When people ask what the future workforce will look like, it’s easy to imagine robots, augmented reality and endless lines of code.
But the truth is actually a lot more human, and much more complex.
As the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” takes hold — and we witness the convergence of AI, machine learning, biotech and VR — it’s not immediately clear what the role of humans will look like at the end of it.
By 2025, up to 40% of jobs could be impacted or changed by automation, and employees aren’t ignorant of this fact. A recent study by Adobe, titled The Future of Work, asked employees about the impact of automation, and 73% were either extremely or somewhat concerned.
People and machines
As businesses look to integrate new processes and technology into the workforce, the biggest differentiation — and perhaps the most important driver of success — will be how they handle the change for their people.
During the recent Adobe Future of Work ThinkTank, Dr Fiona Kerr, Industry Professor at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, said we need to be better at putting a value on the “unique contribution of human workers”.
“Yes, technology is advancing at an incredible and exciting pace. But we have agency over what happens to us and to our workplaces and to our organisations and to our societies,” she said.
Productivity gains from technology don’t necessarily need to equal less human jobs, but those people will need new tasks, and the incentive to do them.
Mark Henley, Adobe’s Director of Transformation and Digital Strategy for Asia-Pacific, says how organisations manage the shifting value of human work over the next few years will be pivotal.
“For the first time we have an option to offer choice that allows organisations to be people-centric, not process or technology-centric,” Henley says.
“An employee-centric approach coupled with the right technologies liberates the native creativity in all of us, allows that cognitive surplus to be used in a way that is appropriate for everybody in the equation, both the company and the employee.”
Author and HR expert Abhijit Bhaduri, who is based in India, says the current discussions around the workforce of the future need to move away from “what can we automate” and towards “how do we reskill people” if we want to keep people engaged.
Shiao-Yin Kuik, a Nominated Member of the Parliament of Singapore and co-founder of social enterprise group The Thought Collective, says in order to rethink education, people must shift the perception of themselves from “educated people” to “learning people”.
If we accept that technology is advancing and changing the world around us, how can we expect to live and work in that world with an education from a time before it?
The employee experience
Su-Yen Wong, a human capital expert, believes that because this shift in mindset hasn’t happened yet, the employee experience is starting to decline.
“Technology is going to give us lots of options to make things a lot better,” Wong says.
“But I also think that, in this process, we’ve got to make sure we don’t decouple work from life; business from society; and technology from humanity.”
In a world where people are living longer, Wong believes the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn is vital to maintaining a healthy workforce faced with unprecedented challenges.
“We start to see the [side] effects in the workplace [from the last] 20 years – the incidence of mental illness, stress,” Wong says.
“I think we need to ask ourselves, is that the kind of life and society that we want?”
Adobe’s Mark Henley agrees, saying that while technology has done “amazing things” for society as a whole, organisations need to recognise that humans still have that “X factor” that allows them to solve complex problems, collaborate and innovate.
“There’s still something about humans working together and working in flow that is unique and I think the opportunity now is to move beyond the previous ways of working – where humans were just the cogs in a machine – and allow them to be a bit more creative in the workplace,” Henley says.
“We’re at a point in history where many new technologies are coming together simultaneously.
“Whether that’s machine learning or virtual reality or autonomous vehicles or medical tech, together there are some very exciting opportunities that will emerge from that, many of which we can’t predict.
“It’s very likely that we’re going to have really big breakthroughs, and what I hope is that will give humans better experiences in their daily lives.”
Some of this technology has been put to use in making the workforce more flexible, but this trend has more recently started to reverse, as businesses realise that autonomy can sometimes be a detriment to innovation and collaboration.
“The biggest tech companies are building the largest campuses,” says Abhijit Bhaduri.
“They are deliberately bringing their people back into the workspace because innovation actually needs people to bounce off each other in terms of ideation.”
Bhaduri and Henley agree that as organisations look for bottom line benefits from technology and, in particular automation, they should be mindful of the experience they are creating for employees.
“If we treat people well and we assume that we will get the best rather than the worst from them as a starting point, and that we look at employee experience rather than employees as assets, you begin to get different behaviours,” Henley says.
“You get people that rise to the challenge rather than shrink from fear of the problem.”
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