workforce, future, AI

09.12.2019

business-management  |  9 min read

Preparing your business for the workforce of the future

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Chester Avey

The world is changing at a rapid pace and there is little doubt that AI (artificial intelligence) is posing a threat to low-skilled jobs. Automation and AI in the workplace is firmly on the business agenda across the board from retail to hospitality, banking, finance and manufacturing, as well as a multitude of other office-based businesses.

Business culture also is a hot topic now and, according to a report on The Culture Economy by Breathe HR, is predicted to become the invisible maker or breaker of all businesses in the future.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution underway, there is growing concern that we are facing a skills mismatch between those in the current workforce and those required for the future. The big questions on business leaders’ minds now are "What will the workforce of the future look like?" and "How do we prepare our business for that?"

The impact of automation

A recent BBC report on how businesses need to adapt predicts that clever chatbots will replace most call center staff within 10 years. Last year, a report in The Guardian predicted that more than six million workers fear being replaced by machines.

Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2021, 70% of organizations will assist their employees’ productivity by integrating AI in the workplace. Another AI expert says automation could replace 40% of jobs in 15 years. The scaling back of human input in some jobs appears inevitable.

So, if predictions become truths, what happens to the existing workforce?

There is little doubt that AI will have an impact on the way we work. Catastrophizers predict that AI will steadily take over large sectors of the workforce, force mass unemployment and social unrest.

However, a report by Skynet Today states that studies on the impact of AI in the near future suggest it will be no more disruptive than that imposed by the leaps in technology and automation of the past. A more positive outlook would suggest a slower transition and with intelligent business agility it means workers can be retrained to fulfill new roles.

At a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) summit in 2011, Gartner reported that by 2020, 85% of customer interactions would be handled without a human agent. This indicates that automation is already happening at a slower rate than predicted. Business leaders need to act now, but they do have time to plan for the future.

Unknown opportunities: embracing the future

AI and automation will unquestionably have an impact on the way we work, but many pundits are optimistic about the opportunities. Over the past 20 years, new technology has caused some roles to disappear, but it also has created new, previously unheard-of job titles (social media managers, mobile app developers, SEO analysts, data scientists and so on).

Speaking at a recent Festival of Work event in London, former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov said, “AI will bring millions and millions of people that never had access to the job market, many of whom have great talents, but they never had the opportunity to put them on display.

“Now AI can help blind people hear what a machine sees and deaf people to see what a machine hears. There’s so many opportunities and there’s a new army of talented people that could actually become part of the new employment landscape.”

A report on The Future of Jobs published by the World Economic Forum last year found that nearly 50% of companies expect that automation will lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce by 2022, based on the job profiles of today’s employees. However, 38% of businesses surveyed expect to extend their workforce to new productivity-enhancing roles.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Arjun Sethi, global lead of A.T. Kearney’s digital transformation practice, said “AI can result in a heavily engaged workforce the moment workers see the exponential increase in the impact they can have, due to enhancement and augmentation of their skills.

“Imagine the impact on a healthcare provider who can provide care to a patient hundreds of miles away, using remote-controlled devices and monitoring services. Similarly, picture a teacher who can now engage children in a developing economy, whilst they are still based at home in the US or Europe.”

AI and automation have huge potential to transform the way we work and will mean some existing jobs become obsolete, but new roles will be developed as a result. This has happened throughout history.

Talent shortages, human creativity and investment in reskilling

The critical lever for success as businesses transition and embrace automation and AI will be in their ability to attract and retain the right talent. Data scientists, for example, are now highly sought after.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, argues in his preface to The Future of Jobs Report 2018, “to prevent an undesirable lose-lose scenario— technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality - it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling.”

Businesses that prepare for change will be those that prosper. Those that don’t refashion human creativity within the workplace will go to the wall. Attracting and retaining talent begins with the development of a strong and positive business culture where innovation and a growth mind-set prevail.

Business culture

A PwC report on Preparing for Tomorrow’s Workforce highlights the pressing need for leaders to prepare and deliver performance by helping employees to thrive. It requires “a clear vision for an uncertain world – one that sets out transparently the plans that allow people to take on new and augmented roles, and vitally, to create a compelling people experience.”

Professor Herminia Ibarra from London Business School said at last year’s World Economic Forum, “Research shows that the productivity benefits of digital technologies like AI depend on the adopting firms’ ability to [reorganize] their core business processes around the new technology. This sort of transformation is more likely in cultures that promote experimentation, learning agility and a growth mind-set.”

See more on how to create a positive business culture in the AI world here. Business needs to move toward a place where value is placed on ideas rather than time spent. More innovation can happen when mundane tasks get completed by machines and are removed from the workload.

Flexible working and the four-day working week

There’s a new approach in forward-thinking businesses on how to optimize performance. Ironically, it has to do with actually working for less than normal hours. According to Forbes, businesses adopting the four-day working week model aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts – it is more to reflect a belief that the key to getting the best out of staff lies in ensuring a decent work-life balance. The timing for this couldn’t be better if predictions on the amount of work available play out as automation and AI further develop.

Flexible working practices also are trending. In a report on how millennials and Gen Z are reshaping the future of the workforce, Stephane Kasriel, CEO at Upwork and an expert in staffing innovation and remote work, says “The traditional 9-to-5 office job doesn’t adequately support the lives millennials and Gen Zs want to live. They are flexible-work natives, raised during and after the dotcom bubble, where the acceleration of technology has sped up exponentially over time.

“As they ascend into managerial positions, they’re ditching traditional, archaic models of work in favor of a flexible, remote workforce. They’ll work with more freelancers, invest in reskilling and empower their teams to work remotely.”

This is the workforce of the future.

Ethics and millennials

Millennials want to work for ethical businesses. A survey on millennials by Deloitte reveals that optimism and trust toward businesses by millennials and Gen Zs have reached troubling low levels. Survey respondents did not think highly of leaders’ impact on society, their commitment to improving the world, or their trustworthiness.

Attracting millennial talent will be much easier for socially responsible businesses in the future. Corporate social responsibility is no longer a nice-to-have business policy – it’s essential. Business ethics will play an increasing role in workforce development.

Summary

While the emphasis on jobs likely to be lost as a result of AI and automation tends to be on low-skilled work, traditional professional roles are also in jeopardy as they become replaced by increasingly capable information processing systems.Building the workforce of tomorrow requires business leaders to prioritize the training and development of employees to keep up with emerging technologies. Deploying human capital into other areas, understanding the expectations and needs of younger generations in the workplace, and creating an innovative and nurturing culture will define the successful businesses of the future.

Supporting workers through the transition is in the hands of the business community, the Government and the education system. Ethical consumerism will also continue to nip at the heels of business.


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