I was asked to speak last week on “The end of work as we know it”.
Perhaps a tad doomsday prepping, but any opportunity to talk about what’s happening to work that gets more people interested in the conversation, is a good one to have, so I jumped in.
There are so many angles we can take on this conversation. I narrowed it down to just three critical points, and then made one plea.
My three points:
What is Work?
It’s changing – and I don’t want to be flippant about that. Some changes are good and some are not.
This seismic shift in technology and its overlap with work – already – is a critically important decision, or series of decisions – not a fait compli.
And the plea I land on is that we MUST join this conversation – or start this conversation – with optimism and determination, but with our eyes wide open.
So let’s start:
What is Work
Work, as a concept, is literally as old as the human race.
There’s a good reason it was enshrined into the International Declaration of Human Rights – Article 23 – the right to work. We locked this current way we work into the ‘rules’ 8 hours a day, 5 days a week in the 1860 Geneva Convention, but “work” has always been how we join and contribute to society.
We underestimate the importance of work when we’ve always had it, but not when we know people who cannot work, or cannot get work.
As a patron for Autism, there is not much advocacy that we do that’s more important, then getting teenagers and young adults, who are on the Autism Spectrum, into employment when they leave school.
The bottom line is that “work” is not arbitrary, and should be available and accessible to all of us.
It’s changing– and I don’t want to be flippant about that.
There’s some good changes and some terrible ones.
I want to tell this one as a story.
2016, I’m talking to an award-winning technologist. She asks for my opinion on the fact that only 35-40% – maximum 50% – of us will need to work in the future.
She explains that with automation, most people will not need to work. They can stay home. Hearing my silence, she reassures me that, based on education and skillset, I will likely be amongst the working.
I ask her to imagine I’m not in the working group. What does she think I’ll do?
“You can relax”.
How will I eat?
“You’ll be paid a universal income”.
Who will decide that?
“It will be set fairly”.
Anyway, the conversation continues like this – very oddly – until I say “after maybe a few days of bingeing Netflix, I will rise from the couch and leave the house. I will challenge and question my universal income. I will want to be involved in my society and community. And it’s unlikely you’ll build a wall big enough to stop me”.
We agree to disagree, but since then, I’ve had that conversation many times.
I believe that contribution is so fundamental to who we are, that will all continue to be involved and contribute, and that it will impossible to stop that from happening.
Against that, there will be – and many are already planned – fundamental shifts in our workforce.
Our major companies are doing the numbers – or have done them – to remove thousands from their payrolls.
So, there is a clash. Human spirit – to be involved – versus the plans of the big companies.
And that’s before we talk about the statistics at a micro level.
At the moment, we constantly talk about ‘gig’ economies – from one side, fear and the other freedom. The real answer is probably both.
But the bigger conversation, we’re not having is the speed with which we’re adopting a four-day week.
Faster than almost any country in the world, according to 2018 Future of Work data from BCEC.
That may not be good or bad, but it is a thing. We’re going part-time, with very little conversation about wages or affordability for those who do.
We are changing the contract of employment, without a new model to go to.
We have the old contracts or no security at all.
So, assuming – WORK IS A HUMAN RIGHT, AND WE’LL CONTINUE TO CONTRIBUTE, AND ITS ALL CHANGING – what is the issue right now?
And that brings me to point 3.
This seismic shift in technology and its overlap with work redesign – already – is a critically important decision, or series of decisions. It is not a fait compli.
Right now, technology is changing at a rate, we’ve not seen before. We’ve all heard the stories – good, bad, scary, exciting. I won’t rehash.
Concurrently, ‘work’ is changing fundamentally. Redesign is happening – almost always based on productivity or organisational agility – the freedom of business to change quickly. That said, sometimes it is based on more individual needs and preferences – such as some types of flexibility – using virtual reality to bring a person of disability, out of their home and into the meeting virtually.
This technology is designing and opening up different thinking and possibilities.
At this point, I want to add another story – one about digital people.
Recently, Hao Li visited Sydney to talk about digital people. It was amazing, mind-blowing, fun, and if we were all honest, a little frightening.
Here’s some key points he made:
- “A year ago, recreating you in digital form cost $300,000.
Today, I can do it, on an app for free”.
- “A year ago, the uncanny valley – where we think digital faces and people are creepy – was uncrossable. Today, we think it will done before Christmas”.
- “We can today, create a digital Napoleon to teach you history. Plus-or-minus an author for his words, of course”.
Add to this, that we can already untether a VR headset from that expensive laptop. A year ago, a $3500 gaming computer was required. Today, a $300 headset, and we’re good to go with a library of ‘how to’ VR on our desk.
In real life, we’re gravitating towards technology that is entertaining and enhances our lives. At work, at the moment, it’s still about data, storage of info, control and productivity, but this will change. It could be much more about how we work and how we work together. It could be about that geographically distant, or severely restricted by disability, person, freely joining our meeting. Or, it could be about facial recognition as we walk in to the office – sending some bizarre message to our incredibly awkward boss, letting them know we’re a bit sad today, without us knowing.
Technology at work could go anywhere.
Now let’s add some context. Just as we start to understand the impact of technology on the minds of kids, and the impact on all of us, of constant connection, we’re designing this marriage of people and technology at work – without a whole bunch of thinking other than costs and efficiency. Other than the odd quirky side project, there’s very little future thinking about possibilities, options or impact.
We just want to do stuff. Fast. Faster than any else.
And this is my plea:
Get into this conversation.
At the ‘digital person talk’ the quote that rang in my head for days – “We are racing fast with this technology and we are doing so, without constraint”. And he paused – and repeated “Without ANY constraints”.
And without being disrespectful to anyone already in this conversation, I encourage more of us – many more of us – to join it.
We need to think about work as it is now.
What works and what doesn’t.
Who it works for and who it doesn’t.
And we need to think about how work fits into society and inclusion and humanity.
About the society we want to live in, not just work in.
We need to be creating better, not just different. It means using technology to enhance and augment the human experience, not just replace it.
Work, as it stands right now, isn’t great for mental wellbeing, physical longevity, stress levels, collaboration or invention. Maybe the 8hour, 5 day working week, from dark to dark, has had its day. Maybe work in the future, could be better designed.
Amongst all these challenges, I’m just so sure we could do better, and that doesn’t just mean hanging on to yesterday. It means inventing better options.
There are no silver bullets, but surely small thoughtful discussions and debates are better than “no constraints”.
I implore you to find, join or start a real discussion on this TODAY.