Are we right to assume that with automation looming over our industries, our approach to employment, people management and working culture is in need of significant review? In tech industries, where automation is currently most understood, we’ve already seen working cultures shift towards ‘freelance culture’; employees are assigned projects lasting usually no more than two years, open and shared workspaces are encouraged, massages, gyms, barista sessions, gardeners, nutritionists all come to share and contribute to working cultures across our tech industries. Are they hoping to attract innovators and creators that will be most equipped to successfully adapt to automation through groovy perks? Or perhaps, are they trying to challenge the ways their existing employees think about work and creativity? Get a piece of coding to do the 9 till 5 Sisyphean grind.
The reality is that very soon, any tech job that lasts for more than two years will be cheaper to automate. The tech companies know this. PWC predicted earlier this year that up to 30% of UK jobs will be ‘impacted’ by automation by early 2030’s. This statistic is one of the most conservative I’ve seen, with others suggesting that entire professions could be replicated in the next decade. The suggestion is not that robots with name badges will be sat at our desks; the reality is that we have software and hardware are already more capable than we realize. Check out the likes of Lawtech, Monzo, and Sense.ly to see how startups are already using automation to replace all ‘the middle-men and women’. Automation is happening and it's having massive effects on our working cultures.
For the purposes of this article I would like to avoid the obvious social and political ramifications of automation, and focus instead on how our current working cultures are evolving as a response to it. How should industries value and utilize the human resource in the wider context of automation?
So what is it fundamentally that automation offers us? Time. A piece of coding can carry out processes far more quickly and efficiently than any human, whenever it is called upon. If any process needs to be carried out repeatedly, the human resource cannot compete. Many working cultures have inadvertently responded to this by asking employees to compete none the less; employees work long hours, with tight deadlines, where the bulk of their work has been reduced to repeated processes laid out by somebody else. Employees are asked to increasingly keep up to speed; the latest, troubling national mental health in the workplace report has become the giant, expensive, elephant in the room.
So how does all of this relate to Google asking a celebrity gardener to speak to their staff about slow food? Automation is not something for the human resource to try and emulate, as it has been trying to do, but something for the human resource to utilize. Tech companies are beginning to realize that the human resource is far more valuable when the ‘human’ is more carefully examined. When we do this we are left with perhaps the most important question of all: what do humans do that AI cannot? What makes us valuable?
Putting aside DeepMind and others that will make cases to suggest that AI and humans will become indistinguishable in time; robots with name badges ruminating on death and that which cannot be grasped with the mind alone. Consider instead what is already happening with automation. The human resource is far more adaptable than any piece of coding.
Gathering metrics is a form of modern-day alchemy; trying to grasp causal relationships between everything that happens in order to predict outcomes. Financiers have already been replaced by algorithms able to make decisions informed by ever increasing factors. But predictions are not always correct, and currently, there is no way an automated process can respond the change as quickly as human intuition.
Intuition has always been vital within creative industries, but given the role of automation, intuition will become one of the most valued attributes within human resources across all industries. How we intervene processes rather than how we follow them will be the skill we will all look to develop. This has been understood by UAL and is being incorporated into their fascinating Modual education development programme. The next generation will be taught be innovators, disrupters, free thinkers, intuitive creative free agents whose job it is to apply and direct technologies to make our world a better place to be in; or if you prefer: apply technologies so that things just work.
Employers need to embrace these changes and revolutionize approaches to management and working culture. By all means, throw parties, buy ping pong tables, invite in gardeners, poets, and start-ups like MEWS to run workshops stimulating creativity and intuition. Employers need to recognize that the value of human resources has evolved in tandem with technological innovation, and they will need to action this realization to remain competitive.
Challenge staff to be creative, embrace uncertainty, develop intuition, understand the correlation between wellbeing and effective decision making. The writing need not be on the wall.