What will the future of work be? Will it be one of increasing automation, where humans are pushed out by robots, where jobs are increasingly gig-based and precarious? Or will the internet free us up to work more flexibly and focus on more fulfilling tasks and on the skills that only humans possess?
A debate at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas covered research on many of these areas, including the impact of humanoid robots on the workplace. Computer scientist Hatice Gunes from the University of Cambridge outlined the benefits of humanoid robots, from helping children with diabetes to care for themselves to remote nursing. She also pointed out their limitations and addressed some of the concerns about such robots, for instance, the question about why they needed to look human-like. Humans had a tendency to anthropomorphise everything, she said, and being able to touch robots and interact with them was useful, for instance, for children with special needs. Gunes said it was vital that the public engaged more with new technology and understood it so that they could help direct how it developed. Robots could be collaborators with humans in the future rather than taking over their jobs, she stated.
Sociologist Magdalena Soffia said her research showed similar preoccupations about quality work across the globe. Good jobs were defined as offering a good salary, job prospects, work life balance, autonomy and health and safety protection, among other factors. An overall framework on what constituted quality work – whether in the formal or informal sector – was needed, said Soffia.
Laetitia Vitaud is an HR expert with a focus on the future of work. She spoke of how the Fordist model of work in the 20th century involved a pact between worker and employer whereby, in return for labour, the employer offered a package of benefits from wages to pension and housing as well as a professional identity and the promise of upward mobility. She argued that this package had been gradually unbundled over the last few decades as a result of several factors, including globalisation, de-industrialisation, the rise of automation, the growth of the financial sector and the digital revolution.
New jobs were less and less coupled with traditional benefits, she said, singling out how Walmart and Amazon were now the number one employers in the US as compared with General Motors in the 1960s. This unbundling was reshaping our institutions and it was having a big influence on HR. Some HR tasks were being hived off to automation, such as payroll functions. More freelances and contractors were being employed who were less under the control of HR. It was becoming increasingly harder to recruit creative workers as they behaved more like consumers, moving jobs quickly. This meant HR was having to think more and more in terms of employer branding to appeal to them and focusing on “the employee experience”.
It was also harder to recruit for lower paid jobs due to falling wages and rising housing costs in cities among other factors. Shareholder interests were now primary and workers often came the last in the value chain, leading to a sense of alienation. Outsourcing due to calls for employers to focus on their core business had fractured the workplace, leading to colleagues working for different employers under very different conditions. Moreover, platforms were being used for supplementary work and on these professionals often faced competition from amateurs. Yet digital automation had changed worker expectations – if machines could do the repetitive work this could free people up to do the human work focused on empathy, craftsmanship, autonomy and responsibility.
The challenge, said Vitaud, was not to prevent new forms of work from emerging, but to create a new safety net for all workers, offering a range of forms of social protection.
Alex Wood, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, spoke about the gig economy and the beginnings of new forms of rights-based campaigning. He said people generally thought of the gig economy as a service that was offered via an app and delivered locally, like Uber. However, many freelances were working remotely through online platforms, from translators to journalists and digital marketeers. The platforms functioned both as provider and deliverer of work, enabling people to work from home.
His research in the Philippines, the US and the UK shows how core management roles such as allocation of tasks and control are controlled by algorithms, usually based around ratings and reputation. The higher your rating by clients the higher you go in the ranking and the more likely you are to get more work. Platform reputation is central which leads to workers becoming dependent on the platform because if they seek work elsewhere their reputation falls.
“It’s a new form of precarity based on precarious reputations and it drives insecurity. Workers are very worried about their rating as it has a massive impact on their livelihood. They say they do not understand how the algorithm works and they are not told why their rating has dropped,” said Wood. This could lead to them doing unpaid work for clients in order to boost their rating. There was also evidence of rent-seeking behaviour – one platform had doubled the fees it charges workers after merging with another, for instance.
However, it seemed that self employed workers on such platforms were beginning to organise in a cross-sectoral manner, particularly through social media and online petitions, for instance, to support each other if clients didn’t not pay, to help people work out what they should be charging and to warn each other of bad clients. “There is a desire for stronger forms of organisation to represent the interests of workers and counter the power of the platforms and embryonic forms of collective voice are emerging,” said Wood, adding that there was the potential for cross-sectoral freelancer unions to develop.