For two years now, PwC UK chairman Kevin Ellis has been trying to get people back into the office. In 2021, he said he wanted to “create a buzz around returning to the office,” luring his people back with the promise of human contact we were all starved for in 2020. Launched a year after the pandemic began, the firm also came up with “The Deal,” an ominously-named framework built on ‘Empowered Flexibility’ that trades leaving early on Fridays in the summer if your work is done with 40-60% of your time co-located with colleagues in an office or client site. “This is based on feedback and recognises the importance of time spent together to learn, collaborate and socialise,” the firm says in British English on the Deal landing page. (Side note: PwC US did not take as aggressive an approach to the return to office until recently when they announced a RTO expectation)
Perhaps having realized that the possibility of human contact wasn’t a perk to people who work better at home and don’t particularly like people, Ellis has now said that AI will be the thing to motivate butts into chairs.
This is from The Telegraph last week:
Kevin Ellis, chairman of PwC, said the popularity of AI software will drive employees to abandon working from home as they want to “differentiate themselves from a robot”.
During a livestream event on AI technology for 25,000 of his staff last week, Mr Ellis told workers: “For professional services, where researching and summarising data is a key part of junior roles, AI has the potential to fast-track year one trainees to year three. You’re freeing people up to do more.
He added: “The latest wave of AI will likely bring people back to the office. People are going to want to learn from others face to face, and the best way a human can differentiate themselves from a robot is in person.”
Kevin started at PwC back in 1984. Since few people reading this even remember 1984, let’s put this in technology terms: in 1984, Lotus 1-2-3 had only been on the market for a year and it would be another year before the launch of Microsoft Excel.
In 1984, Apple introduced the world to the Macintosh personal computer via this aptly-named commercial, aired during Super Bowl XVIII (Los Angeles Raiders vs. Washington Redskins) on January 22, 1984:
Also notable 1984 technology, the 3.5-inch floppy diskette is introduced with a whopping 720 KB of data capacity. For you youngsters that’s this thing below, the ghost of which you still see in save buttons to this day. That metal thing on the top was the original fidget spinner.
Why are we rehashing ancient technology? To remind Mr. Ellis how dramatically things have changed since he started in assurance nearly 40 years ago. Tens of thousands of people collaborating from the comfort of their own homes was not possible 40 years ago. It was barely possible 15 years ago. Had the pandemic happened in 2000 we’d be having a very different conversation right now but it didn’t, it happened in the era of the cloud, fast internet, and now what could be the most disruptive technology of our lifetime changing everything it touches. Working from home was empowered by technology, not hindered by it. Why would we let AI erase all the progress we’ve made in the last three years?
Human contact is a better sell for getting people back into the office, really. AI can’t replicate that (creepy Replika waifus aside). Yet.