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Humans and automation in the future of work

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The world has come a long way in the past decade. Today, a period which many refer to as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, the way we travel, work, communicate and learn are all evolving faster than ever before.

Technology is impacting more and more areas of our personal and professional lives and the amount of time we spend on devices and social media is increasing. In Ireland, figures from 2019 report that the average person now spends over 4 hours on their mobile phone every day, with a very small amount of that time actually making calls.

While in work technology advancements have made huge progress and it's no longer common for people to perform monotonous tasks, risk their lives or be exploited for building major infrastructure.

A World Economic Forum report has estimated that 'by 2025 more than half of all current workplace tasks will be performed by machines as opposed to 29% today.' We can already see a lot of that around us, with robotic warehouses, factories and offices. Technology is now capable to make even the best of mathematicians, scientists and professionals redundant.

In this context, it may be time for us to consider the human in the future of work such as -

  • What is the role of humans in the future workplace?

  • What are the skills we will need to do such things?

  • How can organisations create workplaces where both people and technology can thrive?

What is the role of humans in the future workplace?

While a lot of these discussions sound frightening, in a spiritual way it is a moment of questioning who we really are. In a world of devices and automation, on one hand it might feel that 'human' aspects are being sidelined or threatened in the future of work. In reality, it's a time for us to reevaluate the value we can bring to work.

The evidence suggests that the world of work is improving and becoming more centred around people. Many workers now enjoy high salaries with benefits, inclusive workplace cultures, flexible working, gym memberships, free food and more. This would have been hard for anyone to imagine a decade ago. Having problems attracting and retaining talent, even when offering all of the above, would also sound unusual to earlier generations of workers and HR leaders.

With regards to what roles humans will perform in the future workplace, the World Bank's World Development Report 2019 argues that technological innovation will create more new industries and jobs on balance than what is lost on account of it.

For example, when ATMs first came out in 1967, people immediately predicted the end of the bank teller however the number of bank employees increased by the time ATMs became commonplace.

By installing ATMs to take care of simple withdrawal and deposit transactions this allowed the traditional bank teller to move into other roles. Banks were then able to take on additional services like credit cards, mortgages and loans. ATMs didn't necessarily replace the human; the technology simply enabled the employee and employer to grow and evolve.

Automation itself has come a long way and already so much of what we did in the past is automated. At the same time, the employment rates across major countries of the world are at an all-time high. All of which indicates people do and will have a huge part to play in the world of work in the future.

What are the skills we will need to do such things?

There is evidence to suggest that automation is freeing us up from day-to-day monotonous, mentally / physically stressful tasks and allowing us to evolve to do more meaningful work. Essentially making the shift from products to solutions and experiences, which will always be largely a human foray.

For example, those working in customer service can now spend their time talking to customers than filling up forms. As automation and Artificial Intelligence change our roles, that will also imply skills shift and organisations will have to focus on continual learning and development aligned to the same.

McKinsey Global Institute in their discussion paper 'Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce' predicts that the demand for certain skills will rise by 2030, namely;

How can organisations create workplaces where people and technology can thrive?

It would have been difficult for anyone to imagine a few decades ago the modern workplace that we have today - largely free from slavery and exploitation and with all the new perks and initiatives that are now commonplace.

Organisations are paying a lot of attention in designing workplaces and open cultures where workers can be themselves, feel valued, engaged and committed. HR teams now have plenty of chief officers overseeing diversity and inclusion, wellness programs, employee value proposition etc.

Organisations going forward will have to be mindful of many of these changes. Introducing technology into a workplace may evoke anxiety in employees who fear the security of their job. For both humans and technology to reap the true benefits for organisations and careers employers will need to take a mindful approach to introducing technology by implementing change programmes, digital strategies and preparing for the resistance and anxieties that technology brings.

There is a long way to go for organisations on their journey to the future of work - which is going to keep evolving and keep changing rapidly in the years to come.

What does all this mean for workers and organisations?

While emerging technologies can help businesses work more efficiently and productively this doesn't remove the human from the future of work. We can already see how different 'bots' are flourishing across different industries and doing tasks which were previously done by people. These people are now working alongside these various technologies instead.

Going forward, there will be increasing interaction between humans and machines at work and in our personal lives. This transition will trigger the need for humans to re-discover themselves at work. It will also bring in new challenges for HR Leaders given the fast pace of change. In fact, there is more of a need now than any time before to implement the technologies and evolve into other types of roles, driving careers and continuous learning.

This won't happen without senior leadership buy-in and robust strategies and change management programmes to ensure both the employee and technology can thrive.

Cpl's Future of Work Institute is an initiative that explores, questions and helps design future work solutions with our clients, partners collaborators and candidates. We would love to know about your organisation's journey on the future of work so far and how it plans to deliver on its people strategy in the new world of work.

Contact the Future of Work Institute at [email protected] to understand more of our EVP framework and how we are developing and creating employee value propositions, that create aligned authentic employee experiences that are driving employee attraction, retention and meaningful engagement.