The machine stopped - or did it?
"In a properly automated and educated world, then, machines may prove to be the true humanizing influence. It may be that machines will do the work that makes life possible and that human beings will do all the other things that make life pleasant and worthwhile " — Isaac Asimov, Robot Visions
COVID has accelerated several trends that are having a huge impact on every workforce. It is time for businesses to think about technology-driven redeployment in a proactive way, and also to exercise compassion as digitalization gains increasing momentum. It is also important for individuals in every sector to be prepared. Where technology is concerned, we should all expect the unexpected.
Shortly after the UK implemented its first big lockdown last year, my street in London became utterly still for a while. It seemed that the machine had stopped. It reminded me of a short story by E.M. Forster, 'The Machine Stops', which explored the psychological realities of a world dominated by an omnipotent machine, which eventually fails. Well over a year ago, it seemed that the economic machinery of our everyday lives had ground to a halt suddenly.
Many people started to revel in their ability to hear birdsong, breathe cleaner air, work from home. Before the true human and economic catastrophe had started to sink in, many people felt they were more in control of their lives, while still being able to work remotely. Remote working was in, and has since been normalised. Technology saved us. And with that has come a sense that we can control the machine; we can tame it and get it to dance to our tune.
But in reality, the machinery of digital technology has been consolidating its position as the foundation for the future not only of work, but every aspect of our existence. Technology does not dance to any tune. It has no tune.
A comprehensive and rigorous literature review commissioned by the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel Development, working in collaboration with the University of Loughborough, explores the impact of AI, robotics, and automation technologies on work.
Following a detailed review of 182 research papers and articles, screened for their relevance and research strength, the main conclusion reached was that ‘technology is augmenting what people are doing and enabling some degree of role expansion for employees’. They saw no evidence for an employment apocalypse.
This was, ofcourse, a pre-COVID literature review. Its findings do still have great relevance to the world we are in now, and the world we are creating for ourselves. I would expect a similar research review in another few years might reach a much more forceful - and potentially troubling - conclusion.
On a reasonably optimistic note, the research suggests that businesses that started digitalizing well before COVID, have largely been doing so in ways that may ultimately lead to a constructive augmentation of peoples' roles, rather than elimination of their roles. This doesn't necessarily mean more workload, but it does imply use of technology, in principle, to improve the way people work. This has required profound changes in working practices in the sectors chosen for the study (transportation and healthcare).
Citing examples as wide ranging as air traffic control and hospital pharmacies, the research suggests technology is more likely to complement and extend human capabilities, rather than remove humans entirely in these sectors. The literature also strongly suggests that businesses and the jobs people perform, will require comprehensive redesign, with a strong emphasis on enterprise agility, for example in the way that learning occurs.
Based on the evidence, the CIPD argues that HR, and learning-and-development (‘L&D’) professionals in particular ‘should be open to learning from organizations that have made some progress in this area and develop learning strategies that are agile and adaptable to the changing nature of work’. L&D is clearly an HR function which has itself been massively digitalized on an accelerated basis in the last twelve months.
There are people in certain occupations or business functions who may feel unsettled about letting go of the parts of their roles which are either ‘administrative’ or ‘routine’, or less viable due to circumstances brought about by COVID. It isn't necessarily easy to watch part of your job being automated or digitalized. This might seem unbelievable to those who believe ‘admin’ is not of any value, that it is boring, or unfulfilling. It might seem obviously much more efficient and expedient to digitalize absolutely anything wherever it is technically possible, for example learning and development.
However, even if there is a practical case for digitalizing certain activities, for some people there might also be a sense of loss associated with this. Personally, for example, I am glad I got to experience the excitement and fun of travelling around the world to work with international groups in often beautiful locations, to be a facilitator 'in the room'. I once even got to design and run a purpose-built leadership academy which occupied a whole floor of prime corporate real estate, with amazing city views. The collective energy we managed to create up there, among leaders at every level, was visible, almost palpable.
This was way before COVID tipped us firmly into a world of digital interaction by default, endless disembodied and dishevelled Microsoft Teams and Zoom gatherings. Post-pandemic, I expect that face-to-face contact for non-essential reasons (especially that which requires participants to travel) will be hard to justify, as activities such as learning compete for precious meeting space, and funding. We have entered a new era. I grow ever more familiar with the view out of my home office window.
Many people have spent years, even decades, perfecting their skill at performing tasks and roles that were required before digitalization (and COVID) took over the world. Some may have personalities which are best suited to these increasingly obsolete roles. The possible obsolescence I refer to can easily still be found in legal, accounting, procurement, HR and IT functions. Many customer services organizations - especially in the public sector - still rely on processing centres, and shared services, staffed with hundreds or thousands of people, now mostly working from home in several parts of the world. Business process outsourcing firms are surely sharpening their swords right now.
In restructuring work that I have been involved in, administrative and customer services staff can find seemingly repetitive procedures to be a source of pride and satisfaction which contributes to their sense of autonomy and control. With an automated solution, such roles can change dramatically, and significant capacity is released for people to be redeployed onto ‘high-value’ work. Higher-value work would come with less structure and require more creativity.
Who would not jump at the chance to be creative, to think more ‘strategically’, to be empowered by technology that would augment their roles, thus liberating them to solve more complex problems in self-managed teams?
Many of the people I have worked with in situations such as this, have felt very anxious about this shift. People learn on-the-job, building up experience of working in a certain way over years, even decades. Some have mastered a particular organization’s very specific routines and systems, both formal and informal, rather than a recognizable trade or profession. Some employers have reinforced the need for physical presence, order, discipline, process efficiency and compliance, rather than agile working, self-management, judgement, collaboration and creativity.
There are organizations that employ a significant volume of people who are far from agile in terms of their natural preference. There are people who are not ready to have their roles digitally augmented or transformed without support, who will require help to embrace new ways of working. If anything, despite its apparent viability, the sudden switch to virtual work in the last year has proven the case for managed change. The total absence of any change management - necessitated by a pandemic - has been very destructive to the physical and mental health of the population, if health statistics are anything to go by, even if some people have thrived.
The current vast involuntary experiment in mass virtualisation could dramatically accelerate much more aggressive work automation, rather than more benign technology augmentation that the CIPD's review suggested was the norm pre-COVID. It may be a tenable position for more organizations to automate more rapidly, radically reduce their headcount, and replace their existing staff with people who already have the right profile. However, at a societal level if things do move in this direction without the right redeployment mechanisms in place, this would be seriously problematic.
COVID has accelerated several trends that are having a huge impact on every workforce. It is time for businesses to think about technology-driven redeployment in a proactive way, and also to exercise compassion as digitalization gains speed. For some of those who once worked in purpose-built workplaces, and are now working full time at home, a new found freedom to work more flexibly, and avoid the politics of the workplace can be very appealing. Certainly much administrative and 'back office' work in 'enabling' functions in business can probably be performed from a spare room at home, or a kitchen table. Customer service can even be provided this way. Such work is possibly also even more easily identified and ring-fenced now as 'low-hanging fruit' in a corporate cost reduction proposal, assuming there is potential for full or partial automation.
In this instance, could the home office also become a graveyard for many a career, rather than a flexible-working Nirvana, as automation technologies get more powerful? Some homeworkers could be nudged into part-time, casual and self employment. The promotions, salary increases, benefits and perks might be reserved for people who are seen to be key assets because of their willingness to be truly flexible - from an employer's perspective- by coming into a workplace on demand.
In this sense, any long-term decision to construct work and life entirely around one's home, or one's personal needs, could result in professional homelessness, perhaps for those already somewhat at the periphery of power. If, however, someone is the boss of their own multi-billion-dollar hedge fund, they can probably work wherever, and however they wish (and even they might need to stomach the occasional city commute).
Could cost savings from floorplate be a natural precursor to cost savings from headcount? Is flexible working and home working now just an interim solution, while technology paves the way for a very different destination to the bucolic work-from-anywhere ('WFA') world many workers wish for? My hunch is that only people with deeply specialized and very "hot" skills can sustain a truly flexible, WFA type arrangement, in which they are in control, and their role unlikely to be automated out of existence, or deemed non-essential. These talented and lucky people can perhaps live eight hours from 'HQ', with a view of the ocean, and still sustain a serious corporate career. Indeed, I suspect some of them will be the people digitalizing the rest of us out of our jobs.
The machine didn't stop when the pandemic started. It went up another gear, accelerating its inexorable rise. Even if, for now at least, employers do intend to treat flexible and home workers in a way that is inclusive, technology is less likely to be fair, equitable, or inclusive in terms of its human impact.
What role do you think organizations need to play in the redeployment of people as they automate work, and deploy new digital technologies?
See also -
Capelli, P. & Keller, J.R. (2014). Talent management: Conceptual approaches and practical challenges. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour, 1, pp. 305–331. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091314
Hislop, D., Coombs, C., Taneva, S., & Barnard, S. (2017). The Impact of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation on Technologies on Work. Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Available for download at https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/work/technology/artificial-intelligence-workplace-impact.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose