How workplace digitalization is changing the world of work

Many people in cities – and elsewhere – wonder: are all of these new technologies going to put me out of a job? It’s a good question, and the answer is still under construction. Rapid change can be unsettling, particularly when it may affect the economic basis on which we have built our lives.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the digitalization of workplaces is already here. How this will affect individual workers in future will be greatly influenced by a number of factors. These include how individual workers react, how companies and industries plan for the transformation, and how governments assist in the transition. This URBAN HUB series begins by examining some of the ways in which workers in various industries are being affected by digitalization.

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Published on 01.03.2017

“Any kind of job is going to have a digital component. It doesn’t mean everyone’s got to be a computer scientist; digital technology can in fact bring skills to a much more under-skilled population because of their ease of use and the ease of access to technology.”

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, (Speaking at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos)

What exactly is digitalization?

But first, we need to define our terms. Many people believe that automation is the big change we are facing. And, while it is true that the automation of tasks continues to spread, this is actually just an continuation of an earlier development. The 4th industrial revolution – a.k.a. Industry 4.0 – is where we are now, with automated machines, artificial intelligence (AI) and people being linked together through the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing, to create “cyber-physical” systems.

Digitization and digitalization are often used interchangeably. In this article, however, we follow a strict differentiation between the two. Digitization is the relatively simple transformation of analog information into numerical information. That’s been around for years. When you scan a paper document, for example, you digitize it.

Digitalization, on the other hand, is what you might do to a factory or a building or a city. Digitalization combines insights from Big Data with interconnected, location-based services and individual preferences to precisely deliver relevant information in a user-friendly format. For instance, you’ve been driving for several hours, it’s your usual dinnertime, and you generally like Japanese food. Your GPS navigation device knows all of this, and – unprompted – gives you directions to a good sushi restaurant nearby.

A sample of urban jobs being transformed

Sushi is one thing. What about the workplace? Let’s take a quick look at what may be going on in an urban workplace near you.

  • Office work

    More and more companies are giving digital devices to their office employees. Why? Because those devices are increasingly essential to running a business. Business applications can now give virtually any office worker the ability to instantly access and use whatever information they need, wherever they are, at whatever time of day. They also allow virtual teams to successfully collaborate on documents or projects from venues scattered across the globe. Parents can more easily work from home, for instance, as digitalization begins to separate the concepts of work and workplace.

  • Health care

    The goal is to care for the patient. Digitalization makes that easier, and can improve the results. For instance, doctors using Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) tools can more thoroughly examine a patient, assured that they haven’t overlooked something in their diagnosis. And in a hospital, IoT-connected machines work together to provide ceaseless monitoring of a patient’s vital signs. Nurses are alerted instantly whenever an incident occurs. Added by digitalization, healthcare workers now have more time for applying “the human touch” that machines cannot.

  • Manufacturing

    AR glasses are also being used in factories to train workers and reduce mistakes. Workers access step-by-step assembly instructions as they work, and the glasses tell them if and when a mistake has been made. Digitalization also makes manufacturing jobs safer. Smart machines can now do many of the hazardous tasks that previously made factories so dangerous for industrial workers. Beyond that, smart sensors embedded in protective gear can monitor everything from employee heart rates and temperature to the presence of toxic gases, dangerous dust or radiation – and trigger a appropriate response in time to save workers’ lives.

  • Logistics

    According to the World Economic Forum, “50% of trucks travel empty on their return journey after making a delivery”. That doesn’t make good business or environmental sense! Digitalization is the tool to eliminate those inefficiencies, better linking cargo with available space. Warehouse workers more easily conduct inventories and more swiftly find what they are looking for. And delivery personnel benefit on ‘the final mile’, using clever apps that combine navigation, street and traffic conditions, customer preferences and other information to chart the most efficient way to deliver the goods, so to speak. Digitally empowered workers finish their work more quickly, with fewer mistakes and less frustration.

Workplace transformation in building maintenance

Another workplace where digitalization is changing things is facilities management. Smart sensors bring real-time data from various building systems – air conditioning, plumbing, etc. – together with analytic algorithms and predetermined protocols. Maintenance personnel in the area are notified whenever an anomaly is identified, and the information they need to address the issue is streamed to their portable devices. Digitally linked sensors tracking movement through the building can also tell cleaning crews which rooms need attention, and which haven’t been used since the last cleaning.

And consider this example from the world of elevator service. Instead of waiting for something to break, the MAX system enables elevator service engineers to proactively replace a part. Bruce Holley, a 36-year elevator-repair veteran, reflects on recent changes, “In my experience the majority of our guys are really embracing technology and IoT changes. Better connectivity, mobility, communication… All of this has given us as engineers more power.”

“A lot of people think that with technology becoming more advanced and self-sufficient that there is the potential for it to put us all out of jobs. From what I’ve seen, that’s not the case. Technology is enabling us to do more and different types of jobs – we’re actually busier than ever!”

Bruce Holley, East region trainer, thyssenkrupp Elevator US

The work of digitally constructing cities

From factories and hospitals to building maintenance, digitalization is changing the way we work. That’s equally true for the people involved in designing and constructing the buildings themselves, and even the cities in which these buildings provide other workplaces. Part II of this URBAN HUB series will continue to explore the terrain of the digitalized urban workplace.