A young man wearing a black jumper smiling at the camera. Behind him is a plant in a bright, out-of-focus office space.
Tariq Rauf, Qatalog. Image: Blake Ezra Photography Ltd

What is the next frontier of workplace automation?

20 Jun 2022

Qatalog’s Tariq Rauf says that despite all the tools at our fingertips, the way we work is broken. The next phase of workplace automation needs to take this into account.

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Throughout history, new technology and increased automation has generally made us productive, either as a society or individually. This has played out consistently over decades and centuries, with the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and then the digital revolution.

Each time, we were able to find new, faster ways of producing the same goal or outcome, by taking advantage of new technologies that automated or completely transformed parts of the process.

We’ve seen automation reduce human intervention in factories, warehouses, shops, parking garages, hospitals and even in waste recycling, making them more efficient and scalable.

However, our day-to-day work in knowledge management seems to have missed the automation train. The amount of manual work we do is staggering. The shovels and pickaxes of the past have been replaced by endless clicks, tabs and searches, with huge damage to our productivity.

We know this because Qatalog partnered with Cornell University to look at the impact of productivity software on the way we work and the results were astonishing.

Its researchers found that employees spend an average of 59 minutes every day digging through cloud storage systems, scouring message channels and cycling through tabs, equivalent to almost one day wasted every week.

Similarly, 54pc of workers said that these applications sometimes make it harder to find information, while a further 49pc said that important information gets lost.

The sheer volume of applications we now use every day, all designed to help us become more productive, are actually slowing us down. Not only that, but 48pc of people also report making mistakes because they can’t keep track of information. There should be no doubt about it; the way we work is broken. But how did we get here?

What has gone wrong?

We are still at the very early stages of the modern work revolution and a large portion of our working practices are vestiges from the industrial revolution. The eight-hour days and five-day weeks were prescribed for factory production lines and designed around the limits of physical effort, using manual tools.

Over time, we have transitioned to the use of more and more digital-first tools. Paper made way for Google Docs, phone calls made way for email, Zoom and Slack messages, and the manual whiteboards were replaced by digital ones. We also built thousands of mini tools that do very specific things.

But the promise of modern technology to help improve the way we work is yet to materialise. We still do enormous amounts of work around work, in order to make the modern workplace function.

Every day, hours are wasted in the discovery, sharing, collating and searching of all sorts of things that are required to align with your team and organisation and it often dwarfs the effort required to produce the work itself.

Can automation help?

Automation can help, but we need to be more intentional about what we automate. To date, we have focused on the individual and we have become very good at building tools that make mundane tasks easier.

Only recently, Google shared its progress with LaMDA 2, its conversational AI engine. In an example, the user provided an input of ‘I want to plant a vegetable garden’ and the AI engine responded with an itemised breakdown of different sub-tasks needed to achieve this goal.

You can imagine how this might speed up the creation of certain tasks at work and make sure the relevant steps are followed, especially if it starts to learn more about your routine tasks and processes.

To meaningfully improve the way we work, however, we need to move to the next tier of automation at the group level. How do you build systems to reduce work for a group of people, and not just one? This is where things get really interesting, and where we’ve made very little to no progress.

Automating work across groups of people

Let’s imagine someone building a new piece of hardware. There are many teams working on this initiative to bring it to life. There are project plans, documentation, exchanges, meeting notes, progress updates, monthly reports and media connected to this.

The storage, retrieval, sharing and collaboration on all these assets are managed manually by humans. 53 years after man landed on the moon, we’re still emailing each other for files that should ideally be found with a simple search.

This is hard to do, however, because in order to automate this, the system that is automating it requires context, understanding of the relationships of the people involved and appropriate connections to all of the tools being used.

It requires knowledge of who’s working on the initiative, who they collaborate with most often, which parts of the project are relevant to them and where they are based. Most systems are narrow in their focus, and simply do not allow for this level of understanding, context and automation.

Reimagine what’s possible

There really is no point creating yet more formulaic tools full of iterative improvements that make individual processes or tasks easier. We’ve been doing that for the last 30 years, and it’s why we are in the position we find ourselves in.

Instead, we need to take a big step back and look at the bigger picture to understand where work is breaking. Once you do this, you can reimagine the kind of infrastructure needed to overcome these challenges and design an entirely new way of working.

The next frontier of work isn’t a better chat tool, a better document editor or a neater way to check tasks on a to-do list. It’s a new era of tooling that understands your business, its people and their work. It’s able to do the grunt work on our behalf, intelligently intervene where appropriate and suggest actions where necessary.

It removes the burden around work prevalent today that imposes an enormous productivity tax on progress, peace of mind and stress. That’s why the next frontier of work isn’t about the new types of things you can do, it’s what you never have to think about again.

By Tariq Rauf

Tariq Rauf is the founder and CEO of Qatalog, a digital workspace company.

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