The future of work. Should we not talk about the present first?

By Almuth McDowall

In the first of series of guest blog posts, we’re delighted to share the thoughts of Almuth McDowall, Assistant Dean, Department of Organisational Psychology, Birkbeck University of London, about the many predictions being made about the future of work.

Businessman holding a glass ballMuch is being written and said about the future of work. For many jobs and roles, our working lives are turning out to be more digital, more interconnected and more fluid and flexible than we might have anticipated some years ago. We had a lively debate about this topic at the CIPD’s Future of Work Session at the annual conference and exhibition in Manchester between myself (Almuth McDowall, Birkbeck University of London), Richard MacKinnon, Future Work Centre and David D’Souza from the CIPD.

But are we focusing too much on the future, and not enough on the present? Office of National Statistics Data (ONS) shows that the world of work is changing right here, right now, as part time jobs increase and unskilled jobs decrease. At the same time, it’s a simple fact that professional jobs rely on technology, used to undertake and document our daily tasks and of course for ever present communication. Ofcom research shows that one in three adults has a real need for a ‘tech time out’ and makes conscious efforts to switch off.  This is not because people don’t like using technology, as people report their online lives in general as positive, and experience FOMO (fear of missing out!) when they are not online.

So what are the implications for the workplace, and more widely?  Given the pace of change in the workplace, we need people with excellent problem solving and adaptation skills. It is concerning that the UK school curriculum is moving back to a knowledge focus, rather than preparing pupils for what is expected of them in the workplace. It’s becoming less important what you remember and hold in your head, but more important to know where to find the information and how to piece puzzles together.

This is a compelling reason why we need to educate people in the use of technology right from the word ‘go’. As a mother of three girls in or approaching teenage, I am only too mindful that they no longer know the concept of ‘switching off’.  This is both an enabler, for instance when they do ad hoc research for their homework whilst on a boring car journey, but also a real danger, when conversations on new media take a negative or critical tone which affects them deeply.

But such awareness, training and education needs to continue into the world of work, through all stages of employment. Technology is here to stay, but we need to manage its use, rather than let it manage us. As technology develops and advances at a rapid pace, we need to equip people with the skills to use it wisely, and not let technology rule us. An email is no substitute for a quick team meeting, sending out an update via Yammer does not mean that every intended recipient has actually read it. In other words – there is no app for leadership and people skills.

UK employers need to listen to these challenges, and enlist professional support to get the present and future of work right. Finding out what is working for your employees and workers, and where they struggle is the best good starting point, and then develop strategy and activities accordingly. In other words, it’s all about building and using your own local evidence-base. Are you sure you’ve got it right?



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