Tech in the workplace: global crisis or opportunity of a lifetime?

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Laura Paterson

Fear and uncertainty still dominate many discussions of the future of technology, even among experts. Stephen Hawking has claimed that Artificial Intelligence (AI) “could spell the end of the human race”, and Elon Musk called it “our biggest existential threat.” But whether we fear it or not, the rise of bots, drones and the Internet of Things prove that the coexistence of humans and machines is the stuff of reality, not science fiction. 


Technology in the workplace has developed so far that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is said to be underway. The opportunities for more efficiency at work are exciting for many involved in sectors like procurement, but for others, the abilities of machines pose a threat to individual livelihoods. 


We know that technology is fundamentally changing how, when and why we work. Automation and artificial intelligence are replacing jobs, even those of skilled workers, and companies in virtually every industry are struggling to make sense of these new realities. 


But while laptops and smartphones have increased our productivity and flexibility,they have also increased how much we work and, in some cases, our bosses’ expectations for when we’re available. 


Too many employees (and senior managers, too) don’t know when to call it a day. Phone calls, emails and other work tasks often encroach into nights , weekends and family gatherings. Unhealthy? A recent Australian study found that working more than 39 hours a week – or 34 hours for women, because of childcare and housework duties – can degrade mental and physical health. 


In a Cedar blog post in 2015, we looked at robots in financial services and concluded that while automation is useful in areas of finance, robots cannot currently replace sophisticated human thinking. However, we need to investigate how employees and employers across industries can prepare for technological development, whether this is in ‘futureproofing’ jobs, or rethinking our approach to working in order to thrive alongside the technology and personnel of the future. 


To nurture existing skills, or develop new ones?

Compared to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI), human abilities might seem somewhat feeble. But although our roles are changing, human beings are not yet replaceable. A recent McKinsey survey estimates that while 60% of all occupations include at least 30% of activities susceptible to automation, fewer than 1% of jobs are fully automatable. The limits of computers have highlighted the value of several inherently human attributes. 


The Oxford University Martin School stud­ies the vulnerability of jobs to automation, and has created a list of skills which set us apart from computerised competitors. These include: problem-solving, being capable of original, analytic thought; the intent to learn and acquire new knowledge; communication skills, including writing and interpreting; personal self-management skills, making sound judgments and managing risks; and social ‘soft skills’ to support collaboration, teamwork, management, leadership, and conflict resolution. It will be useful for employees concerned about the future of their jobs to work on reinforcing and strengthening their abilities in these areas. 


As well as focusing internally on our personal strengths, we must also look outwards at the skills we will need to navigate a world dominated by technology. Experts have predicted a severe ‘skills gap’ between demand for jobs needing Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) expertise, and the number of people who will be qualified to fill these roles. It seems likely that a shift in our education system is needed to prepare young people for the changing world of work. 


Technology will continue to change demand for skills – the challenge will be to keep anticipating what those skills will be. The World Economic Forum’s prediction that 65% of children currently in primary school will grow up to work in roles which do not yet exist, emphasises the need to be open-minded when imagining the future of employment. 


Tech and personnel go hand-in-hand 

As technology evolves, so do the employees working alongside it. In 2015, millennials, (born between the early 1980s-late 1990s) overtook Gen X-ers as the biggest group in the workforce, and research suggests nearly 75% of the workforce will be millennials by 2025. 


There are countless articles online suggesting that growing up with technology has made this generation more demanding, self-absorbed and disloyal than any before. This affiliation with tech certainly has both advantages and disadvantages in terms of equipping young people for the workplace, but however we feel about it, the trend is likely to continue, with the next generation, ‘Gen Z’, being even more tech-savvy. It is important for leaders and managers to support the benefits of this trend, but also work to shape it to the advantage of the workforce. Just as businesses adapt to the requirements of new technologies, so we must adapt to the tech proficiency of today’s young workers.


Making technology work for us 

Experts agree that technological innovation will continue to transform the workplace as we know it. We can look forward to its benefits: long-term gains in efficiency and productivity; lower transportation and communication costs; streamlined logistics and global supply chains; and diminished trade costs. All of these will open up new markets and drive economic growth. While automation will eliminate very few occupations completely in the foreseeable future, it will affect aspects of almost all jobs. 


While there is no need to panic, it is important to accept that developments in technology will almost definitely gain momentum from now on. If we ignore the challenges which come with these trends, we may risk falling behind in a rapidly modernising workplace. Today’s employees should examine their skillsets, and aim to develop and reinforce the qualities which set them apart, seeking out opportunities to learn or upskill wherever possible. Across wider society, we will need to look critically at our relationship with technology, and do our best to adapt, so we can ensure the next generation of workers are equipped to thrive in the world which awaits them.