What does the Future of Work Look Like?
How can organizations prepare for a future that is so difficult to define? Crystal balls have a poor track record. What seemed like science fiction yesterday doesn’t so much as raise an eyebrow today. Automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robots, and cobots are replacing many jobs that people have been building lives around for centuries.
These dramatic changes in today’s work environment have resulted in organizational and HR challenges that mirror, and have occasionally caused, massive social and political disruption. It represents a 21st Century version of the “race against the machine” that has influenced social change since the First Industrial Revolution.
Read any recent commentary on mobilizing our human capital to meet the needs of work in the future, and you will hear two recurrent themes: investment in education and on-the-job skills training. But for various reasons, there are disturbing trends.
For example, from 1915 to 2005, time spent in school increased by an astounding six years, accounting for a 14% increase in worker productivity, directly affecting economic growth. But since 1988, many advanced economies have seen educational attainment level off or, in some cases, fall.
The economic risk to those countries is evident when you consider that students completing higher levels of education are also those most likely to possess more “abstract” or human-only skills such as problem-solving, intuition, persuasion, and creativity. These high-value skills are unlikely to be displaced by automation in the foreseeable future.
Low wage, service-oriented jobs at the opposite end of the employment scale also perform work that automation will only minimally impact.
But in the broad midsection of that scale, computerization has and will continue to replace traditional “white collar” and “blue-collar” workers performing clerical or repetitive tasks. As a result, this polarization of the labor market will only add to the current social issue of income inequality.
How can today’s employers help develop tomorrow’s employee?
One-third of workers today are anxious about their future, and much of that concern can be attributed to technology and automation. While not surprising, it’s a very problematic number as that anxiety crushes self-confidence and inhibits a worker’s willingness, and ability, to adapt.
As more work moves online, self-employment and short term contracts will become more prevalent, resulting in less job security, more financial instability, and even greater stress. An out of office workplace, and the lack of a social environment means less job control and participation in decision-making. The inevitable anxiety is often cause for a number of physical and psychological health issues.
On the more positive side, research reports that 74% of workers are prepared to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to remain employable in the future. But what those skills represent, and where training is made available, is one of today’s largest organizational challenges. The following should be considered when considering the future of work:
- Start a meaningful dialogue on the future of work with your employees, your organization, and your community. If you have a healthy Corporate Social Responsibility program today, make more of it tomorrow. And keep in mind that you have internal as well as external audiences for these initiatives. Be as inclusive as your situation allows. Longer-term planning for 5, 10, 15, and even 20 years out pays dividends and moves us away from our ‘next quarter’ mindset.
- Help current employees assess their strengths and how they can adapt them to a more automated world. The mantra for employers should be “Protect people, not jobs.”
- The coming workforce won’t be all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and application programmers. How your organization values and helps to develop human skills like collaboration, adaptability, and conceptual thinking will be increasingly important.
- Through on-the-job training, increase and broaden the development of critical technical skills specific to your organization. Do it today. The pace of change is accelerating.
- Establish high-performance work practices – problem-solving teams, job rotation, information sharing – that enable workers to enhance the benefits of advanced technologies.
Artificial Intelligence will influence work in profound ways, but the effect that it has on a human scale is already becoming obvious. On the positive side, people will be less likely to work in traditionally hazardous environments thanks to robotics and automation, leading to a decreased risk of injury or illness from work-related events. But the incoming younger generations will work longer, resulting in an aging workforce which may have higher levels of chronic diseases. And more people will be working remotely in part-time, contract, or freelance positions, outside the traditional employee/employer relationship. This may increase loneliness, anxiety, and stress due to precarious employment. The cost of health care is just one of the issues that will shape the evolution of tomorrow’s workforce.
A recent study on the future of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) defines the stages of automation as Assisted Intelligence (for example, today’s GPS and monitoring systems in our cars). Augmented intelligence (emerging technology that enables car-and ride-sharing services). And Autonomous Intelligence (like the rapidly approaching future of self-driving cars).
Technology and the ever-increasing amount of data it depends on will shape the future, but how much will humans affect that landscape? The PwC study gives us four scenarios, each reflecting how society may temper, or accentuate the rise of technology.
- In the first scenario, The Red World, technology and its most innovative specialists will define the economy. Specific, relevant skills and experience will result in the largest rewards, with those workers frequently moving from one contract opportunity to another. Innovation is key, and corporate size is out-flanked by small, more nimble, and agile, entrepreneurial companies. “Full-time” workers comprise less than 10% of the workforce.
- In the second scenario, The Blue World, global corporations run the show. A core group of exceptional talent enjoy exceptional rewards but rely on the expertise and skills of freelance or contract “as needed” workers. Being a full-time corporate employee brings with it excellent compensation and benefits, and relentless pressure to perform. Augmented technology, medication, and implants help corporate employees push past the limits of human performance. Those employees are expected to develop and hone their skillset continually. The disparity in wealth distribution widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
- The third scenario, the aptly named Green World, sees the importance of a strong corporate social conscience rise in importance as a result of public opinion. Extensive use of automation and technology helps organizations meet these goals but come at a cost to jobs. A green agenda, the result of increasingly scarce natural resources, and demanding international regulations recognize that business has an impact that goes well beyond financial considerations.
- The fourth scenario, The Yellow World, is the result of workers and companies reacting to public policy that seeks “fairness” in the distribution of wealth and resources. Workers feel the strongest loyalty to people in their skill set, not their employer. Worker associations, like “Guilds” from the Middle Ages, re-emerge, providing protection, benefits, and training for many types of workers. Technology and automation must temper their impact as workers push back against policies that favor the “elite.”
Workers that demonstrate leadership, empathy, and creativity will be rewarded and attracted to organizations that display these same traits. The most successful organizations in any of the four worlds will be those that make foundational health and well-being programs a core offering, inspiring discretionary effort from their employees or contractors and as a result, achieving the highest level of productivity.
Individual wellbeing platforms on employee portals are already facilitating physical and psychological health support. In the future, these personalized, data-rich platforms will expand into other significant stress-related areas, such as financial health and interpersonal relationship health.
Constantly expanding technology, and immensely powerful social trends will shape the future of work, but which direction it takes is almost impossible to predict. Companies and individual workers should prepare for a number of outcomes. But one is very predictable: organizations that fail to adapt to these new realities will not be able to compete successfully, leaving their people frustrated, and alienated.