How a new type of coworker is changing office life

When you interact with a machine that learns your preferences and responds accordingly as it gets to know you, that's cognitive computing in action.

May 03, 2016

Your coworkers sitting nearby probably know how you take your coffee or the song you play when you need creative inspiration.

However, in the modern office you are engaging more than ever with a different, quieter teammate that also recognizes your preferences, from email spam to office temperature. This colleague doesn’t gossip or eat lunch with you—but they greet you every morning, and sort your emails overnight.

This coworker plays a critical role on your team, adding intelligence and data that make everything you do possible. This coworker is, in fact, a cognitive computing program—a close cousin to the robots that science fiction once predicted would take over our world.

The scary part? Your cognitive computing coworker may know you better than anyone else.

When you interact with a machine that learns your preferences and responds accordingly as it gets to “know” you, that’s cognitive computing in action. These learning-capable programs have already infiltrated the workplace, and are shaping both where companies choose to operate and how they design environments for productivity.

Human-to-machine collaboration is the future

Cognitive computing will have a far-ranging impact on the way people work. The Fourth Industrial Revolutiontalks of robots, but images of metal humanoids are somewhat misleading when it comes to the future of the workplace. What they are actually referring to are various subsets of artificial intelligence related to the phenomenon of computers getting smarter.

In the 2020s and beyond, robotic versions of people such as HUBO—the star of the 2016 World Economic Forum—will certainly begin to perform various tasks, but that’s only a small part of the picture. Less humanoid programs are already shaping workplace and site selection trends, and are expected to continue to do so in both foreseeable and unpredictable ways.

“The reality is that no one can predict exactly what and where the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies is going to be,” says Peter Miscovich, Managing Director, Strategy and Innovation at JLL. “What does seem evident is that increasing workforce automation will provide new levels of greater workforce efficiency, enhanced human to machine collaboration and new innovative machine learning capabilities that will drive business and financial performance.”

Moreover, companies will need a different scale and mix of workers than today. “Next-generation working will involve exponentially more human-to-machine collaboration, as companies tap data science to drive workplace performance and business value,” says Miscovich. “That capability is already here.”

Beyond rents and floorplates in location decisions

Recognizing that transformative automation will impact workforce needs across many industries, proactive organizations are taking a more in-depth view of potential talent needs that will drive real estate decisions.

“Whatever business they’re in, organizations will need to rethink their locations with an eye to the skillsets they need in the future,” says Scott Redabaugh, Managing Director, Location Footprint Strategy at JLL. “The drive will be toward a set of operating locations that support business transformation and performance with greater access to target demographics, unique skill sets and industry innovation.”

In fact, some companies are using cognitive computing itself to guide their real estate decisions beyond their staffing needs. “You can’t just look at rents and floorplates anymore,” notes Michael Billing, JLL Managing Director, Consulting. “With today’s data and insights platforms, companies can—and should—consider everything from the political environment and macroeconomic factors to demographics and quality-of-life factors to make real estate decisions that anticipate where their business might go.”

Increasing the pace of innovation

Computing advances are also accelerating the pace of innovation, enabling companies to launch new products and services in ever-shorter timelines. As this capability grows, new ways of working and collaborating will render some facilities and locations obsolete.

“Cognitive computing will have a direct impact on corporate facilities in the form of increased technology requirements, the need for flexibility and access to talent,” predicts Billing. “Companies need to turn on a dime to stay competitive, so they need to build agility into their real estate. They may need to create specialized work environments for jobs that don’t yet exist, in industries that have not yet begun to emerge.”

Computers can crunch data, understand natural speech and learn what the humans want, but experts concur that humans will still be needed for the foreseeable future, co-existing with automation.

For forward-looking organizations, the future lies in finding the right humans, then creating productive working relationships between the humans and their coworkers, whether human or machine.