Type 'how will work change in the future' into your search engine and you'll get a long list of responses. The future of work is an area of significant activity. That's no real surprise, given the rise of the machines. But are we thinking about the changes in the right way? We take a look.
When it comes to the future of work, we tend to jump straight to which jobs will be taken over by the robots. But, despite the coverage, it could still be some time before AI becomes strong enough to both set and solve problems. Until then, many of us will continue working in recognisable ways even as what's become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution takes its course. So what should we be most concerned about?
Research carried out by the Science Policy Research Unit - or SPRU - at the University of Sussex suggests that agency - the ability of individuals to make their own decisions at work - will become a crucial issue as we head into the future. More repetitive tasks will be automated, making it more difficult for people to identify their role at work. I spent some time at SPRU last week and talked with researchers about what this might mean. It seems that the spaces in between the tasks - the connections and synergies - are likely to grow in importance, as this is where people will retain their influence. This approach is likely to create a web of activities, managed by a web of actors. The question becomes one of how to work effectively within and across that web.
That's all very well, but what does it mean in practice? How can someone in an office-based team, for example, make their mark? I've been thinking about it like this. More and more of our everyday tasks will be completed using technology - things like answering basic questions (think chatbot), managing finances, and processing bookings and orders. Where the workforce can add value - both in regular employment and beyond those traditional employment practices - is in the spaces in between these transactions. People can add different perspectives, asking questions and shedding new light on a range of challenges and opportunities. Working with the web of actors, they can find solutions to the types of problems our societies face. And they can spend more time on those things that add value to our customers, rather than simply transacting with them.
Of course, this puts new expectations onto the workforce and different skills will be required. Co-production demands collaborative working, and the ability to appreciate the equal contribution of a range of different points of view. This means empathy, as well as an acute understanding of the politics of different situations. Communication skills will be paramount, as relationships will be key to success. And people will be expected to be able to think across the boundaries, connection disparate concepts and joining the dots.
This is exciting, but it's also concerning. The current focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) doesn't necessarily lend itself to developing these skills. And education systems still characterise these types of skills as 'soft', putting them firmly in their place. So, we need to change this approach, to make sure that the workplace remains meaningful to us all.