Education and Skills

Debunked: 5 myths about the future of work

The majority of employers say the key goal of automation is to augment, not replace, human performance and productivity

The majority of employers say the key goal of automation is to augment, not replace, human performance and productivity Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Ravin Jesuthasan
Senior Partner and Global Leader for Transformation Services, Mercer (MMC)
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As automation and non-employee labour (such as contingent talent or shared talent) become more common in the workplace, assumptions about the future of work are giving way to a deeper understanding of its challenges.

The new realities facing organizations as they strive to combine human talent and machines are revealed by the Willis Towers Watson 2017-18 Global Future of Work Survey. Its research debunks five myths about the future of work:

Myth 1: Organizations use automation primarily to reduce costs and minimize errors

Busted: More than half of employers (57%) say the key goal of automation is to augment human performance and productivity. A substantially smaller percentage say the goal is to reduce costs (24%) and avoid mistakes (15%). Automation increasingly plays a transformative role in the workplace by augmenting, not replacing, talent.

Image: Willis Towers Watson 2017-18 Global Future of Work Survey
Myth 2: Workplace automation is the exclusive domain of IT

Busted: It takes more than IT to make effective use of workplace automation. In fact, more than 60% of employers say it will take breakthrough approaches in areas such as performance management and leadership development to meet the challenges of automation and digitalization. These findings highlight the broad transformation that is required to realize the full benefits of automation.

Many organizations appear unprepared for some of the most critical challenges involved in applying automation, such as deconstructing jobs and identifying reskilling pathways for talent whose job tasks are affected. On average, fewer than 5% of survey respondents say they are fully prepared for the shifting requirements in these areas.

Image: Willis Towers Watson 2017-18 Global Future of Work Survey
Myth 3: Workplace automation will have a largely negative impact on workers and jobs

Busted: Automation will result in new combinations of work, skill requirements and work relationships, increasing skill premiums in certain areas and decreasing them in others. For example, 45% of organizations expect to redesign jobs in the next three years, to require more skills as a result of automation. They expect to pay more for these skill sets.

Image: Willis Towers Watson 2017-18 Global Future of Work Survey
Myth 4: Workplace automation will drive job losses across all categories of workers

Busted: Automation will contribute to job losses, as well as gains, across different categories of workers. While organizations expect to reduce the percentage of full-time employees from 83% today to 77% in three years, they also think they’ll need more contingent workers.

For example, while 19% of respondents say automation currently enables or requires them to use more non-employee talent, such as free agents or contractors, this figure is projected to rise to 50% in the next three years.

Myth 5: Contingent workers are disengaged and not committed to your organization’s success

Busted: While in the past, employers may have regarded contingent (casual) workers as cost-saving and engaged with them in a purely transactional relationship, today many recognize the value that contingent workers contribute to their organization. They appreciate the need to build a more sustainable relationship. Roughly half of employers say that contingent workers are as likely to put in extra effort as full-time employees. And more than half believe that these workers are just as likely to recommend their organization as full-time employees, underscoring the importance of engaging all workers.

Moving beyond the myths

Debunking these myths helps clarify the shifting nature of work, as well as highlighting areas where institutional change is needed. The following steps can help organizations prepare for the future of work:

Understand how technology and automation impact work

Assess how work can be deconstructed into component tasks, and how these can be automated, redeployed or reconstructed into new jobs that enable the optimal combination of different work options, such as AI, robotics and contingent labour.

Define the re-skilling pathways

Based on the new requirements for work, identify the skills your organization will need going forward and the pathways to attaining those skills for talent whose work will be affected by automation. The new world of work will require every worker not only to improve existing skills, but also to undergo radical re-skilling at various intervals. For example, a sales rep may need to acquire skills in AI.

In planning learning and development programmes, most organizations can’t go it alone. They should consider partnering with third parties such as universities or online training companies to deliver programmes that meet the needs of their key talent. In addition, content curation skills will be critical to ensuring the quality and relevance of these programmes.

Lead change and engage in these new ways of working

Deliver a talent value proposition that takes into account the needs and preferences of all workers - employees and non-employees. For example, contingent workers may especially value learning opportunities, or the chance to work on a high-profile project that will enhance their resumés and their ability to secure ongoing work.

In the face of rapidly changing work automation, companies will need to develop leaders and managers who can orchestrate a radically different ecosystem while keeping all their talent fully engaged. They must ensure they have the right tools and training, in areas from talent acquisition to performance management, in order to deliver a meaningful work experience to every worker.

These actions will help organizations face the new realities of a disrupted workplace, and capture value from the many emerging options for getting work done.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsJobs and the Future of WorkEconomic GrowthEmerging Technologies
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