In the context of fast-paced technological advancement, varying economic forces, obsession with value extraction and rigid application of conventions, the future of work has never seemed more uncertain.

Q: What is the debate on the human future of work about?

PC: Technology, particularly through machine intelligence, robotisation, and the internet of things are increasingly pointing at significant change in the workplace and nature of jobs in many sectors. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has described the shifts we are now seeing as the fourth industrial revolution — building on the third or digital revolution that has been going on since the middle of the 20th Century, but now bringing together physical, digital and biological developments. He argues this will increasingly force businesses to significantly reexamine how they do business, and that the impacts will be in customer expectations, on product enhancement, on collaborative innovation, and on organisational forms.

Technology has already been impacting our lives, our workplaces, and our jobs for the last couple of decades, but it has not all been for the good of better work and working lives. Technology has in too many instances done a lot to disempower people and deskill work, while many surveys point to people’s widespread sense of growing work intensity, the ‘always on’ working culture, with stress at work quite clearly one of the growing trends  leading to a lot more focus on wellbeing and mental health in response. Engagement, fairness, opportunity, progression and development are all vital components of healthy and productive workplaces, yet the trends on all of these are at best stagnant if not declining.

These are the reasons that we have to put the person, or the human, at the heart of the debate about the future of work. Clearly we have to improve the economic outcomes of work and solve the so-called productivity puzzle, but we also must create a future of work that is better for people — and of course the two themes are inextricably linked. We cannot just let technology overrun us. We must consciously design work around people together with technology to get the best out of both, and HR as a profession must play a huge role in this going forwards.

Q: Why is it important to engage in the conversation?

PC: Because it impacts all of us. There is no sector, job, person, or organization that is not being impacted by the shifts in work, workforce, and workplace. The pace of change does vary, but as William Gibson, the science fiction writer, observed back in the 90s, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. We therefore need to learn from each other, to collaborate and innovate in our thinking to address a more uncertain future so that we can apply different perspectives and understanding back in to our own organisations. For too long we have been too introspective, pursued polices, processes and so-called best practices in rigid ways without thinking enough about the outcomes we are trying to impact. We must better reflect the diversity in our workforces, in our corporate cultures, in the capabilities we need and look at best fit practice instead.

Q: How can individuals and organisations play a part as agents for change?

PC: Peter Drucker observed that the best way to predict the future was to help create it (this was probably first observed by Abraham Lincoln). In these times of change and uncertainty, this has never been more true and we should all have the confidence and belief that we can change and impact things for a better future. We need to start with principles and purpose, and understand outcomes and the key elements of strategy that we are effecting. We must connect with others, across functions and across business, as well as into policy, law, and commentary, so that our voice as a profession is better heard.

Q: What opportunities and dangers do you anticipate?

PC: As with any significant changes, there are both dangers or risks, and opportunities. As with evolution, its not always the strongest or fittest who survive, but the most adaptive. The watchword of modern business should be agility — the ability to sense and understand changes and shifts and be able to adapt and respond. Strategy today is more about direction than endless detail, and we need to create organisations and organisational cultures where more people can contribute, innovate, and help make sense of the changes that are happening. The biggest risks are doing nothing, of ignoring or pretending that change isn’t happening. In particular for HR, we need to ensure we are designing appropriate jobs and roles, progression routes, and organisations that not only make good use of the skills and capabilities available to us, but also provide work that is engaging and meaningful.

Q: Where can we go from here? What does a future where work is human look like?

PC: No one can predict exactly what the future will look like, but we all have a role in helping to ensure that the future of work is good for people, that it is productive as well as rewarding. There are various research programs and initiatives that are exploring possible future of work scenarios and the kinds of jobs that will be most impacted and what future jobs or roles are likely to be. We need to keep connected to and participate in these initiatives, to extend our collaborative networks so that we can work collectively on shaping a future that is good for us all.

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