Better planning needed for the future of work

A report out this week says the Government lacks a long-term plan for the fast-changing world of work we are facing.

women's hand with virtual technology above


The future of work is not decided. It can go any of various ways, depending on how we plan for, think about and implement changes. But if we don’t plan and monitor and understand the potential impact on different groups that’s when things go wrong.

A report out this week from the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee analyses the Department for Work and Pensions’ readiness for the ongoing technology revolution and finds it wanting.

It is fairly upbeat about the impact on new technology on jobs. It says evidence to the committee suggests that automation and new technology, while killing off some jobs, could create a lot of new ones or change existing ones. We can see that happening now – in journalism, for instance, data mining has become a big new field. In HR more data means the need for more data analysis skills. While chatbots interact more and more with customers and help with obvious information, it is the human touch and information beyond what can be brought up on Google that many people crave.

The committee says, however, that the DWP “lacks a long-term plan for how it will respond to changes in the world of work”. This is worrying, given how fast things are changing and how Covid has speeded up a lot of trends. We need to be on top of this stuff or risk drifting through it. Houston, we need a plan.

For instance, big shifts towards remote or hybrid working are happening now. The best employers will be planning for the changes, ensuring that a two-tier system doesn’t become entrenched whereby remote workers miss out on vital networking, promotions and recognition, as has happened in the past. Or that those whose jobs cannot be done remotely don’t feel aggrieved and left out of the growing clamour for flexible working. We saw how in the past some employers introduced a one-sided flexibility which was more about exploiting the workforce – changing shifts without warning, for instance – than a mutually beneficial agreement.

Employers cannot introduce changes to the way people work without properly considering how you do that and what the consequences might be. People cannot just be left to ‘make it work’. Yet that is what many remote workers in the past have done. Now is the time to use their experience and knowledge of what might be needed to avoid the pitfalls many have encountered. Investment in planning now will prevent problems further down the line.

But it’s not just employers who need to think about this kind of thing. The Government needs a joined up strategy, including an advisory body, to support what are immense changes that will affect many different departments – including housing and transport.

To do this it needs accurate data. The report says there is a lack of comprehensive data about the pace of technology adoption by employers in the UK which makes it difficult to track the impact on take-up of new working practice and the effect that technology changes are having on the number, nature and quality of jobs. It says new technology “has the potential to enhance rather than diminish the quality of work, but this is not guaranteed”. Singling out the gig economy and zero hours contracts, it says there is an urgent need for the Government to bring forward the much-delayed Employment Bill responding to Matthew Taylor’s report on modern working. Parliament should be debating these matters now and not months after employers have already emerged from Covid.

It also needs to track the differential impact of new technology on different groups, for instance, on women who are in short supply in STEM-related jobs and who desperately need the skills to move into some of the skills shortage areas, particularly amid concerns of the long-term impact of Covid. Indeed, the report calls for more data on who has lost out in the pandemic and more detailed plans from the DWP about how it will upskill people.

The ‘future of work’ is still all to play for, but it requires really focused thinking about how it can be supported. Instead, we tend to be stuck in a circular generalised argument about whether the office or home is best when there is a need for much more broader, more nuanced thinking.

I remember going to a health conference way back in the 90s where one of the hot topics was sex education in schools. There was a lot of interesting debate going on, but the press pack opted to focus on a quote from Victoria Gillick likening enabling school nurses to give out condoms to making them into brothel madams. Clearly it was a ‘colourful’ comment, but did it move the debate on in any helpful practical way or just keep us stuck in an age-old, simplistic and ultimately unhelpful binary debate?

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