Will you ever want a hug from a robot? 50 Questions about the Future of Work

The truth about the future of work will become a little clearer as each day passes, but it is never too early to ask curious questions.

Here are my 50 questions for you to ponder about the future of work - whether on your own, out loud or in teams.

I've pledged that to anybody who takes the time to answer all 50 I will be happy to host their responses on this site to broaden the debate. For an example see this response from SImon Heath and the comments below from the ever positive Steve Browne

1.       What roles can't be automated?

2.       What roles shouldn't be automated?

3.       Financial markets, left to their own devices, aren't good at accommodating a greater social purpose – do we need to take more of an interventionist stance to ensure greater societal benefit?

4.       At what point do we stop running out of corporate scandals? How can we get more proactive at asking difficult questions of organisations as employees and consumers?

5.       Does an organisation with a social purpose have an advantage or a limitation?

6.       What work might be most impacted by changes in international border policy or digitisation making borders redundant?

7.       Who is accountable for my wellbeing?

8.       If my employer is responsible for making sure I'm not under undue stress - then am I responsible for managing my diet to ensure I'm delivering peak performance?

9.       Can you automate creativity - and if so will we still only feel something is creative if it is produced by a human?

10.   How do we balance the concepts of diversity with the drive for cultural fit?

11.   Is the Gen X,Y,Z & millennial terminology helpful for understanding or lazy stereotyping?

12.   What's the point of work? To get happiness? Make a difference? Recognition? Will the point of work change and how might it do so?

13.   How do we step away from a 9-5 working week construct together?

14.   How much longer will income and wage inequality be tolerated by those on the wrong side of the stats?

15.   How many more years of casual sexism in workplaces do we have before that dies a death?

16.   If whole chunks of your life are viewable on the internet will we become more tolerating of mistakes at work?

17.   The image of everyone working on the beach is an attractive one – but what does this mean for introverts or people with mobility issues?

18.   Do I own my data or am I just a data point?

19.   You can already automate 'congratulations' messages on Linkedin. How much effort can you remove from a gesture before it becomes meaningless?

20.   If I can outsource work cheaply to another country is that simply the free market in action (and an easy decision) or should I care more about the wellbeing of people I already employ?

21.   If work is to become more transient (the gig economy) then who takes responsibility for long term capability building of people? If I'm only with an organisation for 6 months then why would they invest in me?

22.   The more we understand about the mind the easier it is to manipulate it. How do we build in ethical safeguards within organisations?

23.   How much do we really know about the organisations that curate the world's information and present it back to you and how much do you need to know?

24.   Is happiness a legitimate business and economic outcome?

25.   What is the best way for groups to create influence and make a difference in a digital age?

26.   Why do organisational IT solutions still tend to be more expensive yet less useful than consumer solutions?

27.   Does the age of automation mean that a universal basic payment to all is required?

28.   When we do save time where does it go? For all the automation and efficiency I don't hear many people saying they have more time to relax

29.   What aspects of our behaviour is it appropriate to legislate for? Is restricting access to company communications after hours unnecessarily interfering or saving us from ourselves?

30.   Will you ever want a consoling hug from a robot?

31.   Why are so many organisations already designed and led as though the workers are robots?

32.   What does not having to leave your home to work, socialise or shop do to fitness levels over time?

33.   What are the chances the world left by this generation will be better than the one left to us?

34.   Do children entering school need to read or write - or will those be surplus skills by the team they leave school?

35.   What are the issues that we are sleepwalking towards now that we will regret not taking action on sooner? (thanks to Siobhan Sheridan at the NSPCC for this)

36.   What are the opportunities that we will regret taking?

37.   How much of our enhanced technical capability will be channeled into solving societal problems and how much into increasing profits?

38.   How do you get a mortgage in the 'Gig Economy'?

39.   Does the Sharing Economy really share - or does it just collect a smaller margin from a larger volume of workers that are dependent? If we called it the Snaring Economy would it be such a popular concept?

40.   When Prof Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and others describe AI as a potentially extinction level threat why do people think they are overstating it? When did we start thinking we had a better grasp on big issues than Stephen Hawking?

41.   How confident are you really that the Financial Services industry is now running as it should - and what are the knock on risks given the fragility of the world economy?

42.   How can we help design roles and organisations that make the most of people?

43.   What are the implications of the current level of gender imbalance within the tech sector over the next decade?

44.   Much of the technology we utilise on a day to day basis would struggle to meet most people's definition of an ethical supply chain. When do we start making different purchasing decisions?

45.   What are the best sources of information on the changing world of work and how can we ensure the independent voices are heard when organisations with the biggest budgets will be looking to exploit this space?

46.   People frequently talk about wanting more equality and higher living standards for others – yet how many people would give up, for instance, 25% of their salary in order to improve the living standards of others?

47.   How will we filter content effectively in the future and how open to abuse is that filtering process?

48.   How do the business role models of the future act?

49.   People cry when their pets die. What will be the first piece of technology that you cry over the loss of?

50.   If you had one contribution to make to making things just a little better over the next decade what would it be? ​

I hope they have stimulated some thought - the CIPD are at the heart of this debate, but I'm always keen to hear different voices and perspectives - so please feel free to share or get in touch directly. 

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Q1 – With the continual development of new technology (Digital Assistants, Programmable Avatars etc.) any role could potentially be automated – the questions we need to consider are when is it realistically possible and how will people react to a machine or algorithm doing the work? This means it is highly likely that those roles that involve more human capabilities – care, affection, empathy, understanding, motivation etc. will remain in the human realm for longer, but task driven physical or thought work will be automated by algorithms and Baxter bots.  I would also argue that jobs like tattooist, pet groomer and chef will continue to be filled by humans and are little thought about as growth areas. However, let’s also not forget that jobs may disappear because technology is enabling us to be more “self-service” – look at what has happened with retail … So some jobs will disappear because we can do them ourselves.

    Q2 –Depending on personal thoughts, ethics and mindset, many will say that certain professions like nursing, care, therapy, counselling and even HR should remain in the realm of humans – or with the oversight of human expertise or human conscience. This is a decision that we as a society should consider, but my thoughts are that the answer to this will be based on societal or individual choice. In the meantime, I definitely think my job needs to stay human… its about people after all !

    Q3 – In their current format I think organisations have a moral imperative to do so and society expects it. Business ethics, “the greater good” and transparency are becoming business critical factors when it comes to investment, business success etc. However, in time, perhaps we will have the right logic frameworks or algorithms that will be built into financial platforms to manage ethical risk. Perhaps we can code actual DNA so that it will be embedded in sustainable, evolving organic data systems …or is that too far off or too deep? Until then – we might need to keep an eye on what the markets are up to, but any taxpayer will ask isn’t that what our taxes pay for …? The only problem with this is that oversight in one community does not mean a similar level of oversight in another, and even some of those meant to be keeping an eye either lose sight by mistake or choice. Back to square one!

    Q4 – With more pervasive communications networks and social interaction online (that will become more visual vs. purely text based), the opportunity to create greater transparency and the obligation to behave in a certain way will be more likely. The Circle by Dave Eggers looks at this as a fictional scenario, but the book also considered worrying ethical outcomes on the flip side of the coin. We can start to create the change ourselves but coming together in communities is more powerful and often good fun!!

    Q5 – An organisation with a social purpose has both, but it also depends on the vision and culture of the organisation as to whether they see the potential limitations being actual limitations. This is very much a mindset and a perception, but having this kind of mindset has not deterred brands like Innocent and Mondragon – it has only enhanced their social and shareholder value.

    Q6 – In reality, the potential for all work to be impacted by digital technology is both possible and probable. It will merely depend on time and technology. Initially, knowledge work or micro-work will be those that expand quickly as they are already currently mobile and digital. Then some construction or artisan roles will be impacted with the growth of haptic, 3D printing and remote drone/robotic technologies.  And so on ….. The fact is that all types of work could potentially be impacted over time. Those that largely rely on modern digital technology are the ones that can and are already able to be sourced globally – whether directly through enterprise networks or work brokerages.

    Q7 – Hmmmmm very good question and it will also depend on how the H&S at work will expand to include more mental health and wellbeing. However, I personally believe it is the responsibility of the individual and the employer. The issue and sticking point comes down to actual and perceived control – this is a far stickier concept to discuss ethically …but one we need to sort!

    Q8- See Q7 … and also tie this in with the Dave Eggers comment above … you can draw some interesting parallels for discussion. However, the thing to remember is that we cannot sustain peak performance forever. Factors such as fatigue, age, genetic health and many more will impact different people in different ways. We also need to rest, recuperate and learn new things for new roles or new endeavours – we cannot therefore be constantly at peak performance. Olympians need rest too !!

    Q9 – A very good question and one that comes down to the perception of value. If you have two paintings, one that is an original masterpiece and one that is an excellent copy – how do you truly know the difference until you told or it is discovered? If you didn’t know, would the value be any less in reality. With digital technology, it is even easier to create exact copies at near zero cost. Algorithms, machine learning, AI etc. as concepts could define, redefine or create new parallels in creativity … who are we to judge? It all comes down to what the perceived value is to the individual who appreciates the particular work of art or the creativity produced – exactly the same question you can ask anyone about abstract art … I’m sure you’ll get lots of very diametrically opposed answers to that one!

    Q10 – Love this question but I do not believe the two are non-exclusive. Being able to respect, encourage and foster diversity can in itself be a cultural facet that defines an organisation. We cannot simply rely on the law to manage the unconscious bias we inherit … it needs to be something we as a culture, community or society respect.

    Q11 – Somewhere down the middle - There is some truth in the comments and characteristics associated with the different generations, but it is not the whole truth. We as humans like to put everything in a suitable box with a label because it is convenient and easier to recall – but it doesn’t make it right. I stress this in seminars that I lead – I have met teenagers who spurn digital technology, and I have met 70 year olds who love it. There are some thematic ideas to consider, but it very much comes down to the individual and who they are. That is where we have the opportunity highlight the Human in HR.

    Q12 – We actually need to look at the definition of work – is it really appropriate? Consider the cliché that some people work to live and others live to work. If you enjoy what you do, it motivates you and develops you as a person, is it just work or more about self-fulfilment? Whereas others may see work as a way of funding a lifestyle or simply being able to put food on the table for their family. One of the goals I think HR needs to focus on is making work fulfilling – make sure you feel you are doing something worthwhile that enhances the individual’s life, lifestyle and perception of life positively. If there is a just reward at the end – whether emotional, personal, financial etc – that is what matters to the individual.

    Q13 – We step away from this by doing something. Naturally we can do this by redefining work and workspaces, but we can also reinforce this with how we condition people from childhood. School systems globally have been defined by the industrial era, and the clock in/work/break/lunch/work/home routine was taken from the factory shift system. As per my recent piece on the Future of Education, there is an opportunity to create a more connected and iconoclastic model .. but it will take time to change, because we as societies take time to change.

    Q14 – How long is a piece of string? This will very much depend on societal pressures, laws and what is deemed ethic and appropriate within that society. With greater moves to transparency and connectivity through social, digital and mobile technology – everyone can be and is aware of what is going on in the world. We have seen how this kind of technology has contributed to the election of presidents as well as a downfall of regimes. Maybe it takes a connected movement to make such changes and maybe it will ….

    Q15 – God knows and too many to be bearable! Unfortunately, we are all victims of nature and nurture, so there will be still those who act in this way even if society and the law says otherwise. We have laws that supposedly control behaviours but do we also have prisons? There will always be elements of society and societies that don’t follow the rules or believe in their definition of the rules.

    Q16 – I am not sure it will be about tolerance, perhaps it might be more about understanding in terms of behaviours. In the same light, do we draw distinctions between work and life, personal privacy and transparency? Who defines what a mistake is? Could a mistake be the start of an experimental and evolving process that leads to greater learning that could change lives or societies? However, once again it will come down to perception and how we as a society view the individual or their actions.

    Q17 – Or how about those people who don’t like sand in softer parts? I think the opportunity here is flipping the coin – it is not about everyone being able to work remotely on a beach due to the tech they use – it is about being able to enhance the connection and opportunities for those that may not be mobile, or more introverted etc. It is very much about context and I can see tech being a way to help people connect when and if they need. Take the Otaku of Japan for instance – they may be seen as introverted and loners, but they still connect as a culture and on their own defined terms … this is where tech is an opportunity for all to reach out and connect to the wider world.

    Q18 – If you signed the Ts&Cs on that last app, the chances are you do not own some of the data you produce. Whether you have a right to own it is defined by local laws (and these will evolve as notions of privacy and transparency change), but in the future … we will very much be the product rather than the customer when it comes to data.

    Q19 – You can already do this with most tech – whether automating a message response on Twitter, your email out of office or just copying and pasting messages for ease on LinkedIn to connect. It is already happening but if you want to make a real connection, you have to invest time – it is just like any other relationship in life.

    Q20 – The question is more about what your notion of caring is and what your drivers are as a person or a business. Only the organisation and the culture can define this, but the real question is how long it is sustainable as a business model or mindset if cost is the only driver. You can only pursue cost saving as a strategy for so long. Perhaps engaging the employees to discuss options, ideas and ways of working might not only reduce costs but also then increase the level of engagement and attractiveness as an employer. This is a more sustainable model in the long term. Perhaps we should adopt a more Eastern mindset of long term versus the short term, shareholder value driven, quarterly mindset that prevails in Western cultures? Just a thought …

    Q21 – This comes down to the organisation and how it defines its sustainability or its purpose. It may well become a platform or facilitator of projects and skills for an end user. Whereas others might wish to create a community of freelancers that co-invests with their flexible workforce in development through vouchers or other funding as part of the reward piece. We just need to think creatively and that is something HR should be doing.

    Q22 – And …Qui custode Custodes? You can put safeguards in place but there will never be guarantees. However, awareness and understanding of the risks and threats could go some way to help people understand the good and bad. It will still not stop it happening. Just because there are rules, it doesn’t mean people will follow them. Rules for some are there to be broken and some people are by their nature predatory or manipulative.

    Q23 – This reminds me of the original Yes Minister series ….and what Google is proposing to do (or is actually doing when we put in a search request!). We know current search engines make assumptions based on a complex routine of algorithms, but do they display information that is a fit based on what the machine code believes we want or should see based on the probability cycles of the pre-programmed parameters? I think currently the answer is yes and these are based on best intentions, but how many times have the best intentions sometimes led to something more sinister? Again … have a read of Dave Eggers’ The Circle ...

    Q24 – I think it is a lovely idea and should be an aspiration – but what makes everyone happy? It is not the same for everyone and it is not a constant. I think we should focus more on fulfilment – that leads to sustained happiness over time and this could drive both economical and societal benefits. I'd be happy with that!

    Q25 – I think the answer is in the question … Digital technology allows people as individuals to form communities and groups that have shared interests or aims. Technology is the facilitator, the platform and the tool to help create connections, allow people to organise and make actions happen. This has been proven by initiatives like Ushahidi or Anonymous.

    So that's the first 25 done ... more to follow ... : - )

  • I'm going to give it a go from a challenge from David to answer all 50 questions. Here it goes . . .

    1) I don't think it's about "roles" being automated. I think aspects of any job can be automated except for the need for the human element. If it is purely a task, it can be automated.

    2) I don't think HR should be automated even though many already treat their jobs as if they were robots. Need to be more human in what we do !!

    3) Yes, intervention is needed. Systems by themselves scream for automation even though it may not be necessary.

    4) You can't stop people from temptation and greed even with the best questions. Evil people will do evil things. I don't think they "should", but they will.

    5) Advantage if it's genuine. An illusion if it's self-serving.

    6) Sadly from the States perspective, we keep screaming about making  borders stronger vs. permeable.

    7) You are. Well-being is a result of the personal choices we all make.

    8) Stress is a choice. (Not a popular answer) We fret about stuff that is meaningless because we think we're adding value. Life is much brighter and bigger than the tiny things that consume us. I'm eating a pizza while typing this one . . .

    9) No, you can't because the beauty of creativity is that is has no boundaries and can be vastly different from person to person.

    10) I think we need to realize diversity is the key component of a culture. It has nothing to do with "fit" - our mish mash of unique characteristics collectively make our culture.

    11) It's not lazy stereotyping, it's convenient compartmentalization and is an example of destroying diversity. We need to come to terms that the workplace has ALWAYS had different generations in it. It has to stop. We're becoming our parents which we swore we'd never do !!

    12) Work gives folks a purpose and motivation to do something as a contributor. We want to be socially connected and work allows for that. Hopefully it's also a positive experience !!

    13) Don't do it. Work schedules that are focused on control are senseless.

    14) Not much longer. It's sad it ever occurred.

    15) Behavior has to be called out when it occurs and not blown off as if it's "okay." No one should allowed to be creepy !!

    16) Not sure. There's still a ton of folks who aren't living their lives on-line - it just seems like it. (Cat videos . . .)

    17) I think we need to allow for workplaces to be anywhere. People only post about the beach to set everyone else off. Don't focus on the minority . . .

    18) You're a data point who generates more data.

    19) Here's where I differ. I NEVER automate responses on Social Media. I still am Utopian and believe that all interactions should be personalized if they're worth my time - and they are !!

    20) We should care about who we already employee. Each person adds value in all they do. If they aren't, it's how others treat or view them. We can address that.

    (Okay, time for a break . . .)