3D printer printing plastic ornament - suggesting the future of work
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The jobs of tomorrow will be here sooner than we think, we need to be careful we don’t lose employee wellbeing along the way

My father had one job in his lifetime, I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time.’ Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar

The future of work is the issue exercising business psychologists at the moment. But it isn’t just preoccupying academics. Over the last couple of years, there have been more column inches devoted to it than almost any economic issue other than Brexit. These have covered everything from the impact of driverless cars to the UK technical skills deficit, and from the gig economy to whether robots should be taxed.

Why is this subject attracting so much attention?

Firstly, it’s because the nature of work is changing and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. Secondly, as the tone of the media coverage suggests, the change is not just another business issue. The ramifications are societal and touch on what work means to us and the role we want it to play in our lives. Finally, its prominence stems from a growing sense of urgency. The future will be here sooner than we think. We need to ensure we have a say in shaping it.

The lifecycle of skills

As technology reshapes the workplace environment and more of the routine content of roles becomes automated, employees will need new skills and qualities. Working alongside machines or in roles augmented by artificial intelligence is going to require them to become more technically adept. Technical competence will become important in many jobs. Coding skills are a good example, they’re becoming key in many areas outside the technology sector. Indeed in the USA, 49% of jobs in the top pay quartile frequently ask for coding skills. And as much routine work is undertaken by machines, human skills and traits that machines can’t replicate, such as insight, creativity, and interpersonal skills, will become more significant.

In these circumstances, employees will need to continuously learn if they’re to avoid being left behind. This especially applies to older workers whose employability will be compromised if they don’t re-equip themselves for this new world. In order to thrive in this changing environment, personal qualities like adaptability and resilience will also become crucial. And the reality is that employees are going to have to reinvent themselves a number of times throughout their careers.

The jobs of tomorrow

The impact of technology on the nature of work is keenly felt in the growth of freelancing and the gig economy. External consultancy has always played an important role, but new technical platforms permit outsourcing on an unprecedented scale. Sites like Freelancer and Upwork allow employers to put work out to tender quickly and easily, and avoid the on-costs of permanent staff. And these platforms are growing rapidly. Upwork alone claims to have 10 million freelancers in its ‘human cloud’, working from 180 countries. And this is attractive to employers. An EY survey found controlling labour costs is one of the commonest reasons businesses are turning to these platforms.

The upshot of this is that, over time, we’re likely to see a sharp decline in the number of people in permanent employment. According to one study, contingent workers make up around one-third of the US workforce and this is expected to increase in the years ahead. In the UK only 4% of working adults were employed by the gig economy last year. But such is the growth in freelancing that PWC predicts 30% of the UK’s workforce will be doing so by 2020.

This is happening in the context of a rethink of how businesses are configured. In many sectors it’s expected that work will become detached from jobs and be reorganised into a range of work approaches like project-, contract- and network-based working. New operating models are expected to centre around a slimmed-down permanent workforce, supplemented by labour drawn from the human cloud. Moreover, cloud technologies will make it easier to base permanent employees outside the workplace. Even the most office-bound employees, contact centre workers, could be home based.

What this means for employee (and organisational) wellbeing

These changes raise important questions for employers, particularly with regard to the relationships they’ll have with their workforce. How will employees who have only fleeting daily interactions with a business, or who are contracted on a short-term basis, interact with the brand and the values of the business? How will semi-detached employees identify with their employer and develop the loyalty that encourages people to go the extra mile?

It seems inevitable that these new ways of working won’t nurture the employee engagement that’s proven to make such a difference to performance and productivity. And for detached workers, their relationship with the business is likely to become so tenuous as to render the term ‘engagement’ meaningless.

Wellbeing is another key driver of performance and productivity and yet this too will be at risk in a world of remote and freelance employees. Many businesses have comprehensive wellbeing strategies designed to maximise the wellbeing of the workforce, but these are set up to serve people who are employed directly by the business. In future these are likely to be available only to the privileged minority of permanent employees. This could see the emergence of a two-tier UK workforce, where the majority are left to find ways to support their own wellbeing, as well as provide their own pensions and insurance cover.

It’s easy to see how increased automation, fluid employment practices and remote working can benefit businesses. My concern is about what gets lost along the way. It’s taken us a long time to learn just how important employee engagement and wellbeing are to business success. When it comes to the jobs of tomorrow, we should be considering the bigger picture.

Businesses need to remain competitive, but as they strive to be so they need to make sure they don’t lose more than they gain.

 

Is your organisation looking towards the future of work? Join us at Work 2.0 on 25 and 26 May at the Business Design Centre, London.