The Future of Work – should we be fearful?

Rose Scott
July 3, 2019
Rose Scott Worklogic

At Worklogic, we often turn our minds to the future of work. Recognising, as we all do, that technology is changing everything, at Worklogic we try to learn and imagine how the world of work is likely to be affected.

Are workplaces more hostile places than they used to be?

So, it is relevant to ask ourselves, ‘What are the likely workplace changes and how might they affect workplace behaviours and cultures?’

Older workers, like me, remember a time when having a ‘job for life’ was a commonplace, and that many workplaces and unions conducted staff-family picnic days and other generous, family-inclusive events and benefits. These things still happen, but they are far from commonplace, as they once were.

However, lest we over-romanticise the good old days, we should also recall that misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia were also once unquestioningly commonplace in the Australian work scene.

Is technology likely to drive increases in stress?

Nevertheless, current research (and common sense) tells us that technology is blurring borders between work and private time. Reventure Ltd, a not-for profit organisation think-tank undertaking research to stimulate public debate about workplace matters, conducts regular surveys of Australian workers. Their latest survey found that 73% of the workers surveyed feel stressed by their constant connection to work issues. This is an increase of 27% from the 2016 survey. The lead researcher, Dr Lindsay McMillan, says, “they are checking emails and thinking about work because they are connected to their devices.”

The report also found regarding the impact of technology:

  • 66% of workers agree that the workplace is becoming more complex and is changing at a faster rate than ever before, compared to 54% in 2016.
  • 85% of workers agree that new and emerging technologies are affecting the way work is accomplished and defined, compared to 65% in 2016.

Clearly, technology is registering with workers as a primary vehicle of workplace change.

Is it possible for technology to improve worker wellbeing?

The University of Melbourne conducts an annual conference on The Future of Work.

I was lucky enough to go to their last gathering where one of the keynote speakers, Jenn Gustetic, who works for NASA, spoke eloquently on the ways in which meaningful technology can be “wrapped” around workers to free them from mundane tasks. To work well, people need to be engaged in designing technologies relevant to their jobs. Wonderfully, the examples she used were not about astronauts but described the work she’s done with government workers: for instance, she collaborated with child protection case workers, helping them visualise what might be possible with technology to free them for more time with clients.

She points out that AI (artifical intelligence) is great at task-based work: human roles in the workplace will move from being rooted in task management to focus on problem solving and other more uniquely human skills.

She also stated that, “the role of managers will shift dramatically – task completion won’t be a performance metric for employees. Managers will become coaches – guiding teams to identify problems and opportunities in a much more organic way, driven from the bottom-up.”

What can the Renaissance teach us about navigating change?

The other conference keynote speaker was Chris Kutarna, who is the co-author of “Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our Second Renaissance”. Chris works for the Oxford Martin School where fellows are charged with thinking and writing about – only(!) – “the most pressing issues of the 21st century.”

His book draws analogies with the global Renaissance, 1450-1550, after which a new type of human can be seen to have emerged. He describes how the purpose of the economy shifted from subsistence to growth and the human mindset shifted from obedience to progress. He contends that post-Renaissance (following major social upheaval), the whole landscape of human possibility had been transformed. We may not be able to accurately see what our current, technology-led Renaissance will bring, but we are able to learn from the first Age of Discovery.

“If we are going to be able to deal with the unknown future, we are going to have to become powerfully more self-aware,” he claims.

What will the worker of the future look like?

The short answer is, no-one knows. But it is stimulating and empowering to engage in the discussion. Certainly, fearfulness is not a helpful response. Change is happening and we are all necessarily participants in it – not the victims of it, as it can all too easily be framed.

To end with another couple of examples of what the future might hold:

1. One of the conference panels talked about the power of new blockchain technologies. Some of us were dimly aware that blockchain underwrites the new cryptocurrencies, but its applications are widespread and likely to be transformative. One panel member, Dr Marianne Gloet from the Centre for Workplace Leadership, advised that blockchain will have multiple benefits for HR, potentially freeing it from its often transactional and administrative nature. Blockchain has the power to secure and simplify supply chains, eg records management/authentication, payments across currencies, certifications and digital contracting.

2. Another member of the panel, Rosa Thompson, Venture Strategist at Consensys, a global blockchain technology company, had really interesting things to say about her workplace, where almost everyone works remotely. She claims it is by far the most civil place she has ever worked, largely because the remoteness of colleagues and collaborators had necessitated a focus on communication and inclusion. Together they had developed an app called ‘Traditional Management Nullification’!

3. One of my colleagues, Kairen Harris, has made the following bold projection: wouldn’t it be great if the future incorporated better outcomes for the environment as well as for people… Imagine work hubs operating in each suburban centre. This is your workplace and these are your workmates though you all work for different enterprises. You change jobs frequently but you do not lose your workmates – you are spared those jolts. You also gain the two hours a day you might otherwise spend on getting to and from work. Importantly, the environment is spared the damaging impact of all those now untaken journeys.

How to Approach the Future

As things inevitably change, Worklogic plans to stay true to our mission: to work “with employers to prevent and minimise the impact of illegal and inappropriate conduct in the workplace and to build a positive culture.” We are confident that a positive culture will continue to sit at the heart of all successful workplaces.

Let’s choose to be excited about all the changes afoot. The next versions of ‘Workplace’ might be far more shaped by our own ideas than we are yet able to imagine.

About Rose Scott

As manager of Worklogic’s Integrity Line service, Rose Scott ensures that people making a workplace complaint are given a calm and secure reception. She also leads Worklogic’s policy development team, helping organisations set the standard for ethical and constructive behaviour at work.

Please contact us for an obligation-free, confidential discussion to review and refresh the policies at your workplace.

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Integrity Line is an independent whistleblower service for complaints about inappropriate conduct at work, provided by Worklogic. Click here to visit the Integrity Line website.