AI is a disruptor, changing the labour market in ways that are hard to predict but, used the right way, technology can also make work better.
AI is rapidly disrupting the workplace and labour market but the principles which make work a positive experience remain unchanged. Writing for Strategy+Business, Bhushan Sethi and Carol Stubbings describe the struggle firms face to give staff “good work” as AI advances, and argue that by making more use of technology, they can make jobs more fulfilling for staff, improve employee flexibility and retention rates, and boost performance.
“Good work” is rewarding and fits with the worker’s personal values: pay is fair, the rate of change manageable, staff have reasonable autonomy, work-life balance is maintained. The company itself should be “inclusive, diverse and respectful”. Good work offers meaning, purpose and the chance to contribute towards worthy goals.
But when AI deconstructs complex tasks, automates them and cuts the human out of the loop, work becomes increasingly unstable. The 21st century’s ageing population has time on its hands: “Those who live to around 60 have 93,600 productive hours; those who live to 100 have 218,400.” Making use of those hours means people need to constantly update their skillset to change course many times over a long and insecure career.
HARD TO PREDICT
As AI replaces repetitive tasks, remaining occupations are those which require uniquely human input. Work, then, becomes less transactional, less about an exchange of time for money; “instead, the emphasis will be on the roles people play in how tasks get done, or the input, and the value of that work, or the output”. For firms, the lack of clarity around exactly which jobs AI will replace and when means labour needs become increasingly hard to predict.
Attracting and retaining staff who have the flexibility to retrain and re-skill as necessary means making their working lives rewarding – giving them “good work”. But as already described, that’s getting harder to do.
THE AI PARADOX
A global survey of 1,200 businesses identified 45 organisational capabilities that are important to the way staff experience work. The top five are: “building trust, valuing human skills, supporting mental and physical wellbeing, managing workloads, and having workspaces that encourage collaboration and creativity”.
AI threatens the quality of the work experience but, paradoxically, the survey also indicates that one of the main reasons firms are failing to deliver on the most important organisational capabilities is that they’re not using technology enough: data analytics can make jobs better too.
USE TECH TO MAKE WORK BETTER
1) Prevent burnout. Lengthy careers mean working life is now a marathon, not a sprint, but the enduring work culture of long hours and 24/7 availability does not bode well for longevity. Stress and burnout are a major workplace issue, but tech can help. Use apps to remind people to take regular breaks. Use technology to enable greater work flexibility.
Barclays encourage “dynamic working” – encouraging home-working, flexible working hours, sabbaticals and job shares. In 2017, over half of employees rated as dynamic, scoring higher than their colleagues on “sustainable engagement”.
2) Build social networks. “Social ties are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” But since the 1980s, loneliness has doubled in the US. A culture of overwork restricts people’s ability to engage with others outside the workplace, contributing to mental health issues like depression, which has a knock-on effect for firms in terms of absenteeism.
Tata Consultancy Services implemented a company-wide social network – Knome – a Facebook-style platform that connects 380,000 workers from around the world. Some 80% of staff use Knome for both work and private interaction, creating nearly 10,000 online communities.
3) Flexible learning. Data analytics can at least help to predict what skills will be needed in future. At Heineken, a career-tracker tool helps people develop their careers in line with their interests by listing opportunities that match their personal ambitions.
Australian bank Westpac created “Learning Bank” and “TechU” – online learning systems that adapt to the changing demands of work by allowing staff to self-select courses as the demands of their jobs change. Dave Curran, CIO at the time of launch, said: “Nirvana is where people are self-educating to where their interest is, somewhat guided by the organisation and people like me, towards where the demand is.”
4) Encourage “intrapreneurs”. The rapid development of disruptive technology means firms need to be agile. To be agile, companies need staff who can generate new ideas and take reasonable risks.
To help firms build an intrapreneurial environment, software developer Rite-Solutions created Mutual Fun, a virtual marketplace for ideas. Employees use the platform to network, and create and share ideas. Employees invest virtual capital in their preferred schemes and an algorithm gives each project a notional price reflecting the level of interest in it, plus the amount of virtual capital staff invest in it.
5) Give back control. “People regularly tell survey takers that they would give up income for greater control over how they work.” But with the right tech, there’s no need for that. Spotify believes that, for employees to function best, alignment – where skills and interests match the requirements of the job role – is what matters most. With the help of technology, their 2,000 plus staff are arranged into “squads”, which self organise around tasks, collaborating to resolve problems.
AI is more than a disruptive force which automates routine tasks at the cost of destabilising workforces. It shifts the focus of work from transactional time-for-money roles to jobs where human interaction is paramount. Technology also plays a role in protecting workers and companies from the uncertainties of the future labour market, giving the workforce greater agility, flexibility and ultimately more meaningful and rewarding working lives. In other words, good work.