Humans are messy, and managing them is complicated. Even the most professional managers can be hijacked by destructive emotions, negative thoughts, and impulses that lead to regret and distress. Conflict, misunderstand and lack of integrity erode team trust. A single outburst can permanently damage relationships.
We are relying on outdated biological hardware in an upgraded environment. Our primal “freeze, fight, flight” responses hamper productivity and performance. Managers are appointed by other managers rather than being self-selected by teams. They don’t always win the hearts of the people they lead.
People management is learnable, but affiliative leadership and empathy take years to develop. Founders and chief executive officers are often dynamic and inspirational leaders, attracting people to companies with bold visions of the future. The subsequent employee experience might be less inspiring, especially when it’s buried beneath layers of bureaucracy.
In the quest for agility, many organizations have gutted top-heavy management hierarchies in favor of flat structures, where small groups self-organize around clear objectives. Some companies take this approach even further, introducing “holarchy,” where all parts are integral to the whole. Is it perfect? Of course not, but no system ever will be.
It’s apparent that the workplace of the future features increasingly matrixed teams, flexible and remote working arrangements, and overhauled workspaces. Organizations encourage individuals to become self-leaders — owning products, services or at least their performance. Instead of management, the need is for support in the form of clarity, digital minimalism and pattern recognition, so that human workers can be both creative and productive.
The Driverless Team
We hear all about driverless trucks and cars, whose artificial intelligence (AI) makes critical decisions based on real-time variables in order to reach defined destinations as quickly as possible. This AI performs within several complex parameters, including road etiquette, traffic regulations and resource optimization.
What about the driverless team, where artificially intelligent workplace navigators coach human workers toward objectives?
The workplace navigator need not be a humanoid robot overlord sitting in a corner office. It would be a discrete and responsive chatbot residing in the corner of our screens. Remember Clippit (popularly known as Clippy), the Microsoft Office assistant of the 1990s? The workplace navigator would be nothing like it. As part of the company onboarding process, employees would design their assistant, and the assistant would adapt to them.
May I introduce Nav, the workplace navigator of 2025*.
A Glimpse Into Your Future
It is 6:45 a.m., and Nav plays a soothing tune from the phone beside your bed. It let you sleep in, because it read heart rate variability data from your smartwatch that indicated that you might be getting sick. It is, of course, correct — you’ve had a scratchy throat for two days now. Nav asks if you’d like to meditate this morning, and you say, “No.”
After your morning ablutions, Nav lets you know that there’s no need for your physical presence in the office today. Your sickness is a risk factor for the rest of the team, and you’d be better off taking it easy. Nav has made the necessary calendar adjustments for your presentation at 2 p.m., allocating a meeting room for your colleagues that has videoconferencing facilities.
There’s no need to check your email; Nav has done it all. It’s assigned pressing tasks to colleagues who have sufficient energy and time capacity. There is only one item that requires action, but Nav asks if you would first like to grab an Uber — paid for by your company — to your favorite health food cafe. How can you refuse? Nav suggests a green smoothie and plays a podcast as you drive. The podcast is inspiring, featuring success stories from a business leader you admire.
By the afternoon, you’re feeling fresh, and your WorkPod — a company-provided remote workstation with custom ergonomics — connects you in high resolution to your colleagues. Nav takes notes and assigns actions to each attendee after the meeting. It also updates the project plan and feeds it into the Hub, an intelligence dashboard your executive team uses.
The executives don’t use Nav; their view is an integrated dashboard populated with panels showing progress, profit, risk, health and other metrics. Of interest to the executives today is the low team coherence scores and disrupted sleep across the sales team. The Hub presents two possible causes: Ben’s birthday drinks — an event listed on Facebook and confirmed via staff geolocation — or a potential rhinovirus infection (interaction patterns suggest a likelihood of 72%).
A Glimpse Into Your Organization’s Future
In the workplace of the future, employees are sacred. They are valuable and expensive resources employed to solve problems and accomplish tasks for which AI is not ready.
Their onboarding process includes a detailed health assessment, whole genome sequencing and microbiome analysis. Testing includes identifying their distress thresholds using galvanic skin response and heart rate variability. It also uses fMRI to determine optimal performance zones, and biofeedback meditation sessions appear in employee schedules automatically. Workers complete regular mental fitness check-ins with their workplace navigator (i.e., Nav), which computes warning signs in real time and sends alerts to the human resources (HR) team or employee assistance program (EAP).
Is the AI tracking keystrokes and inadvertently training itself for a future where employees are not needed? Perhaps. Humans may eventually become bot operators, providing a set of hands near but not on the wheel.
There certainly will be testing comparing the human workforce with the AI workforce. While the human workforce may score lower in customer satisfaction, they’re probably more fun to have around and will inject a cultural component that Nav doesn’t yet grasp.
The Benefits of Using AI Assistants as Managers
There are several benefits to having a workplace navigator:
- Across the organization, everyone receives consistent guidance in meeting objectives. The workplace navigator filters company values, vision and goals to the individual level and can flag every directive for review by the executive team.
- A single technology platform to drive all others: Nav is your calendar, your messenger, your assistant and your to-do list.
- Intelligence: Nav dynamically proposes tools and mental models to help you address challenges.
- Rhythm: Nav creates daily routines to align with your own ultradian rhythm — balancing focus, flow state and rejuvenation.
- Exportability: Individuals can export Nav from employer to employer, saving personal preferences and biometrics across a working lifetime.
What Happens to Managers?
The workplace navigator model encourages a shift toward coaches, advisers and mentors. Need to improve your emotional intelligence? Register for the upcoming workshop. Having financial issues? John is offering one-on-one mentorship as part of his development plan. Want to work on technical skills? Nav is ready with micro-credentials on demand.
Business magazines and leadership schools might balk at the prospect of AI’s displacing middle management, but this future may not be as bad as it seems. People are burning out under the pressure of overwhelming information density. It’s time for technology to make life simpler.
*Nav does not exist.