Category: Future of work
Every meeting will now be an online meeting
This is another take (from about a year ago) on remote working and the purpose of offices – this one based on a reductio ad absurdum arithmetic of meeting arrangements. The bigger the meeting, the smaller the probability, all else being equal, that everybody is in the same place. So in practice almost any form of hybrid working has the result that the title asserts – every meeting ends up being online.
That has implications both for the management of meetings and the management of offices. Most office are designed to support individuals working at desks and groups meeting in meeting rooms. Neither of those is ideal for participation in online meetings, even before facing up to the prospect of commuting to an office only to spend most of the time talking to people who aren’t there. It is pretty clear that the set of individual optimisations does not sum to optimisation for the group.
That creates a need to manage the working environment – in its broadest sense – in very different ways. And as Tubb points out, the combination of issues involved somehow doesn’t quite belong anywhere:
There is no business owner for meetings. IT owns Microsoft Teams and the M365 stack. Corporate Real Estate and Facilities own meeting rooms. No one is the owner of better meeting behaviours it is left to the assumed soft skills of the individual, the line manager or project manager.
Not for the first time, there are parallels with historic examples of how workplaces have adapted to technological and other changes; not for the first time sociology is at least as important as technology in understanding and influencing what it going on. And of course this particular instance of how technology enables social changes long predates the pandemic – a post I wrote almost ten years ago seems just as as relevant now.
The hard bit, particularly for established organisations, is culture, and particularly trust. If being present is no longer a job requirement, being present can no longer be a virtue. People have to be managed not on whether they turn up and look keen and energetic, but on what they achieve. How, when and where they do that becomes much more a choice for individual workers (and teams) and much less a matter of management standardisation. […] The message that comes across time and time again is that remote working has to be based on trust. Again though, remote working does not create the need for trust, it makes the need explicit and shows where it is missing.
Why the return to the office isn’t working
We used to know what offices were for. There is now a consensus that that isn’t what they are for any more, but there isn’t much of a consensus about anythng else. As so often, when the answers look confusing, that’s in part because the question was confused. The issue isn’t whether people do or do not like offices or whether offices have advantages for some kinds of activities more than others. Still less, for people who do what used to be called office work, is it about finding some ideal universal optimum of days in one place and days in another.
This article is US-focused in its examples, but comes into its own when it moves away from individuals to focus on broader issues. The costs and benefits of office (and home) working fall on different people in different ways. Recognising that and responding to it is the first step towards finding effective models for productive and attractive working environments. Sharon O’Dea summarises the article and the argument neatly in a single tweet:
This piece is a great summary. People don’t necessarily hate the office. What they hate is not having a good reason to be there. The office needs to give people something of value – connection, tools, opportunities – else all people get is the hassle of a commute.
The Filing Cabinet
This is a wonderful essay, celebrating the filing cabinet in a way which will warm the heart of any paper-shuffling bureaucrat. Better still, the essay derives from a book which promises still greater riches.
The filing cabinet is the embodiment of two revolutionary improvements in bureaucratic practice. It stores paper more efficiently and it stores information more effectively. Those two revolutions are the subject of the essay, as are the counter revolutions which brought the century long dominance of the filing cabinet to an end.
But there is a third revolution, about which this essay has less to say, but which is arguably the most important at all, and the hidden driver behind much of the current debate about the organisation and location of work. The filing cabinet becomes one of the fundamental constraints on the organisation of work:
Paper documents live in files. The key to finding the document is to find the file. And if you might need the file, you need a filing cabinet reasonably close to hand where it can be safely stored with lots of other files, almost certainly on related subjects. That of course has enormous consequences for the organisation and physical structure of work: if the unit of work is a paper file and that file is a unique (and therefore precious) assembly of information, the location of work is driven by the organisation of information.
All three of those revolutions have played out of course – computerisation has done for them all. But two of the three have left traces that still influence how we work and how we think about working. The efficient storage of paper stops being a major concern when there is almost no paper to be stored, efficiently or otherwise. But the effectiveness of information storage still matters a lot. Filing cabinets are inherently inflexible – a piece of paper can only be in one place, and the set of places it is in can be sorted only in one direction. Digital storage sweeps those constraints away. But the impact – still – in many organisations is not that everything is to hand, but that nothing can be found. Removing filing cabinets removed the structure of information, and all too often nothing has replaced it.
And it was the filing cabinet which was one of the main reasons why office work needed to happen in offices. If the unit of work is the file, efficient access to the file is everything. The assumption that offices were good places for working remained solid long after that dependence on filed paper had gone away, reinforced by new reasons constructed in part to recognise other kinds of needs, but in part to fill the vacuum of justification left by the removal of the filing cabinets. That shaky edifice remained – until one day, millions of office workers left their offices and discovered that there was no real need to return.
What will the world of work look like in 2035?
The robots are coming for our jobs. That will bring mass unemployment and social collapse. Or perhaps a benign world of plenty with universal more than basic incomes. That’s if they are coming at all.
There is no shortage of predictions about the future of work, often driven from simple – or simplistic – extrapolations of technological progress. The RSA has consistently avoided that trap, crafting more nuanced accounts of potential futures, and their latest report continues that approach. It’s built round four scenarios, introduced with an unusually clear and succinct description of the approach:
These are not predictions but scenarios. What we mean by this is, we are not saying any one of them will come to be. However taken together they capture what we feel is the entire area of plausible future, and each one, we hope, shines a distinct light on an urgent set of challenges and opportunities that our future might hold.
As is often the case with scenario based approaches, it’s debatable how far they are independent of each other. But that is almost to miss the point: however structured, the scenarios bring out some profound social and political choices – but with little sign of the wider engagement, understanding and debate that that demands.
We’re Not All Going to Be Gig Economy Workers After All
The rise of the gig economy and the relentless undermining of traditional employment structures is often seen and presented as an inexorable characteristic of modern digital economies. That’s partly a consequence of skewed observation, partly a recognition that organisations can increasingly trade rich information for formal structures, and perhaps partly a change in the reality of people’s working lives. This article addresses the last of those points using recent US data – and concludes that the number of people working in the gig economy is small and growing only relatively slowly.
That’s a helpful balance to some of the hype, though it does unavoidably leave one of the central questions unanswered. If we can, to adapt Solow’s paradox, see the effects of the gig economy everywhere except in the productivity statistics, is that because they aren’t there to be seen, or because we are at the very early stage of what may be exponential growth? Perhaps, as with Solow’s original, it will take a decade or two to tell.
Tired of the same old clichés about the future of work? You’re not alone
There is no shortage of material on the future of work in general, or on its displacement by automation in particular, but much of it has a strong skew to the technocratically simplistic (though posts chosen for sharing here are selected in part with the aim of avoiding that trap).
There has been a steady stream of material from the RSA which takes a more subtle approach, of which this is the latest. It takes the form of a set of short essays from a variety of perspectives, the foreword to which is also the accompanying blog post. The questions they address arise from automation, but go far beyond the first order effects. What are the implications of the emergence of a global market for online casual labour? Does automation drive exploitation or provide the foundations for a leisured society? Given that automation will continue to destroy jobs (as it always has), will they get replaced in new areas of activity (as they always have – so far)?
Buried in the first essay is an arresting description of why imminent exponential change is hard to spot, even if things have been changing exponentially:
because each step in an exponential process is equal to the sum of all the previous steps, it always looks like you are the beginning, no matter how long it has been going on.
And that in many ways is the encapsulation of the uncertainty around this whole set of questions. There is a technological rate of change, driven by Moore’s law and its descendants, and there is a socio-economic rate of change, influenced by but distinct from the technological rate of change. It is in their respective rates and the relationship between them that much controversy lies.
A new machine age beckons and we are not remotely ready
Benedict Dellot and Fabian Wallace-Stephens – RSA
This is a refreshing post about the implications of work being displaced by machines, which isn’t about the work, the displacement, or the machines. Instead it puts forward a range of suggestions about what would need to be in place to make the consequences of that displacement socially and economically beneficial.
The ideas themselves are still fairly undeveloped at this stage – this is more a prospectus of issues to be explored than the substantive exploration – but even in embryonic form, they demonstate that a wider range of responses is possible than is often assumed. At first sight, some of the ideas look considerably more robust than others, but regardless of their specific merits, being imaginative about ways of dealing with the consequences of technology change must be a better strategy than trying to impede it.
AI, work and ‘outcome-thinking’
Richard Susskind – The British Academy Review
The debate about the scale of the impact of automation on employment rumbles on. Opinions vary enormously both on the numbers and types of jobs affected and on the more esoteric question of whether jobs or tasks are the more useful unit of measurement.
This short article neatly sidesteps that debate altogether. Its focus is on outcomes, the things we want to achieve. They will remain unchanged even as the means of achieving them changes radically. So the core question is not whether the way humans achieve the outcome can be replicated by robots and AI, but rather whether there is an alternative – and perhaps very different – way of achieving the same outcome in a way which is optimised for machines, not people.
Framing the question that way does two things. The first is that it brings some much needed clarity to a complex issue. The second is that all of us who have been congratulating ourselves on our irreplaceability need to start worrying much sooner than we might have thought.
Why automation is more than just a job killer
You can find an estimate for the impact of automation on jobs to support more or less any prior opinion you happen to hold. Apparently sensible forecasts from apparently respectable organisations range from the benign to the apocalyptic. One reason why it can be hard to make sense of that is that different factors – some potentially with opposite effects – can get bundled together into an agglomeration of technologies in an agglomeration of sectors and contexts having an agglomeration of effects. Disentangling any of that then becomes next to impossible
This useful short post separates out four different forms of automation, briefly explaining the employment impact of each. That doesn’t magically give us a single number which is somehow better than all the other single numbers. But it does provide a framework for understanding and debating all the other single numbers.
Open plan offices reduce collaboration? A powerful argument for measuring collaboration
The rather counter-intuitive idea that open-plan working might reduce the rate at which people talk to each other has been getting quite a lot of coverage recently, no doubt for man bites dog reasons. This post goes beyond that to ask a vital, but less obvious, point – that we can’t know what environments promote or detract from collaboration without a clearer sense of what we mean by it and how we might measure it. In other words, even – or perhaps especially – in the case of an apparently mundane issue such as office layout design, evidence-based iterative test and learn approaches really matter.
And in the week that the new UK Government Estate Strategy was published, that may be particularly pertinent.
What does good work look like in the future – and how can we get there?
Benedict Dellot and Fabian Wallace-Stephens – the RSA
The RSA has established itself as a source of insight on the future of work and the intersection of technology and employment, avoiding the hyperbole and hysteria which all too often characterises work in this area. Now they are building on that by setting up a Future Work Centre to explore these issues systematically. That’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
The launch event at the RSA was recorded and can be watched here:
How AI will transform the Digital Workplace (and how it already is)
AI is often written about in terms of sweeping changes resulting in the wholesale automation of tasks and jobs. But as this post sets out, there is also a lower key version, where forms of AI appear as feature enhancements (and thus may not be apparent at all). Perhaps self-generating to do lists are the real future – though whether that will be experienced as liberation or enslavement is very much a matter of taste. Either way, AI won’t be experienced as robots, breaking into the building to take our jobs; instead tasks will melt away, enhanced in ways which never quite feel revolutionary.
Every study we could find on what automation will do to jobs, in one chart
Erin Winick – MIT Technology Review
This devastatingly simple short post brings together estimates of the employment effects of automation, and assesses their consistency and coherence. There turns out to be none: ‘we have no idea how many jobs will actually be lost to the march of technological progress.’
Why the robot boost is yet to arrive
Tim Harford – the Undercover Economist
One of the problems with predicting the future is working out when it’s going to happen. That’s not quite as silly as it sounds: there is an easy assumption that the impact of change follows closely on the change itself, but that assumption is often wrong. That in turn can lead to the equally wrong assumption that because there has been limited impact in the short term, the impact will be equally limited in the long term. As Robert Solow famously put it in 1987, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’ In this post, Tim Harford updates the thought from computers to robots. The robot takeover isn’t obviously consistent with high employment and low productivity growth, but that is what we can currently observe. The conclusion – and the resolution of the paradox is disarmingly simple, if rather frustrating: wait and see.
Don’t believe the hype: work, robots, history
Michael Weatherburn – Resolution Foundation
This post introduces a longer paper which takes the idea of understanding the future by reflecting on the past to a new level. The central argument is that digital technologies have been influencing and shaping the industry sectors it examines for a long time, and that that experience strongly suggests that the more dramatic current forecasts about the impact of technology on work are overblown.
The paper’s strengths come from its historical perspective – and, unusually for this topic, from being written by a historian. It is very good on the underlying trends driving changing patterns of work and service delivery and distinguishing them from the visible emanations of them in web services. It does though sweep a lot of things together under the general heading of ‘the internet’ in a way which doesn’t always add to understanding – the transformation of global logistics driven by ERP systems is very different from the creation of the gig economy in both cause and effect.
The paper is less good in providing strong enough support for its main conclusion to justifying making it the report’s title. It is true that the impacts of previous technology-driven disruptions have been slower and less dramatic to manifest themselves than contemporary hype expected. But the fact that hype is premature does not indicate that the underlying change is insubstantial – the railway mania of the 1840s was not a sign that the impact of railways had peaked. It is also worth considering seriously whether this time it’s different – not because it necessarily is, but because the fact that it hasn’t been in the past is a reason to be cautious, not a reason to be dismissive.
The invention of jobs
The job as we know it was basically invented in the late C19th; before that, almost everything was piece-work – great talk from @judyzara! #ASIForum pic.twitter.com/8s6xD8Dn2s
— Stian Westlake (@stianwestlake) December 9, 2017
It’s often tempting – because it’s easy – to think that the way things currently are is the necessary and natural way of their being. That can be a useful and pragmatic assumption. Until it isn’t.
What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages
James Manyika, Susan Lund, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Jonathan Woetzel, Parul Batra, Ryan Ko, and Saurabh Sanghvi – McKinsey
Much is being written about how robots and automation either will or won’t displace lots of employment, often with breathless excitement as a substitute for thoughtful analysis. This report brings a more measured approach, in every sense. Its focus, as seems increasingly sensible, is less on the end point of change (which can’t be known in any case) and much more on the pace and direction of change. It also pays as much attention to the jobs which will be created as to those which might be displaced, which must be right as it is the net effect which really matters. The conclusion is that up to 2030, jobs will be created in sufficient number to offset the effects of automation – but that that overall stability may involve 375 million people around the world and 6.6 million in the UK being displaced from their current occupation, in part because an estimated 8 or 9% of jobs by 2030 being in occupations which haven’t existed before.
This is when robots will start beating humans at every task
Chris Weller – World Economic Forum
This is a beguiling timeline which has won a fair bit of attention for itself. It’s challenging stuff, particularly the point around 2060 when “all human tasks” will apparently be capable of being done by machines. But drawing an apparently precise timeline such as this obscures two massive sources of uncertainty. The first is the implication that people working on artificial intelligence have expertise in predicting the future of artificial intelligence. Their track record suggests that that is far from the case: like nuclear fusion, full blown AI has been twenty years in the future for decades (and the study underlying this short article strongly implies, though without ever acknowledging, that the results are as much driven by social context as by technical precision). The second is the implication that the nature of human tasks has been understood, and thus that we have some idea of what the automation of all human tasks might actually mean. There are some huge issues barely understood about that (though also something of a no true Scotsman argument – something is AI until it is achieved, at which point it is merely automation). Even if the details can be challenged, though, the trend looks clear: more activities will be more automated – and that has some critical implications, regardless of whether we choose to see it as beating humans.
The Age of Automation
Benedict Dellot and Fabian Wallace-Stephens – the RSA
This new report from the RSA takes a more balanced view than most on the impact of automation on work, and particularly on low-skill work. This is neither a story of a displaced workforce condemned to penury as the robots take over, nor one of a blithe assumption that everything will muddle through. Much of the underlying analysis is now fairly familiar – certainly to regular readers here – what is distinctive and valuable is the focus on the quality as well as the quantity of work and the ways in which automation can enhance human work rather than displace it
Impressively, the authors have put some of their approach into practice by partly automating the process of reading it. Traditional manual readers can work through the full eighty page report; automation maximalists need only skim the eight key takeaways; and those with intermediate ambitions can focus on extracts from the main report summarising the main arguments or focusing on the impact of automation on the quality of work.