Robots don’t kill jobs, people do

CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese explores how people, not robots, could be the job destroyers

Robots don’t kill jobs, people do

Technology and the digital world’s influence on work, and almost all aspects of our lives, is growing all the time. It’s disrupting businesses and sectors, facilitating the emergence of new kinds of business models, enabling new ways of working and changing the very nature of the jobs we do.

The growth of AI and robotisation, combined with the continued pressure to improve productivity and output, is driving profound changes for the future. Not only can we see that the nature of jobs and therefore skills needs will continue to change, but we’re starting to see trends that may more significantly impact the future jobs market — with automation affecting entry level jobs in particular, and AI impacting mid and higher skill jobs in ways we haven’t seen before. Perhaps it’s tempting to imagine a future where not only routine but also cognitive and knowledge work is much more automated, productivity is greater than ever and human error is a thing of the past. In such a world, work might be displaced more to individuals than organisations, to trade and craft skills and a gig economy. Or maybe we will see John Maynard Keynes’ prediction for the 15 hour working week finally become a reality.

Designing the Future

But if many of the jobs we know today could be automated in the future, then what kinds of jobs will we all be doing? And how can those working in HR and L&D actively design for that future, for example by developing new skills, shifting our reward mechanisms or adopting new norms relating to working hours and relationships? And what about the implications on everything from opportunities for work to welfare and support? We need to make sure that the future of work is human, that we are designing workplaces that make the best of people and not just the best of clever technology.

Work forms such a major part of our lives and in human society. It should contribute to, and even be integral to, our wellbeing, our growth and our sense of purpose, but the trends today are not all pointing in the right direction. Despite all the promise that technology offers, we seem to be working harder, not smarter. Productivity is slowing, engagement levels are languishing and stress is becoming endemic — fuelled partly by the growing ‘always on’ work culture that technology supports. And as much as technology has enabled and empowered some sectors of the workforce, we’ve allowed it to disempower and deskill others.

The good news is that as a whole, we are responding, and starting to see a lot more innovation and variety in terms of the ways we work, the ways in which our organisations are designed, the jobs and careers we pursue and the ways in which we manage people and help them develop. We’re also seeing a much greater focus on, and understanding of, employee engagement and wellbeing.

People Driven, Tech-Enabled

The HR profession has a huge role to play in ensuring that it’s these kinds of trends, enabled by technology but not driven by it, which shape the future of work. After all, it’s people who’ll ultimately decide whether or not to automate roles, not the technology itself. As organisations become more diverse, both in terms of their operating models and in the nature of their workforces, there’ll be no one-size fits all approach to good HR and people development. But if we continue to develop and apply our deep expertise in human and organisational behaviour, and if continue to ask the fundamental questions about the purpose of work and the kind of future we aspire to, then we can help ensure that the business decisions we make today help to create better work and working lives in the future.