The Future Of The Workplace – Part 2: A Long Term View

Technology will radically change the future of work

In the first section of this two part article, D/SRUPTION looked at how the workplace must increasingly accommodate employees of different generations, with different digital skills and working needs. The effects of these changes are being felt right now, but there are other workplace developments whose consequences are only just starting to appear.

In this article, D/SRUPTION explores how new technology is beginning to impact the world of work, and how it will gradually make the way we work all but unrecognisable in the decades to come.

The augmented workforce

The augmented workforce is a term that has gained traction in recent years, as we increasingly rely on robots and intelligent technologies for certain aspects of our jobs. In fact, a 2017 report by Deloitte found that 41 per cent of companies surveyed had already integrated cognitive or AI technologies with their staff.

There are several advantages to introducing an augmented workforce into the workplace. Firstly, new technologies enable human employees to complete their work to a higher standard. The analytical power of intelligent computer programmes makes it possible to identify patterns that a human would miss, enhancing the performance of employees from financial traders assessing markets to retailers selecting which products to sell.

Secondly, technology has the power to entirely relieve human workers of certain tasks. Gone are the days of manual administrative roles, and laboriously entering or editing data by hand. Taking basic or mundane jobs off the schedules of skilled workers is an easy way of improving efficiency. It allows businesses to extract greater value from their highly skilled employees, whilst also sparing these workers the drudgery of formulaic assignments.

A steady advance

Whilst we can be sure that technology will arrive in the workplace, tracking its advance – and attempting to predict its appearance – is by no means an easy feat. The established pattern of technologies such as AI is to seep gradually into our lives without our really noticing that they are there. We might not be aware, for example, that the customer assistant we are speaking to is actually a chatbot, or that the search engines we use online are powered by intelligent algorithms.

Bit by bit, technology will fundamentally transform our job roles and the way we behave in the workplace. Although this change is inevitable, it is important for employers to be mindful of the process. Organisations will have to ensure that they are ready for change – a question of not only embracing new technology but also accepting a mind set of adaption. This includes reassuring employees about the benefit of technologies, encouraging them to see them as beneficial and not simply a threat.

The rise of the on demand economy

Consider the prevalent Western business model of the past century. It depended upon a specific relationship between employer and employee, with large companies hiring masses of workers who would then stay with them for life. This set up not only gave workers job stability, but also clearly defined job roles and career paths within an organisation. The hierarchy within a business was evident, and loyalty was rewarded with promotion and benefits such as pension plans and healthcare.

Although this model served its purpose for much of the 20th century, it began to fragment under the forces of globalisation and the rise of computers. In the modern day, employees can no longer enter an organisation and assume they will remain there for life. Indeed, few would want to. Careers in the traditional sense are dead, and young workers now expect to change jobs more frequently.

With fewer employees contracted into careers in the traditional sense, a significant proportion of workers is now available to work flexibly. This rootless workforce, able to secure time limited jobs with the internet and smartphones, has led to the creation of a flourishing on demand economy which grew by 58 per cent in the US alone in 2017. As the forces of technology continue to act on the workplace, employment is likely to become even more fragmented, tying the future of work to the on demand economy.

With the influence of the on demand economy only set to grow, the workplace of the future will overwhelmingly be shaped by casual workers. Rather than applying to businesses for long term contracts, workers will be left to see what is available to them on a day by day basis. Work platforms, as currently exemplified by the likes of Uber and Deliveroo, will proliferate in all industries, to service the effective exchange of skills and labour. From construction to retail, healthcare and food, the on demand economy may be informal, but businesses cannot afford to discount its growing influence.

Automation: threat or opportunity?

One of the most significant fears around the rise of technology in the workplace is the loss of human jobs due to automation. We can be sure that the workplace of the future will accommodate large numbers of robots across all roles – and that this will lead to some job losses. In order to stay employable in an automated era it will therefore be vital for employees to continuously renew their skills.

A strong commitment to lifelong learning will help workers to combat the changing nature of jobs. If a robot takes over one aspect of a role, an employee with relevant training will be able to usefully apply his or her energies elsewhere. As organisations integrate technologies into the workplace, willingness to retrain employees will be the new measure of corporate responsibility, although some accountability will inevitably fall to the individual.

Importantly, those employees who manage to defend their position in the workplace will have to learn how to work alongside robots. It remains to be seen what exactly this will entail. Can humans really collaborate with robots? What would this process look like? What will happen to creativity when robots take on all but the most human of tasks?

Whilst productivity will undoubtedly improve as a result of automation, organisations should be aware that a stripped down human workforce could shut down opportunities. Sometimes it’s the unscheduled conversations which come at the end of a meeting, or at the coffee machine, which result in the best ideas. If human employees become mere satellite workers around a host of robots then those discussions will cease, closing important channels of communication and creativity. Automation will reduce costs for businesses, but we’ll have to get used to working alongside a very different type of colleague.

Disrupting the future of work

We can be sure that technology will disrupt the future workplace in a variety of ways. The effects of technology are already being felt in the augmented workforce, automation, and the rise of the on demand economy, but not yet widely in the structural makeup of businesses and organisations.

For the moment, our corporations still largely preserve the traditional hierarchies of C suite executives and subordinates, but technology could effect a levelling out of this arrangement. As robots take on more of our tasks for us, human job roles are likely to become increasingly specialised. This could devalue the expertise and experience of executives at the head of organisations, as they may be left with little to differentiate themselves from their colleagues. Technology will push us towards a more piecemeal approach to work, with a focus on collaboration across discrete projects to maximise the skills of individuals.

It is clear that if they want to remain competitive, businesses cannot afford to be reticent about disruption. However, the impact of disruptive forces is most commonly examined in relation to consumer demands and competition, rather than with respect to the workplace itself. Technological advances will be keenly felt in the makeup of workforces, the way they work, and the very structure of organisations themselves. Accommodating both the short and long term effects of technology on the workplace will ensure that businesses are able to adapt to the challenges ahead. Meeting the expectations of both clients and employees will be crucial.

Have you felt the effects of the on demand economy? Could you work alongside a robot? Are there any other ways that technology will impact the workplace in the future? Share your thoughts and opinions.

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