Big workplace changes are coming in 2024. Are you ready?


If you thought the pandemic and AI revolution changed work in the past four years, get ready for epic changes coming in 2024.

During the past three years, the world of work was turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Technology saved the economy by enabling millions to work from home using video calls, cloud services, and collaboration software.

Then last year, generative artificial intelligence (genAI) changed everything; 2023 was its “breakout year,” according to a survey-based report by McKinsey. The  2023 surge in awareness about large language model (LLM)-based genAI technology resulted from OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT and DALL-E tools in 2022.

This category of AI has been in development for decades in hundreds of university and corporate labs. But OpenAI was the first to offer the tools to the public (and to developers through application programming interfaces (APIs) as well as to users of Microsoft’s Bing search engine). Easy availability triggered a surge in usage. “ChatGPT” became a mainstream brand. Other organizations scrambled to make their own research publicly usable.

Now, in the world of business technology, genAI is everything.

It started last spring. By April, a quarter of C-suite executives were using genAI for work and a quarter of boards of directors were talking about using it in the workplace, according to McKinsey, even as both executives and board members remained concerned about the accuracy of AI output.

That concern reveals that some view genAI tools as a kind of search engine, confusing the ability of the technology with the quality of the datasets available tools are trained on. In 2024, that confusion will be clarified for many because companies will take a hybrid approach to implementing the fast-evolving technology at work.

The big move away from canned data began in November, when OpenAI’s Sam Altman announced GPTs that enable users to create custom versions of ChatGPT for specific purposes. GPTs enable the user’s own data to augment ChatGPT’s training dataset.

Over time, tools that enable organizations’ (or industry’s) own data will demonstrate that AI chatbot “hallucinations,” as well as other transgressions, arise because of the data, not the AI technology. Using custom data sets will prove vastly more powerful for true insight and actionable results than generic ones.

In any event, the OpenAI chatbot scenario will turn out to be a relatively minor part of the genAI contribution to productivity and knowledge work. In 2024, the technology will be baked into cybersecurity, software development, productivity, customer service, human resources, fleet management and other software and cloud tools. In general, these AI features will help people cope with rising complexity in all things and give them an edge in analysis and pattern spotting.

GenAI use will grow vastly more relevant with more specific data inputs and integration into focused applications.

The integration of this technology into industry- and occupation-specific solutions will also be accompanied by a cultural backlash against the breathless hype of 2023. Companies that try to replace employees outright with AI will realize that humans empowered with well-designed AI tools are far more effective than AI working on its own.

As with all new technologies, once the hype dies down and the tech becomes a ubiquitous banality, we’ll know it’s become truly powerful, useful ,and transformative.

In general, AI will become universal and normal, even as it boosts economic output much as the PC, networking, and web revolutions did in the 1990s.

Get ready for a new set of realities

We’ve been talking about augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) for many years. But 2024 is the year high-resolution, high-quality AR goes mainstream (and by “mainstream,” I mean that Apple will launch its AR product, the Apple Vision Pro).

No, the Vision Pro itself won’t become a mass-market product like the iPhone anytime soon, or ever. Because of the difficulty in sourcing and manufacturing, as well as the high purchase price, large size and limited battery life, unit sales will be lower than other Apple products. Estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 units in the first year. Canalys estimates unit sales to exceed 10 million per year within four years.

By comparison Apple sells well over 200 million iPhones every year.

Analysts expect lower-cost Vision Pro versions, as well as smaller and lighter headsets, in the years to come to drive higher sales. (And it will affect the larger AR/VR industry.)

It’s also worth noting that Vision Pro technologies will spill over into other Apple Products, dragooning the entire Apple ecosystem into its orbit. For example, MacBook Pro users will be doing FaceTime calls with Vision Pro users. The laptop users will have their faces 3D scanned, and they’ll see the 3D scanned avatar of the Vision Pro user as a participant in the meeting.

Users of Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max smartphones will be able to use those devices to capture 3D “spacial” videos viewable on Vision Pro devices.

These are two early ways that non-Vision Pro users can participate in Vision Pro technologies, and there will surely be others coming in the future.

As with Apple’s previous entries into the music player, smartphone, tablet and smart watch markets, the Vision Pro will put buyers, competitors, and developers on notice, focusing the industry on the new category. By the end of 2024, AR will be ubiquitous and inescapable. Dozens of major companies will offer Vision Pro-like AR/VR solutions optimized for the workplace at a wide range of prices. In this case, enterprise-specific AR solutions will lead the way, with consumer devices lagging.

Another category of AR will hit companies in unexpected ways; I call it non-holographic AR, and the leader in this industry will be Meta, which is already testing something it calls multimodal AI.

Ray-Ban Meta glasses, which shipped Oct. 17, have a camera, which can be used for taking pictures and videos and live-streaming to Instagram or Facebook.

With a software update (available first to early adopters in December), users will be able to use the camera to recognize objects and get AI-driven information and even advice (Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated the feature by asking what pants might go well with a shirt he was holding.)

The use of internet-connected glasses with cameras (by Meta and its many coming competitors) to augment reality (with the output coming in the form of spoken words from AI rather than holographic visual objects) are going to affect business, as a growing percentage of employees in all departments will be wearing them all day, every day.

The impact will be akin to the smartphone revolution, where the power of computers, apps, the internet and digital communication will be made much more accessible and quickly available through glasses than via a smartphone.

The combination of Apple its mainstreaming high-resolution holographic AR and Meta mainstreaming its non-holographic AR means the workplace will be transformed by AR starting in 2024.

Flex work will be the new normal

The pandemic forced businesses to allow remote work at scale for the first time ever. Many employees got used to it, and now prefer working from home. But a large number of businesses continues to resist the trend, imposing back-to-office mandates.

While the work-from-home (WFH) standoff has become the conventional wisdom, it’s also a misleading oversimplification. In fact, many organizations are thriving with remote and hybrid work policies.

And many employees love coming to the office. A recent study by FORA found that the youngest workers, aged 18 to 24, are the most enthusiastic bracket for wanting to work in offices; this group also responds best to in-office perks like cafes, gyms, and rules allowing pets at work.

Large companies that impose back-to-office mandates on employees who don’t want to commute or work in an office face pushback in the form of petitions, resignations, and difficulty in hiring. Even the most strident back-to-office companies are explicitly hiring for remote positions in job areas of highest demand, knowing that the only way to hire the best workers is to offer a WFH option.

Some workplace specialists say companies are even using back-to-office mandates as a way to lay off employees without laying them off, knowing large numbers will quit in response to the mandates (or can be fired for cause if they refuse to return).

Still, the reality is that for many companies, allowing remote work is essential for meeting inclusivity targets and coping with talent shortages.

What’s lost on many organizations is that the “mandate” part of back-to-office mandates is the most objectionable part.

Working from home enables workers to tailor their work schedule in a way that enables them to cope with the many other “mandates” in their lives. As a simple example, a family with two spouses and two children can be a scheduling nightmare. If both adults are “mandated” to be in the office until 5pm, and the school “mandates” that one of the children be picked up at 3pm, the problem is obvious. In reality, modern family life is far more complicated than that, and no workplace can schedule work time better than the employee.

So, whether employees are working in the office, at home, or a mix of both, flex work will be the new normal in 2024. “Flex work” is less about where one works and more about when.

Allowing employees to work when they choose — and providing the asynchronous communication tools to enable that — will be essential to hiring and retaining employees in 2024.

Forcing employees to work in an office during set hours diminishes mental and physical health, wastes time, costs more, increases distraction, reduces productivity, degrades morale and damages work-life balance. Companies that fail to offer flex work and remote work will have a harder time competing in the marketplace because their workforce will tend to be understaffed, overworked and over-stressed.

By contrast, companies that offer flex and remote work options will have a competitive advantage. A Darwinian process will favor those who cultivate the cultures and management styles that make flex work succeed. The dinosaurs will die out.

The bottom line is that changes are surely coming to how, when, and where we work. The time to prepare for the new technology-enabled workplace — the new world of AI, AR and flex work — is now.

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.



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