3 ways workplace technology and culture will evolve in 2020

When you imagine future technology, what comes to mind? Revolutions in commercial travel like flying cars or civilian spacecraft? Widespread availability of domestic robots to manage household work? Medical breakthroughs that dramatically lengthen the human lifespan? While any of these developments would represent remarkable progress, all these future technologies were also being predicted 30 years ago. The year 2019 saw huge technological change from 1989, but the direction of technology—smartphones, not spacecraft—was not what everyone expected.

This in mind, it’s time for a near-future prediction that speculates on technology evolution rather than revolution. This approach assumes the future of work is already here—that rather than some groundbreaking invention, we will see the expansion of existing technology impact the way we work. Here are three predictions on how workplace technology and culture will continue to evolve in 2020.

1. AI and virtual assistants will streamline more of our busy work

No one comes to the office excited to answer emails and approve expense reports. Yet as organizations grow, so do the number of everyday tasks and notifications that pop up on our employees’ screens. And while it only takes a minute to read an event invite and RSVP, this break in attention takes a toll on our ability to focus. Experts estimate that shifting between work tasks can eat up around 40 percent of our productive time.

The AI and machine-learning technology to streamline these routine tasks already exists, and in 2020 these virtual assistants are going to become much more popular. By learning from who employees are, what they do, and how they like to work, virtual assistants will help employees reclaim their precious time by streamlining and automating simple tasks. For example:

  • Expense reports under a certain threshold will be approved automatically, as well as PTO requests submitted far enough in the future.
  • Conference call recordings and files will be automatically shared with attendees once a meeting is concluded.
  • Information you need for a meeting or presentation will be automatically searched for and added to the event description to save you the time of looking it up.

One final note: Don’t let automation scare you, as we are decades away from robots learning to write and create sophisticated business strategy. Where automation can be a big help is by performing repetitive and easily predicted tasks, which are exactly the kind of busy work that humans would love to hand off.

2. Workplace technology will focus even more on usability for everyone

According to Gil Press of Forbes, by 2024 more than half of user interface interactions will use AI-enabled computer vision, speech, natural language processing and AR/VR. 2020 will take a big step in this direction, expanding these new modes of input to deliver a more intuitive work experience for everyone. So what will this look like? Rather than taking their laptops everywhere, employees will access business apps and data from any device connected to their workspace—including smart glasses, wearables, and VR/AR headsets.

While these new modes of input can seem like flash over substance, these technologies provide greater usability for everyone at an organization. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of these new technologies are employees with disabilities. These new modes of input boost accessibility for workers with disabilities by helping to analyze business data, virtually attend meetings, and collaborate with colleagues. What’s more, increasing accessibility is better for everyone—organizations that actively employ people with disabilities have seen 89 percent higher retention and a 72 percent increase in productivity.

3. Remote work flexibility will become a true priority, not a “nice-to-have.”

With the U.S. unemployment rate at 3.6 percent and high demand for skilled workers, companies need to look for every possible advantage to find and keep the right employees in a tight labor market. These conditions have made remote work and flexible hours essential to building a strong workforce and company culture. Hiring remote workers gives you a wider geographic range from which to hire, making it more likely you can recruit top candidates. Also, 68 percent of respondents in a recent Quartz survey said it was “very important” their workplace technology let them work from any location.

As you find the right flexible and remote work model for your organization, it’s important to choose workplace technology that helps employees do their best work wherever they are. Look for solutions that provide every employee with unified and secure access to all the apps and data they need for work, regardless of the device they’re using. This lets your employees choose the work environments and tools they prefer while your IT team centrally manages access and information security.

The future depends on technology that enables our best work

We may still be decades away from flying cars and civilian spacecraft, but the technology of 2020 offers a lot of excitement. Workplace technology will become more intelligent and able to pull the weight of routine tasks. New modes of engagement will unlock a more meaningful and accessible employee experience. And employees will have their minds and schedules freer to do their best work wherever they choose.

To learn more about the role of technology in creating a better employee experience, explore this report produced with The Economist Intelligence Unit.