What does the future of work hold? - Preparing you for the future of work.

What does the future of work hold?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here. Recent reports have listed some 30 top companies that have already placed machines in key functions, and chatbots are widely moving from basic support roles into mentoring and counselling.

 To make sure these technologies build better workplaces, we will need leaders with more humanity and less ego.

Revolution is a time of disruption, which typically means both development and adjustment. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be no exception. Game-changing developments can be expected and significant adjustments will need to be made. For companies and employees alike, it is a mixed bag – but one filled with immense possibility.

Already, some of these disruptions can be observed as a new wave of AI technology impacts the workplace. The world of gaming in particular is making its presence felt in this space, with many companies gamifying the user experience with a variety of online offerings, whether it be in sales, mock-up of experiences, storyboarding client solutions collaboratively, modular learning by employees, or even incentivising goals and KPIs for employees. 

Skills replaced, skills developed

With progress, it is always a reality that some skills will be replaced. Major companies such as Petronas in Malaysia have already installed robots to complement humans in some key functions – for example, in the Treasury Department. Other organisations such as Novartis have implemented robot technology at manufacturing sites around the globe, in logistics and mobility roles.

In 2017, MSN reported on 30 companies – among them Amazon, DHL, Uber, Tesla, and Target - that have installed robots in key functions, alongside a prediction that robots would take over a large proportion of roles within the next 30 years.

But AI is not just going to benefit robots, it also bring benefits to human employees. Human beings are becoming increasingly comfortable with the use of chatbots in their everyday lives, for instance, to the extent that some are even beginning to demand them in the workplace. According to Facebook Vice President, David Marcus, there are now more than 100,000 chatbots on the Facebook Messenger platform.

Chatbots are likely to impact the workplace in a significant way – for example, through the use of productivity chatbots, the digitisation of HR processes, or the ability to access HR solutions from anywhere in the world. Advantages include clean, quick processing of queries, cost-effective personal assistance or easy customer support. In services, many customers are comfortable using chatbots to book hotels or ask for technical support; some are even using chatbots to job-hunt. As this technology advances, we are beginning to see extraordinary developments: the use of chatbots for mentoring, and even coaching.

Further, the use of AI is helping companies to become employers of choice with an emerging generation of graduates – by using technology to help them write bias-free job descriptions and adverts.

As some jobs become redundant, others are created. The faster technology advances in the workplace, the greater the need for highly skilled individuals who can manage these processes. There is a need to re-train staff and employees to embrace these new ways of working.

Meanwhile, new job roles in companies, for instance conversational design staff, story-boarding staff, scrum-masters, employee experience roles, digital transformation team roles, customer interface roles – to name but a few that already exist – spring up as companies plot their technology roadmaps for continued roll-outs of greater and greater technological influences in their workspaces.

Fun and games

The world of gaming has also penetrated the workspace. Many companies are gamifying both the customer and employee experience. For customers, it can create a positive experience and drive higher engagement with the brand.

For employees, there are many benefits, including skills development. Gaming has been shown to increase motivation and productivity, encourage creativity, improve communication, increase engagement, improve innovative dynamics, grow specific skills, and transmit corporate image.

Moreover, there are personal benefits for employees, which improve their ability to work well with others. These include adeptness with failure, which comes with learning to try again and again; working often in cross-cultural teams or global virtual teams; collaboration; and enriched, highly stimulating or multi-sensory environments.

Gaming can be used for helping employees reach their KPIs, and for tapping into employees’ psychological drivers – a fundamental shift in how we view productivity. 

Is there a role left for leaders?

Naturally, there are safety considerations when one operates in the online sphere. There are ethical considerations, as well as possibilities of cyber breaches and data security. More specifically, hierarchical structures and interpersonal relationships within workspaces change considerably when not only human beings are employed.

The impact of AI and other technological developments means humans now no longer lead humans only – distributive leadership can now be achieved between human and machine – and traditional notions of time and space no longer apply, as remote, flexible or constant work schedules become even easier. Traditional hierarchical and linear models of leadership may no longer apply as workplace structures change.

So how do leaders navigate these changes with integrity and still provide positive, impactful and ethical leadership? Leadership training is also affected. “Traditional” topics of leadership must be examined through a new lens. How do we lead in virtual environments? How do we lead across cultures? How does technology enable teamwork? Does the traditional notion of a team still exist? How do shared leadership roles work?

When we discuss communication and dialogue, how do we re-frame our discussions taking into account the impacts of these new technologies? How do we re-imagine our working and personal identities in this new world? Our sense of community and belonging? How do we communicate internally and externally, and how do we enrich multi-person, inter-personal dialogue with the many new avenues open to us? For example, when one brings in discussions with, or design of, a chatbot – communication requires an entirely new angle. And that is before we have touched on the considerable impact of social media, gaming, or the control of our personal data and privacy.

These are all questions we do not have the answers to yet, but which must be grappled with as the working world continues to change, and as business schools continually invite debate on, and dialogue with regard to, these important challenges.

Meanwhile, leaders will need to balance the exciting possibilities of technology with the development of their people.The World Economic Forum points out that while we don’t need everyone to be a software engineer, we do need employees who can learn, who can share, who can connect the dots and build good relationships with colleagues inside and outside of the organisation. Just as important, we need employees who understand how technology and society interact to drive progress for all stakeholders.

And if we need employees who can do all of that, then we need leaders to match. We will need to find new ways of learning and now more than ever, leaders will need to develop their inner resources to be effective.

Currently, the signs are good that the digital age can help us to reinvent the workplace for the better; to build more inclusive, productive, creative workspaces that are more attractive to employees. But to achieve all of that we are also going to need leaders who balance the benefits of AI with a healthy dose of humanity.

As Professor Klaus Schwab notes, “We need leaders who are emotionally intelligent, and able to model and champion co-operative working. They’ll coach, rather than command; they’ll be driven by empathy, not ego. The digital revolution needs a different, more human kind of leadership”.

Kurt April is a Sainsbury Fellow and Professor of Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business.

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