Daniel Newman of Futurum Research Predicts Innovations and Fallout from the Pandemic

I recently had the opportunity to interview Daniel Newman, founding partner and principal analyst with Futurum Research. We talked about how COVID is changing human dynamics and the role AI and other technologies can play to normalize our workspaces. Below are highlights from our conversation. Watch the 25-minute discussion here.

But first, let me share my three takeaways from the exchange with Daniel:

1. Prevent relationships from becoming transactional

We have to guard against relationships feeling overly transactional as we make our way in this era of digital-heavy interactions. As people start venturing back out, we’ll need to make our infrequent face-to-face-meetings really count. This means finding ways to generate strong connections despite social distancing, masks, and other precautions.

2. Expect AI to play an Alexa-type role in office buildings

We will see highly imaginative applications of AI, especially when it comes to voice-activated commands that prevent us from touching surfaces in the lobby, conference room, or shared workspace. But there’s more. AI will also alert us to important information we can take action on — such as a huddle room that is exceeding its capacity or notification that a meeting is over so the room can be cleaned.

3. Companies will rethink how they use surplus office space

Companies are grappling with how much office space they’ll need post-COVID. Yes, more people will work from home. But will the need for employees to socially distance at the office absorb that newfound space? And, can employers repurpose extra space to create inventive environments that boost collaboration, group brainstorming, and team building?

Calr Wiese and Daniel Newman

Highlights from My Conversation with Daniel Newman

Carl: You’ve written a lot about this notion of seamless interplay between home and office. What’s going to be different about the home office in terms of the management, technology, and cost as well as the interplay back to the office?

Daniel: As the technology continues to proliferate, the ability to do work in either location will become more and more seamless. This is going to enable the home to really function as a full-fledged office. But I still think the one thing that’s underrated is the human condition.

We could have done conferences remotely for 20 years. And in the last 10 years, it’s become incredibly good and would have been much more economically favorable. But people like conferences. They like to have dinner with people. They like to walk around and talk to people. They enjoy the camaraderie, relationship building, and socialization.

That’s one of my biggest concerns in the wake of the pandemic. It isn’t just about the illness and the virus. It’s about people’s loneliness and connectivity. As we’ve slowly seen things unwind where we can have a beer with someone outside on a patio somewhere, you realize it’s just not the same. I think that will bring us back to a more balanced, hybrid experience than what we’re enduring right now.

Carl: I’m hearing the same thing. For the first 90 days, this work-from-home thing worked, but people are missing the in-person connection and what I call “unintended collisions.” They crave this in-person experience.

Daniel: There’s a different level of connectivity that takes place when you’re physically interacting. It’s a much more seamless, open, and less constricted experience that people tend to open up to. I’m walking to the cafeteria. I see someone in engineering and I’m in product management. We have lunch together and this great idea comes up. We didn’t plan that meeting. We just happened to bump into each other.

There’s always been a deeper level from that physical relationship. Do you remember the relationships you’ve built — whether it was golf days or going fishing with a customer or driving race cars? That’s gone, and I’ve noticed that some of the depth of customer relationships have changed. That creates more of a transactional nature. So how do we bring that back? That’s what those live moments were always really good for.

Carl: How do you see AI impacting the technology we use in the office as well as for work-from-home?

Daniel: We’re going to see the acceleration of conversational technologies (i.e., voice-enabled) that will lead to improved experiences and push vendors to do better. You combine the pandemic with the “virtual cooties” everybody has now. Nobody wants to touch stuff. Using AI, when you walk into a room you can do some automation and protection. You can talk to the room.

I love the demos of walking into a room and being able to talk to a system and say, “Call Carl” and it knows you’re the Carl I talk to the most and it’s able to engage me on that. I can say, “Turn on my video lighting mode,” and it knows what my video lighting mode is. It’s just starting to become much more natural, engaged, and more touchless.

A lot of people think of AI as robots walking down the hall, delivering our packages. Yes, there’s some of that. But it’s really about data. It’s about being able to process, capture, manage, enhance, enrich, and then utilize it to drive experiences. In the workplace, it’s going to be much more about that.

Carl: You hit on a number of things we are working on at Poly. I would add one more around management and analytics. With social distancing and COVID, rooms that, for example, were originally designed for 10 people can only have five people. And you’re going to see analytics that say, “Hey, did you realize there are seven people in that room and our limit is five?” They are going to alert somebody that there’s a problem.

The same thing goes for work-from-home. I’m sure you’ve been on calls where somebody’s bandwidth is a problem or somebody’s dog is barking. How can I understand what’s going on and either a) quickly put some kind of acoustic fence around that; or b) alert the person that their bandwidth is suffering so they can do something differently. We are working to manage that entire environment.

Daniel: Everything you mentioned is evolutionary utilizations of AI. We’ve been trying to better manage rooms for a long time. And we’ve got new challenges because of COVID — because of social distancing, spacing, enhanced acoustics, the desire for more intimate video, and wanting rooms to work more effectively. This means you have to think about the camera’s ability to follow voices and do it in a way that’s not distracting for the viewers.

Having said all that, I think these are going to translate in interesting ways to use cases beyond just meeting rooms. Poly’s partner, Microsoft, is doing interesting things with this technology and using it for the Internet of Things inside the retail environment. For example, how do you make sure people are socially distanced in grocery stores?

What you’re doing in these rooms is not only going to be done for collaboration. This is going to become part of that normal and a really good application for computer vision. I know it’s a sensitive topic right now with facial recognition. So, how are we using this data to create great experiences without invading people’s personal data and information?

Carl: Do you see companies or industries that are more likely to be disrupted now vs. pre-COVID?

Daniel: I think we will see a really big disruption in terms of the traditional workplace. Our offices will never be quite the same. At this point, companies have identified that at least 10% — and in some cases as much as three quarters — of their real estate is unnecessary. That doesn’t mean companies will never go back to work. It doesn’t mean the commercial real estate market is dead. But it means that it’s going to have to be rethought, repurposed, and reapplied in order to recapture hearts and minds.

I’ll give you one more that might be a bit of a contrarian view. I think that the importance of retail was largely minimized leading up to COVID. People’s desire to go out and shop — after spending three months never going into a store that isn’t a grocery store — has been realized. People love the experience of shopping.

I pondered why Amazon was buying Whole Foods. Why they were opening Amazon Go stores. Why are they investing in physical retail — when they had nailed the remote e-commerce, high-margin fulfillment strategy. It was because when people shop for exercise equipment, automobiles, and mattresses, they want to go into a store.

But the business model has been horrible. This is going to be that perfect time, with inexpensive real estate and big tech companies with huge capital availability. I could see Amazon getting into a whole bunch more physical retail businesses that are experientially driven.

Carl: Daniel, I appreciate your engagement today and your thoughts. Thanks for your time.

Daniel: Thanks, Carl. I really appreciate you having me.


Watch the 25-minute discussion here.