A familiar story and, perhaps, an inherent fear is that one day we will be enslaved by the very machines we have built. The poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is an early (1797) example where the apprentice enchants his broom to do his work for him, only to find he is not completely in control. As a result, cleaning up the mess made by the enchanted broom far outweighs the benefit obtained from the initial support. This tale paved the way for dystopian sci-fi futures where artificial intelligence (AI) essentially “takes over” and we succumb to the “rise of the machines”. But is this fear rational?

Well perhaps it is, for the reason that we have already lost control of the machines we have today. Whilst we spend our time focused on the moral risks of the future of AI, we have failed to look at what is in front of us. The reality is that the tools and software that were the foundation of today’s work are no longer serving us. We are serving them.

First we identified email as the problem. It has gone from hero to hated, and it has taken us a mind-boggling 40 years to figure it out. A place where we organise our priorities and get to our work. Often missed and followed up by a message or phone call. We have flags, tags, filters, folders, searches, and alerts to help make it better.  Now we are in the midst of email alternatives — messaging, channels, collaboration tools — where we risk duplicating and triplicating our work to make sure it’s seen. All we need to do now is to follow it up with sky writing.

But it’s not just email. Almost every application you use to get work done is creating its own work. Our minds are mapped with the complex pathways of tabs and drop down menus and unintuitive idioms we need to know to get the work done. When we reach critical mass, this navigation becomes the work. A work that serves no purpose other than to serve it.

Here are three of the biggest problems:

  • Search — Estimates on our time spent searching apps are at about one day a week. But it’s probably worse than that. If you can’t find something you naturally ask the person next to you and they direct you to someone else. Companies have invaluable employees who know where stuff is and how to do stuff. It’s a skill, and in today’s world we need it to get work done. We run training, we put up posters, we even send out emails to help people find stuff. So let me ask you this: When CEOs imagined the people needed to build the dream, did they say, “We will surround ourselves with those that are skilled in navigating applications”?
  • Context Switching — Jumping between various unrelated tasks might sound like a national sport, but in reality it’s literally killing us. We have more distractions from devices that ever and expectations on response times are instant. We fail to prioritise, and the thing of the moment becomes the priority. Text messages, alerts, email, someone asking you how to find something, all beg for our undivided attention. Up to 40 percent of our time is wasted switching. On top of that, multitasking has been shown to materially increase stress at work. So, essentially, doing work that is not work is stressing out employees.
  • App Overload — The hunger for new applications in business remains unabated, with organisations typically experiencing a net growth in their number of applications year on year. A recent study revealed almost half the organisations had over 100 apps in the corporate portfolio. Outside of that, research shows that smart phone users alone were using about 30 different apps in any given month. Most organisations are focused on trying to reduce app sprawl because of the management (and license cost) overhead; but consider the human impact. We are essentially creating more functions and putting more data across more apps, increasing the complexity. Ever looked at your browser and realised you have so many tabs open you can’t tell what the header says? Or have you ever shut down the apps on your phone only to find dozens of open functions in the background? That’s app overload.

But hope is out there.

Big Green Buttons

We have overcome complexity in the past. Take a look at your photocopier — if its less than five years old, it’s probably resplendent with features that will allow it to churn out almost anything. But somehow everyone in the office is still able to use it. How? Well most people just want to copy, and to help them we have a big green button, often placed in the bottom right. Developers now permit other software to talk to their applications, allowing for the emergence of micro apps that are small and simple and that present the application function that you, as an individual, need most. Consider it your very own big green button.

Artificial Intelligence

Far from being our enemy, AI is much more likely to be a much-needed companion. Voice recognition paves the way for simple voice request, and machine learning means the system can understand your behaviour and present functions and information that are relevant to the context you are in, whether its the time of day, the name of your meeting, or the content of the email you last received. The killer application is the one that can help you get organised and do the navigation for you.

Future Generations

Deep down everyone has always sought purpose in their roles to some extent, but the coming generations are demanding it in spades. The trend to refuse sub-standard processes and systems is one of the most critical catalysts that will shape the future of work. Instead of shunning this enthusiasm and telling them to fall in line, we should embrace this. The advice I gave my children was to “never, never, never accept mediocrity from yourself or others”. These generations have grown up with the intuitive experience delivered through social app feeds, online shopping, and gaming consoles, which easily handle deeper levels of complexity than most of today’s enterprise apps.

Ultimately the future of work may be that we start thinking less about apps and more about functions. Thinking more about what we do rather than how we do it. We spend less time going out looking for files and data and instead, maybe, the right information will come find us.

In my opinion, a future where how we socialise and play looks similar to how we collaborate and work is a future where people are happier and more fulfilled in what they do. It’s up to us to turn away from the mediocrity and demand something better. It’s long overdue, and I think we deserve it.