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Man and Machine – Where to from here with the Future of Work?

Dr Sarah Kieran Department of Work & Employment Studies, Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick has been reflecting recently on what we have learned from technology during this COVID-19 crisis. Following her recent research with ICBE Advanced Productivity Skillnet, which looked at the impact of digital transformation on customer service employees and the emergence of the Cx Professional, Dr Kieran continues the debate which has the caught the imagination of the business world in this “opinion”  piece for ICBE.

Man and Machine – Where to from here with the Future of Work?

Dr. Sarah Kieran, Department of Work & Employment Studies, Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick.

In recent times there has been a global focus around the impact of technology on the future of work. It is an interesting debate which has the caught the imagination of the business world. Like any debate there are conflicting views, scary statistics, myths to bust and hashtags aplenty.

Up to now, some will highlight statistics which state that 75 million jobs globally are being displaced due to technology fully replacing or significantly reducing the size or skill level of the tasks previously completed by people. They will argue that for the rest of us, jobs will become not only more interesting but easier through the use of digitally automated work solutions and we should skill up on our data skills accordingly.

Up to now, others will highlight that 133 million new jobs will emerge simultaneously in the areas of data science, software development, app creation and business analysis. In addition, there are many jobs such as health practitioners, carers, teachers and the trades etc. where technology will have a minimal impact and the traditional skills, as well as the really important cognitive and relational skills associated with some of these jobs, will remain front and centre. They will also argue that we are not working less despite technology, but actually harder than we have in 150 years.

Today, contending with coronavirus and its devastating impact on our health and way of life, exactly what role is technology playing when it comes to our work? What can we learn now about the ‘Future of Work’ given that every profession and workplace has been thrown into chaos?

There is no denying that technology does indeed play a very critical role. Ready access to Big Data and GPS are allowing us track and interpret the spread of the virus among communities. Data Science has produced the curve visual which provides a clear message for all. Science and Robotics in our factories will allow us adapt quickly to manufacture everything from hand sanitizers to much need respirators and of course, in time, a vaccine. The internet, Wi-Fi, and a vast array of creative apps allow many of us work from the safety of our homes. Online Media provides up to date information from critical sources, social media the much needed link to colleagues, friends and family in this difficult time.

However, we have also learned something else about technology. All the data and curve visuals in the world wouldn’t mean anything without the careful conversation of medics and politicians to help us understand. Digital media is invaluable now in getting the message out to communities. However, it’s the accuracy and reputation of the sources of the digital content that matters, the organisations behind the content. Also, it’s not just digital media but our radio, TV and newspapers, the sharing of stories by trusted faces and voices that are bolstering us all. Without these people we wouldn’t know how to change our daily lives to flatten the curve, or cope with the trauma of what is happening. Social Media is helping us keep in touch with our families but it will never replace the smiles when we drop off food at our elderly relatives’ doors or the hug we know is waiting for us when this crisis passes.

We have also learned that it’s not the robotics in the factory applying creative thinking to adapt respirators and fast-track production and delivery to where they are needed most. It’s not technology coming up with the idea to use whiskey distilleries to supply ingredients for hand sanitizers. It’s not technology redeploying employees in many sectors to expedite community tracing, pandemic unemployment pay or online shopping. It is the people who design and operate technology, who come together in groups to innovate, problem solve, make critical decisions and… very hard to just make it happen.

For the rest of us, we have learned that technology might create the opportunity to work from home, but it’s the people using it that matters most. Those reaching out to colleagues, customers, patients and students. Those sharing ideas, coming up with creative solutions out of nowhere with nothing to go on. Those providing a shoulder to cry on when the Wi-Fi or App isn’t behaving and the children neither. Everywhere we look today it is the people behind the technology pulling us through. The people working hard to prioritise the right work to focus on now and how best to deliver it, with many worried, distracted and caring for children and elderly relatives at the same time.

This highlights the most important point of all. It’s not technology that is leaving their families behind to work 12 hour shifts. So many people in the HSE and other supporting services are putting themselves into the middle of this pandemic in extremely challenging and emotional circumstances to field worried phone calls from patients, man testing stations, run labs and, at the core, nurse and care for those in hospital who have been hardest hit. Other people working in retail, transport and utilities, security, the food sector etc. are hands on, working harder than ever before at this time so that the rest of us can wrap our arms around our families.

So what are we learning about work and technology?

It has been predicted that by 2025 the man:machine ratio at work will be 42:58. So, the role of technology at work cannot be ignored. Without it we wouldn’t be managing this pandemic as well as we are. Without it we wouldn’t get back up and running as quickly as we will. However, during this crisis the limitations of technology have never been clearer. Technology will only ever aid us in what we do. Jobs will change and skills will evolve, but where there is work to be done it is the people who will make it happen.