Although technology may reshape the future of work, without a central component–acceptance and adoption by people—it can never fully achieve its promise. Korn Ferry believes that people are critical to the future of work and that only a partnership between them and technology will release greater value for organisations. But some people will be left behind. How can they still contribute and benefit?
“Unexpected item in bagging area” – a joyless robotic voice echoed in the self-serve check out area of my local supermarket. I turned to look for staff to help but there was none. As I impatiently tapped my feet waiting for a shop assistant to show up, I was thinking of the fate of blue collar workers being replaced by machines and software in all corners of the world.
Surely, technology and automation are constantly accelerating and boosting productivity. Freed from more mundane tasks, people can be more efficient and innovative, ultimately creating greater value for their organisations.
But there is a dark side to the future of work. Many people are being shut out of it. Almost 200,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Australia since 2008 . Five million Australian jobs are likely to disappear by 2030 due to technological advancement . As more work is automated and fewer clerical and manual positions remain, people in these roles will be jobless unless they can adapt and learn something a machine can’t learn.
This is the paradox of the future of work. Technology can either enable or disable the global workforce. It will allow some people to work smarter so they can do more for their organisations; it will disempower others and take their jobs.
Why is this relevant for companies, usually intent on following lean principles? Because the people being pushed out of future work still influence the wider business environment:
- They are customers. Part of Henry Ford’s genius was to build a car for the middle class and to pay his workers enough to join it. Without disposable income, people don’t buy discretionary items. This could lead to shrinking economies and even another global recession.
- They are voters. They can influence and even reshape the business environment, nationally and globally, through political channels. For evidence, just look at the recent rise of nationalist political voices in the US, Europe and Australia Although the ’gig economy – a job market where temporary, flexible jobs are commonplace – may look like the answer to some of the challenges, it isn’t creating enough middle-level jobs to replace positions being painted out by automation. People reliant on gig economy work will struggle to make living wages or create the stability required to raise families. How will a reduced customer base, scraping by and dissatisfied with their quality of life, affect organisations’ bottom line?
A vision for the future
So what is the answer? There is no simple, single solution: Creating a future that works for everyone will be accomplished only by many small steps that add up. There are implications for business and corporate leaders in supporting social change and government policies. Some areas to consider:
There will still be work for people involving cognitive, creative, problem-solving skills; in fact, these are the skills businesses will need. But, universally, the basic education system isn’t keeping up with the increasing requirements of employability. Changes to education are needed to bolster the capacities employers will rely on in the future: creative thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, flexibility, the ability to collaborate in diverse teams, and learning agility.
Education can’t stop there. Adults, too, must have access to constant educational opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills, often related to technology and its applications. This learning may occur inside companies. But the burden shouldn’t rest solely on employers’ shoulders: Much of it needs to be available to the unserved and underserved employees so they can refresh and re-equip themselves to meet organizations’ new needs.
Solid, reliable infrastructure is critical to a future digital economy -- machines have only a limited ability to create it. Investments in infrastructure will both employ people who might otherwise be left behind and enable technology advances. The Australian economy will need 100,000 new ICT workers in the next six years, according to a Deloitte study. But not enough people are learning ICT skills, neither at school nor at university. Reskilling and retraining the existing workforce, the workers that will be transitioning from other industries, will be a viable way to fill these jobs and drive innovation in society and in business.
Automation and robotics are changing markets and workforces but human beings will continue to play a vital part in the future of work – as consumers, fuelling the economy and as workers, providing essential skills in various fields required for digital systems to proliferate. This became clear when the shop assistant appeared. By then, annoyed customers waiting in the line were complaining. The staff smiled and gave them time to voice their concerns. She did her magic to troubleshoot my check out machine and soon I was beeping my items into the plastic bags. Bits and bytes will always need a personal touch.