Predicting the future of work

By Dr Richard MacKinnon

Introduction

Businessman holding a glass ballI was delighted to be invited to speak at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester, taking part in two panel discussions about the future of work and technology’s role in that future. In fact, the topic was a popular one at the conference and it got me thinking about how useful it is to have an eye on the future. That’s not surprising, as looking to the future allows us to look beyond today’s problems and limitations and imagine a new world. That’s exciting, right?

Actually, quite a bit of the discussion on both panel discussions focused on the downside of future technology, including the risks of excluding less skilled employees and the various unintended consequences arising from increased automation. Examples ranged from unmanned military drones through to supermarket scanning devices.

As a practitioner who emphasises the benefits of an evidence-based perspective when it comes to the world of work, I find myself strangely attracted to futurology and predictions about how the technology of tomorrow will change our lives. Such predictions often paint an exciting future, where technology solves our problems, leaving us to enjoy more leisure time.

And yet, I also find myself arguing that we really should be quite sceptical where it comes to predictions about the future workplace, for some very good reasons:

  1. We’re not very good at predictions

Consider the predictions made in the various popular science TV shows in the 1980’s. They were exciting, presenting compelling visions of a highly automated future, based on the fledgling technology they had access to. As I look around me in 2016, few if any of the predictions about how we would be living are lives have come to pass. At the same time, most of us carry around super-computers in our pockets and frequently use cheap or free video-conferencing to speak to colleagues on the other side of the world. Some of this technology would seem magical to our ancestors. But we use it daily without a thought. The speed of technological advancement and its adoption are so difficult to predict, is it worthwhile making such predictions in the first place? Given our past predictions have been so off the mark, who’s to say predictions made today will be any better? They might be better viewed as entertainment, rather than as the basis for organisational planning.

  1. We haven’t learnt many lessons from the past

The science of psychology has been making the same points about employee wellbeing for a few decades now and they’ve yet to be fully addressed across most workplaces. We know so much about the limitations of human performance under a variety of workplace conditions, we know so much about personality and we know what leads to unwanted pressure and stress. Even so, we continue to deploy new technology in the workplace that flies in the face of this evidence, leading to all kinds of unintended consequences. If you consider how email has morphed from a valuable communication tool to a frequent source of stress, conflict and anxiety, are you really so keen on introducing yet another replacement that promises to solve all its problems?

  1. The ‘fads and fashions’ trap

The future, by its very nature, represents opportunities to do new things, in new ways and with new technology. This novelty can be seductive and allow us to believe that we must prepare for these inevitable changes with new products, processes and beliefs. Suppliers of these products and services will be only too happy to meet these needs! And thus, we fall victim to organisational fads and fashions which can be incredibly costly and disruptive.

  1. Simple answers to complex problems

When we over-generalise (“Millennials”, anyone?) we can lose sight of the complexity of a problem. If you imagine the workplace of the future, are you picturing an office? Or an operating theatre? Or the street. Or the battlefront. The workplace takes many forms, yet predictions tend to be strangely uniform. New technology may solve a problem, but may only for some people, in some roles, in some organisational contexts.

So what’s the alternative?

From an evidence-based, scientific perspective, I’d recommend bearing the following in mind when thinking about technology and the future of work:

If someone is making predictions about the future workplace with certainty, challenge them to provide you with the evidence that underpins their thinking. Especially if their predictions relate to their product or service!

From a top-down perspective in your organisation, consider what you can and will do to make the introduction of new technology easier and justified by a rounded business case; one that includes the impact on employees alongside predicted productivity gains and cost reduction. From a bottom-up perspective, consider how technology will impact and be used by individual employees. Consider also who the winners and losers will be when the technology is introduced and how you can minimise the latter.

Ask yourself whether, just because the technology exists, should it be introduced now? Or ever? And if you think technology is going to be beneficial, make sure you have clarity on the problems you think it’s going to solve. Much technology is frankly a solution in search of a problem.
Consider the unintended consequences of introducing new technology to your workplace. I’m not a luddite, but new technology represents change and the impact of change can take time to manifest. Think beyond the point of implementation, and consider the impact on individuals, interpersonal relationships, the organisation and its place in society.

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