at Harvard] is focused on workers and work and always has been, but I think for the past couple of years they’ve been really looking carefully at the future of work and how that landscape looks like from the workers’ perspective,” she said.

One area she and her team are exploring is “how to create AI-based tools that are actually helping workers and not getting rid of workers”.

She said that it has been “very easy to tempt businesses into thinking that automation is the way forward” because it can reduce costs and the number of staff needed, and it can be easy to implement.

‘Those who think about introducing wearables to workplaces have to think again’

“But for the majority of tasks we’re performing at work, this is not enough because our jobs are immensely complex and I think a collaborative AI is a more humble approach,” she said.

“It says human work is valuable. The majority of jobs cannot be automated easily and that’s actually great, but [workers] can still use the power of artificial intelligence at least in some tasks.”

Currently, Przegalińska said this research is primarily focused on managers and marketers – traditionally white-collar workers – and trying to use automation to facilitate their work while keeping them in the loop.

“But the ambition for the future is to also think about the blue-collar workers because they are the ones who are working very hard [and] they can be negatively affected by the automation and they are vulnerable in many ways,” she said.

“Reskilling for them can be harder, and switching to a different profession, so we are thinking about developing a different framework for implementation of AI in workplaces that really allows people to perform their work but also to lesson some of the burdens.”

Wearables at work

During her talk at the leadership school in Prague, Przegalińska spoke about the use of wearables, in particular highlighting the Pavlok wristband, known for giving users an electric shock to help them break bad habits.

She told me that she first became interested in wearable technology around 2016, when it looked like there was going to be a major desire for this tech in workplaces.

“There were many new wearable technologies that were extremely easy to use that were introduced not only in the fitness or healthcare sector but also in other sectors,” she said. “[But] I think the general societal response was not so positive, so people got scared.”

Przegalińska acknowledged that there are plenty of positive applications of wearables, especially when it comes to healthcare and wellness. And with the right ethical standards, some workplaces have brought wearables into the workplace with the aim of helping their employees’ wellbeing.

In 2019, PwC staff volunteered to strap smartwatches to their wrists, which collected biometric data on sleep patterns and heart rate variance, with the aim of raising individual wellbeing and productivity.

However, Przegalińska warned that “when it comes to entering someone’s brain”, you can’t get more sensitive than that.

“Those who do think about introducing wearables to workplaces have to think again and figure out how to do it in such a way that people feel that they’re benefiting from it and that it’s safe at the same time, and I don’t feel that we are in that moment yet.”

It’s not just wearables that employers are using to check on their employees. The early days of the pandemic saw an increase in demand for surveillance technology.

While Przegalińska said that it was hard for employers to allocate trust in the beginning, the mass shift to remote work became a great demonstration that employees on the whole do not need to be closely monitored or micromanaged to get their work done. To a large extent it worked really well, it worked well without surveillance technologies.”

However, she did note that the pandemic highlighted that there is a need to “create more immersive experiences while working remotely” and it has opened up the possibilities of using wearable technologies in a better way at work.

The future of metaverse work

One of the biggest trends being discussed in conjunction with the future of work – and many other areas – is the metaverse.

Before the work she does now, Przegalińska was part of a research project on Second Life, the online virtual world that is not a million miles away from the more immersive metaverse concept we know today. The aim of the project was to research the social fabric of Second Life and how people build bonds there.

While she said it was very interesting, she got tired from it. “It required so much time and effort to build those ephemeral relations over there that could translate into something but didn’t have to.”

At the time, Facebook had started to grow in popularity and it required far less time and effort from people.

‘I don’t know what the incentive would be to spend time in a virtual office’

“In Second Life, it was a world you had to inhabit somehow. You had to live in it, you had to build things in there, you had to really spend time. For me, it was very consuming,” she said.

“It was also tiring to spend so much time in front of the screen and also sit for so many hours and I think the current metaverse is not getting rid of that either, not to a great extent.”

With all of this in mind, she expects more from the metaverse for it to be worthwhile. For example, while augmented reality can add interesting layers to the world that we already experience, the metaverse just makes her nauseous.

In fact, in a recently published study, 18 volunteers spent a week working in the metaverse using virtual reality. Many complained of increased anxiety, nausea and being less productive.

“I just don’t know what the incentive would be to spend time in a virtual office,” said Przegalińska.

She said she hopes someone will come up with a vision of the metaverse that is really adding something as opposed to just replicating her office in real life, but with an added waterfall. “I just don’t get it.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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