OPINION

Digitalisation will leave an impact on the future of work

WITH technology becoming faster, smarter and cheaper, it is only a matter of time before jobs that thus far were done only by humans will either be done in newer ways using human and machine collaboration or will be entirely redesigned and automated. If all the workers doing these jobs are eliminated and do not find new jobs, technology could create mass unemployment. According to Brookings Institution's 2019 report, 25 per cent of US jobs, representing 36 million workers, are highly susceptible to automation. According to a report by the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC), advancements in technology will impact more than half of the workforce in Asia, and up until the year 2030, one can expect more losses than gains in employment opportunities. A good 64 per cent of the respondents expect a dip in the number of clerical roles, 59 per cent predict a reduction in plant and machine operations staff, 58 per cent believe that the number of labourers in mining, construction, manufacturing and transportation will go down, and 56 per cent think that there will be fewer employees in personal services and sales roles.

In February 2018, as a result of automating and digitising tasks, National Australia Bank (NAB) started laying off the first of an estimated 6,000 employees. The first wave of automation and job losses hit banks, financial institutions, accounting and law firms. The NAB job cuts - which affected one in five members of the bank's workforce - were announced in November 2017 on the same day that the bank revealed a A$5.3 billion (S$5 billion) annual net profit. According to an estimate, Australia's banking sector could be looking at four of its major banks cutting up to 10,000 staff each over the next five to 10 years, due to digitisation and automation.

While jobs might be created with the advent of automation, in many cases, those losing their jobs might not be able to retrain fast enough to capture the jobs being created. Companies could be required either by legislation or stakeholder pressure to provide some level of social safety net or financial security to workers displaced by technology. They might need to analyse whether the productivity gains from automation would be enough to overcome any costs associated with laying off existing workers.

The impact of automation may however not be all negative. Some AI and machine learning optimists believe that the development of AI will enhance the quality of human work and life. IBM's CEO Ginni Rometty feels that there is a future for the co-existence of AI and human intelligence. "Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us. So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we'll augment our intelligence," she said. Care.Coach, developer of an automated caregiver, deploys software algorithms that implement clinical best practices, and sends reports and alerts to stakeholders such as clinicians, caregivers and family members. In addition to data analytics and algorithms, it also uses a specially trained Health Advocate team to provide wellness coaching and support and "intelligent reporting". Care.Coach CEO Victor Wang says human specialists will remain an important part of his product because building a long-term supportive relationship with a patient requires an actual person.

The other impact of technology not only focuses on the replacement of work but the nature of work changing as the borders between work and life are blurring. We can now send e-mails from the commuter train and join meetings from our home office. Work styles are transforming to include teleworking, flexible work schedules, inclusive employment and flatter, more agile organisational structures that allow quick responses to changing dynamics. Rapidly-growing freelancing, flexible and remote job segments, as well as co-living and co-working spaces serving them, accelerate the process of work-life integration, even more so with a growing number of international teams living and working in different time zones.

Millennials and Gen Zs consider flexibility in hours and location among their top priorities when looking for and evaluating a job. This is confirmed by a myriad of surveys and studies by organisations such as Deloitte, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum. It is not only considered a job perk but has come to be expected as "standard" that companies will give their employees the flexibility to set their own boundaries between work and life.

PwC considers providing everyday flexibility essential to creating an environment that supports its employees and helps their personal lives grow while enabling their careers to develop. The company does not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, over the past 10 years, it has worked towards evolving a culture of "everyday flexibility", making flexible work available to all employees, regardless of their role or circumstances. Anne Donovan, PwC's US People Experience Leader, outlined key lessons for the company in doing so. One major lesson she mentions was to be "flexible" when creating a flexibility culture, rather than implementing a rigid, formal policy. "We let our teams figure out what works best for them, as long as they deliver excellent work, on time. The rest is all fair game," she says. While the jury is still out on the global impact on employment at large, it looks like there is a need to re-evaluate three dimensions of work - the nature of tasks at work, the types of skills that will be needed with automation at work, and the location of work. It's already evolving as such, but even in the near future, it definitely will be a different workplace environment.

  • The writer is Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD Business School in Switzerland and Singapore