For a Bright Future of Work, Focus on Purpose

Can you think of more than one industry whose workers aren’t worried about losing their jobs to robots or computers? Automation seems to be sweeping through companies relentlessly—canceling out obsolete jobs, creating new types of jobs, and sowing a lot of anxiety in the process.

Though it seems like a distinctly modern problem, anxiety about machines replacing people is nothing new. In 1589, inventor William Lee asked for a patent on a new knitting machine. Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant the patent on the grounds that it would deprive her subjects of employment and turn them into beggars.  The particulars today are different, of course, but we have been grappling with this question for centuries.

John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, spoke on a panel about the future of work at Singularity University’s Global Summit last week. The Center for the Edge’s charter is to help executives identify and investigate emerging business opportunities, and Hagel has written extensively about business strategy and the future of work.

“I talk to senior leaders of institutions around the world,” Hagel said, “and when the topic of the future of work comes up, there are only two questions that they’re interested in: 1) How quickly can I automate? and 2) How many jobs can I eliminate?”

This automate-and-eliminate mindset is not constructive because it pits workers and management against one another and creates a culture of fear. Hagel believes increasing automation is not about displacing people—there will still be a need for people, just as there always has been. As machines take on a greater percentage of our routine tasks, we need to start preparing for what humans will do in the future.

An Uncertain Climate

Gary Bolles, chair of the future of work at Singularity University, shared the session with Hagel. Bolles said discussions about the future of work often feel like a seesaw. “One day we see an article that tells us 10 million jobs are going to go away because AI is going to replace all of those tasks.” The next minute, he said, “There’s a new study. It’s all going to come back and AI is going to create more jobs than it destroyed.” What, then, can we do in this climate of change?

No one quite knows, because the future of work is largely unpredictable. For example, Bolles noted that no one foresaw the way Uber and Lyft would transform the personal transportation industry. And this uncertainty isn’t new; past predictions about the future of work have often been wrong. There are countless theories to explain why the three-hour workday hasn’t become a reality.

But what Bolles challenged most is the sense of resignation about automation and job loss, saying there is no inevitable connection between the two. “It’s a human’s decision whether or not a job goes away when tasks are automated,” he said, stressing the importance of re-skilling and recognizing human potential.

Steve Hatfield, principal and future of work global leader at Deloitte, echoed Bolles’ claim. Deloitte’s 2015 report showed that between 2001 and 2015, technology contributed to the loss of about 800,000 jobs. But during that same period, it also created about 3.5 million new higher-paying jobs. The challenge is making sure that people who are displaced can re-position themselves to enter a more technologically advanced workplace.

Flaws in How We Work

The panelists identified some problems with our current work culture and methods.

First, we may be focusing on the wrong things. Hagel pointed out that a large proportion of worker effort in big organizations is focused on exception handling, which he calls the shadow economy. In other words, instead of doing their assigned tasks, employees are fixing unexpected problems. Often, the high level of performance pressure leads them to find a quick fix or to avoid reporting the issue.

Hagel cited the Andon system used by Toyota in its assembly line as an example of a positive managerial response to this shadow economy. Toyota’s initiative involved giving workers a mechanism—a pull cord or a call button—for notifying management of problems right away. This brought exception handling out of the shadows and into the forefront of the entire team’s purpose. It redefined the mission of those workers and passion levels increased.

Another issue is closed-mindedness towards new ways of working—resistance towards remote work, for example, or bias against candidates who don’t fit a certain mold. Bolles cited an example where this type of bias was overcome: for seven years, a capable computer science graduate couldn’t find a job due to his spectrum disorder. Finally, he found work at ULTRA Testing, a distributed organization that lets workers, 75 percent of whom have spectrum disorders, work from home on software testing projects. The company is very successful because it adopted a more open-minded hiring strategy.

Bolles made a similar argument in favor of remote employment, noting the extreme socioeconomic discrepancy between the Bay Area and the Central Valley east of San Francisco. He advocated for allowing people in less affluent communities to work remotely, thereby increasing employment levels and wealth in those areas.

The Power of the Individual

Hatfield believes people have become empowered to create change, and he credited this trend in part to millennials, who aren’t afraid to demand ethical behavior from their employers. For example, a number of companies stayed in the Paris Accord even as the US exited it.

Hagel told the story of Paul Green, an employee at the Morning Star Company, a food-processing business that produces industrial tomato paste and diced tomatoes. Green was initially hired as a seasonable employee, and his job was to maintain a machine that separated the skins from the tomatoes.  He noticed inefficiencies with the machine, and because the company encourages its employees to innovate, he was given the time and resources to experiment with different settings and features of the machine—and the company saw a 25 percent increase in efficiency as a result.

Reinventing Work

In addition to empowering people companies and communities need to cultivate distinctly human skills. Hagel believes the future of work relies on drawing out our capabilities that are not context-specific and that create value. And he doesn’t believe these skills are limited to the creative class. “I believe we all, as human beings, have curiosity, creativity, imagination, social intelligence, and emotional intelligence,” he said.

Young people may adapt more easily to technology, but Hatfield remarked that the world population is aging, and the older demographic wants to keep working. In Germany, BMW made 70 changes to its manufacturing environment—larger font on screens, comfortable chairs for assembly line workers, and softer wood floors—which improved worker satisfaction and reduced errors.

What Comes Next?

There is much speculation about the changes technology will bring to our work. But maybe that’s not the most important question. Bolles posed an alternative question about work that had nothing to do with technology: “What’s the simplest thing we would want? I argue it’s just one thing. We all want to have paid work with purpose, today and tomorrow.”

Image Credit: kung_tom /

Leigh Manson
Leigh Manson
Leigh is a structural engineer and freelance writer. She enjoys coding, playing the piano, and getting past the learning curve when gaining new skills.
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