Blog: The Future of Work Requires Work- And Tech is Part of the Problem

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The Future of Work Requires Work- And Tech is Part of the Problem

Most 'tech-utopias' see technology as the prime solver of all future problems, and while they admit the future is uncertain and challenging, as long as the employees of tomorrow are given a change-embracing VUCAbulary by HR and keep learning the latest tech-toy, their prosperity will be assured. Is it so?
The Future of Work Requires Work- And Tech is Part of the Problem

Welcome to 'The Future of Work' craze. Each business journal is filled with glowing tales about the gig economy and how to prepare the workforce for it. Every alternate HR conclave is awash with the theme and the remaining ones dedicate at least a prime-position session to it. Interviewers’ questions, whether to the exalted international luminaries of HR or to humble candidates for HR manager jobs, invariably include searching ones on this subject. The tone of these articles, seminars and interrogations is almost invariably euphoric. The unstated presumption seems to be that we are on the threshold of being wafted, almost effortlessly, into a high-tech nirvana. Most 'tech-utopias' see technology as the prime solver of all future problems. While they admit the future is uncertain and challenging, as long as the employees of tomorrow are given a change-embracing VUCAbulary by HR and keep learning the latest tech-toy, their prosperity will be assured. Thereafter, the HR managers of the day-after can "in Elysian valleys dwell, resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel."1

The reality will be grimmer. Unless we can prevent trends that are already in evidence from materializing fully, for the vast majority of the working population in India, the actual future is unlikely to resemble the one prognosticators are seeing through rose-tinted glasses. Which is not to say that efforts to change these gloomier projections will be fruitless. On the contrary, most of the adverse trends described here have known solutions – several of which have been addressed in earlier columns of mine and will, therefore, only be referenced but not repeated in this one. However, if we only busy ourselves with providing a minority of the workforce with the means to understand and use the latest technology, we shall not miss the dystopian bus, which is hurtling towards us. If my descriptions of the future of work appear overly bleak and definitive, they are made so with the intention of waking us to plug the leaks in the dikes before they become floods.

The Future of Work – Or Is There None?

Work is an endangered species. Of course, it will never become extinct but quality work is likely to be available for a smaller and smaller proportion of our country’s still-growing working population. Why else should there be worries about jobless growth when India’s economic performance beats that of almost every large economy2? The progress of technology3, growing international protectionism and rigid labor laws4 in our own country are among the important reasons for this situation.

Even today, some of the most forward-looking companies have problems figuring out how to treat employees as more than 'rented humans'

Some argue that even if work, relative to the population vying for it, becomes sparser, it will still be available for a very large number of people and that the 'gig'gly future of work will at least apply to this group. This hope too may be forlorn. Some work there will certainly be and of many varieties but little of it may be of the kind that interacts with or, even better, creates technology and provides self-fulfillment to those doing it. There are three reasons for the trend towards the dilution of average work-quality in India. 

All over the world, the heady tasks of discovering new technologies and their advanced applications are confined to jobs that are numerically infinitesimally smaller than the number of jobs they displace or 'de-smart'. The challenge for India is aggravated not only by the higher numbers entering the workforce than in any other country but because it has been out-raced by several other countries that now occupy pole positions in developing some of the most promising new technologies. For instance, the AI battleground is pretty much dominated by the US and China.5

Global trends apart, in India we have hollowed out corporation after corporation of the major part of its durable employment in the headlong rush to 'contractualize' work6. While such precarious work is plentifully available in the aggregate, in any given corporate, it is often a prime target for automation because there are minimal complications in the consequential downsizing. Even if people with such shaky tenures could be persuaded to equip themselves for a tech-sparkling future, in the absence of knowing which industry or company they might be in the following months, the oasis of retraining for the supposed jobs of tomorrow may be no more than a mirage. 

Tech has, of course, spawned entire industries which provide occupations to millions. Several of these have, however, waspishly grown on the flesh of industries they have replaced and it is not obvious net employment has gone up. In cases such as e-retail, the mom-and-pop stores they replace will dis-employ people whom the emerging industry is unlikely to recruit. The influx of large numbers of relatively uneducated young men into the ranks of the unemployed has been a precursor of higher crime and unrest in several societies. We are yet to see this unfold in India nor have e-retailers so far faced significant pangs of union organization and industrial action on account of the large numbers they have concentrated (compared to the dispersed employment of traditional retail). 

One of the ways e-retailers have deferred collectivization is by treating many of their workers as individual contractors. It is something aggregators like Uber have practiced for several years7. It would seem, however, that both in India8 and abroad, this means of avoiding collective action by workers will be threatened. The term 'aggregator' is itself a bit of a misnomer. While it may be appropriate for industries (like taxi services) where individual operators were networked and interfaced with their customers through a tech platform, there have been traditionally organized industries (such as hotels) that have been substituted and truncated by similar platform networks. In such a case, tech becomes a 'disaggregator' for the people earlier employed by organizations. The disaggregators’ need to keep their people at arm’s length weakens or entirely dissolves the three Cs of cohesion (Cause-focus, Caring for people, and Camaraderie with colleagues) that bind employees to traditional corporates. That can hardly be a recipe for building the trust and proximity necessary for asking people to re-equip themselves for future challenges and changes, leave aside the connectedness that is a prerequisite for enjoying work and being engaged with the organization that provides it.9

Tech Surveillance and Robotic Support

The few that are able to secure durable employment in the corporation of the future will certainly be fortunate but may still not be totally contented. In critiquing some of the organizations considered to be the best employers today, Christopher Machin writes: "… these developments at Google and Tesla signal a new reckoning by employees – white collar and blue collar – with the limitations of the modern utopian workplace. They describe pent-up forces, now apparently loosened, that will not be tamed by vague managerial assurances, or yogurt stands. Facebook, Amazon, and Apple may not be far behind. The problems highlighted are structural and longstanding. They point to a fundamental flaw with a particular and peculiar institution, the employment relationship, which is so ubiquitous that it appears natural. A fundamental fact haunts that relationship across all kinds of workplaces, modern and traditional. Employees without substantial ownership and governance rights, employees who are not members of democratic corporations, have no standing. They are merely rented humans. They are visitors on someone else’s planet."10 Machin is, I think, unduly pessimistic about the employment relationship but there is no doubt that the small proportion of the workforce that attains durable employment in future will be far more demanding of its rights. Where Machin is prescient is in observing that even some of today’s most forward-looking companies have problems figuring out how to treat employees as more than 'rented humans'. 

Adding to the alienation of the rights-conscious employees of tomorrow is the use of technology in many corporates for increased monitoring, surveillance, and other privacy-invading purposes. Those interested in a more detailed exposition of these assaults on employee rights and the cures for them can read my earlier column titled 'Brave New Corporate World'11.

The other disaffection technology portends hits even closer to the heart of HR’s role in caring for people. I wonder if you have ever had the experience of dealing with an e-commerce or financial services support site or app for a particularly tricky problem. I have. After expending considerable time and effort in explaining the intricacies of my situation, I felt doubly frustrated to discover, from the mechanistic and unfeeling responses of the support desk, that I had been interacting with a chatbot. I have long believed (and been at pains to ensure in the HR groups I have supervised) that listening to employees and solving their problems is at the heart of an HR professional’s job. The anger I felt at the financial services firm which fobbed my problem off to a bot would have been multiplied a hundred times if I were an employee desperate to get help (say, on a problem relating to the health of a child) from my HR manager, only to find I had been baring my bosom to a bot.

Job Monotony and Hell’s Bells

There will continue to be hotspots of innovation in the future where the most talented minds will find huge opportunities for their entrepreneurial and creative impulses12. The problem will be not just that these hotspots will engage a diminishing share of the working population but that they will increasingly be detached from run-of-mill corporations themselves. As a result, there will be increasing disparity of work content, growth opportunities, and remuneration between the humdrum work-lives of the many and the exalted experiences of the few, which will be aggravated by the reducing number of bridges to progress from one to the other. In such scenarios even the proven (though not much used in recent years) means of enriching jobs13 will become more difficult to attain in practice.

For one thing, in tech-controlled corporates, verticalization will have to extend to many more levels before the enrichment gains materialize.

Equally critically, the slack that is essential for the mistakes and inefficiencies of enrichment experiments will be decreasingly available in many of the enterprises seeking to engineer themselves for the future14. Simply put: job enrichment will become more challenging. But it will not be impossible unless it is erased from the HR agenda, as has already started happening. When I judge aspirants for best employer awards in recent years, I see fewer and few instances of work being re-engineered to enrich it rather than simply to speed it up. Judging HR professionals and departments for their achievements in making jobs more intrinsically exciting may be the catalyst to making them care once again about work design and enrichment.  

Left unchecked, however, most of tomorrow’s employment-providers will suffer from designs that militate against job-content enrichment, precarious engagements that preclude purpose-driven excitement for the majority and welfare-stripped business models that will not accept the costs of investing in caring cultures. In this modal scenario, there will be little hope of eschewing transactional, extrinsic material rewards and great temptation to minimize their impact by some resuscitated version of the bell curve. Contra to the fashion-statements that are in vogue, here is a recent description of the situation at one of the fastest growing employers of tomorrow: "The company ranks its employees and eliminates those who can't cut it. In a set-up that sounds like something out of 'The Hunger Games', once a year managers come together to review employees’ work and debate their standings. … Employees are ranked according to their performance, and those at the bottom are eliminated each year in a grueling process ..."15 The idea is not to put a negative spot-light on a single organization as much as to point out what the compulsions of the workplace of tomorrow demand from successful players, even if few admit to them.

The Future Could Be Fun

The picture I have painted for the future of work is not as happily-colored as generally prevalent thinking would have us believe. Yet it is not an unrelieved prospect of gloom either. There are and will continue to be exceptional enterprises which organize work and people-relations in a manner that makes every Monday morning the eagerly awaited beginning of a new adventure.

“The anger I felt at the financial services firm which fobbed my problem off to a bot would have been multiplied a hundred times if I were an employee desperate to get help (say, on a problem relating to the health of a child) from my HR manager, only to find I had been baring my bosom to a bot”

Even for the majority of the workforce, it is possible to improve the bleak future of work that present trends indicate. While solutions have been thin on the ground in this column, some are evident even today in the few organizations that genuinely put employees first and make work a joy. More specifically, the four earlier columns of mine that I have referenced here have remedies for the major destroyers of sustained satisfaction at work. Admittedly they do not deal with job enrichment or corporate democracy but those are weighty topics in themselves that deserve separate treatment (as part of the future of my work!). None of these solutions are easy or magical but all of them are important if we really want a fun-filled future of work.

Notes:

  1. Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lotos-eaters, Selected Poems: Tennyson, Penguin Classics, 2007.
  2. Anirban Nag & Vrishti Beniwal. India’s world-beating growth not enough to end deep jobs drought, Bloomberg / Livemint, 31 August 2018. 
  3. David Rotman, How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, MIT Technology Review, 12 June 2013.
  4. Visty Banaji, Make JOBS in India: Nudge Businesses to Generate Durable Employment, People Matters,18 September 2017.
  5. Louise Lucas and Richard Waters, China and US compete to dominate big data: Beijing plans to be the world leader in the technology by 2030, Financial Times, 1 May 2018.
  6. Visty Banaji, Udta Udyog – Industry’s addiction to contract workers, People Matters, 15 September 2016.
  7. Neha Thirani Bagri, Startups in the gig economy will go to great lengths to avoid calling their employees employees, Quartz, 6 April 2017.
  8. Aditi Surie, Are Ola and Uber Drivers Entrepreneurs or Exploited Workers?, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue No. 24, 16 June 2018.
  9. Visty Banaji, Minimal HR for maximal effect – Hyper-frugal Resourceful HR in the age of aggregators, People Matters, 12 January 2017.
  10. Christopher Mackin, Silicon Valley and the Quest for a Utopian Workplace, The New Republic, 28 August 2018.
  11. Visty Banaji, Brave new corporate world: On employee data protection and privacy, People Matters, 17 April 2016.
  12. John Hagel III, 3 Kinds of Jobs That Will Thrive as Automation Advances, Harvard Business Review, 21 August 2018.
  13. Frederick Herzberg, One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?, Harvard Business Review, January-February 1968.
  14. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, New York Times, 15 August 2015.
  15. Madeline Stone and Jillian D’Onfro, Employees confess the worst parts about working for Amazon, Business Insider, 21 August 2015.

Topics: Jobs, Technology, Life @ Work

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