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Editorial Team
20 Feb 2021

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The future workplace – all work, no jobs!

AI and automation

Work in the future could well be without jobs as we know them. AI and automation promise great change, and both employers and workforces must be prepared.

The rapid onset of technology in the world of work heralds great change, with its upsides and challenges too.

  • Self-driving cars are futuristic
  • Responses to customer service queries from AI-driven algorithms are indistinguishable from how humans would have responded
  • Machines now read x-ray reports by themselves

Productivity is clearly up, and quality of life is improving. However, there is no denying these advances mean there are some work categories that humans are dispensable for, which has caused much concern. And organizations that need to stay even more agile in these times must revisit what work truly means.

How fast is automation progressing?

It is estimated that half of current work activities can be automated with existing, demonstrated technologies, though under five percent of occupations can be fully automated. And in 60 percent of current occupations, more than 30 percent of activities can be automated. Here are more numbers:

Impact of adoption by 2030

What matters is not just the technical feasibility of automation, but also:

  • How much must be spent on development and deployment of automation solutions for specific workplace tasks
  • Dynamics of the labor market
  • Labor substitution and other benefits of automation
  • Acceptance by society and legal frameworks

The transition will be tough!

There is a variety of jobs that could be created in the next few years, as is the number and type that could succumb to automation. These in turn will affect wages and skill requirements. What remains front and center is that though there is likely to be enough work for full employment to 2030, the transitions could be more challenging than those seen in the past – away from agriculture and manufacturing.

The potential impact across sectors and occupations varies. Repeatable, physical activities such as cooking or operating machinery are most susceptible, as are data collection and processing. What must also be considered is that overall employment in these occupations may not decline, with some workers taking on new tasks.

How have the markets reacted?

So far, there are signs of havoc. Work quality is up and the cost is down, but challenges come from slow-growing wages, rising inequality, and profits and rents going up faster than salaries. Digital has meant a small bunch of skilled workers can handle tasks previously in the domain of a much larger group.

Wages are falling, and to dismal levels, with employers happy to employ cheap labor to do a task for less than machines and robots. Technology is abundant, yet its effect is first seen in low-productivity and low-wage employment going up. The challenge is not in developing or selecting the right technology, but in using it well while keeping workers satisfied with their lives.

Why must the notion of work change?

Companies have traditionally looked at work as bundles. A job is a grouping of tasks, it is done by job-holders, and people with employee contracts and within the organizational box are the workforce. Typical definitions of workplace it in one of three buckets:

  • The traditional approach focused on the job
  • A hybrid setup with employees defined by jobs and flowing toward new work with the onset of automation
  • Swarming to work, with agile, fluid matching of people with work

Management, HR, and leadership tend to operate from the first position. But all this must be deconstructed if the business is to gain all benefits of agility and automation. A job can no longer be finite; it is instead the sum of moving projects and pieces. Workers are more about their skills and potential than their job titles. Reconstruct jobs according to the following:

  • Getting work done differently if it does not all fit into one job
  • Hiring new people
  • Bringing in other employees for an ongoing project
  • Considering useful but unlisted capabilities of employees

Could employment go up?

With sufficient investment, innovation, and growth in economies, enough jobs could be created to offset what automation takes away. Jobs in technology development and deployment could grow, spurred by likely higher spending on technology in the coming years. More than the number of people in these sectors, their total wage bill could go up significantly as a result, as these are high-paying jobs.

The important challenge to address here is to upskill and reskill workers suitably and to properly support them as they transition to new jobs. The sooner displaced workers are reemployed, the better the overall economic prospects with automation.

Skills and wages will change!

Broadly speaking, the occupations expected to grow to require higher educational requirements than that automation will displace. The more advanced the economy, the more pronounced this trend is, with workers of the future taking up tasks that machines are not good at – communicating with and managing people, sharing or applying their expertise, and similar activities. Emotional and social skills will come to the fore, as will logical reasoning, creativity, and other advanced cognitive capabilities.

The first step in this direction could be bringing in an internal talent marketplace. This gives employees the chance to take on new challenges and work their skills, in turn boosting their motivation and chances of retention. Administrators fill gaps by helping on the floor, hospital workers take temperatures, and nurses then have more time for patient care. Walt Disney Co, for instance, once had a worker in an unrelated team volunteering for a trailer voiceover, and securing it!

Job descriptions will soon fall by the wayside. Leaders will experiment with the market by seeking projects and skills rather than touting the traditional description. Automation ramping up will further blur the line between work and jobs!

Managing the transition is key!

The benefits of AI and automation and the concomitant economic growth are undeniable. The transitions could be handled in various ways. Trying to preserve the status quo would take away the positives of these advances, which is why the way ahead is to:

  • Improve labor market dynamism and mobility: Leverage digital talent platforms to match workers with those seeking their skills.
  • Reimagine job training and skill development: Individuals must be enabled to learn marketable skills through their lifetimes, with mid-career retraining catering to changing skill mixes.
  • Provide income and transition support: Aside from retraining, workers will need systems of unemployment insurance, portable benefits moving with transitioning workers, and help in finding work.

To sum it up…

With work playing a different role and holding a different meaning in the future, only a comprehensive, creative vision will properly organize lives and give them value. Businesses must reevaluate their business processes as well as their talent management strategies to consider who is needed, who can be redeployed, and who needs to be upskilled or reskilled. Individuals need to reset their expectations from the world of work and be up to pace with skill requirements. Human labor will always be needed, but traditional notions of workplaces, work styles, and work skills are set for a huge rethink!

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