The Future of Work: It's About Quality of Livelihoods

Last month I saw a billboard that said in big bold writing, “Robots Can’t Take Your Job If You’re Already Retired.” Pushing past my initial reaction (which was to scream loudly into the wind), I reminded myself that even here in Silicon Valley there is anxiety about what the future of work will mean to our lives.

Instead, this sign is a good reminder of how some people look at their futures—and why we should be focused on what that tomorrow looks like. Robots will indeed be part of our everyday lives. Developments in the robotics and AI worlds are helping to enhance our quality of life, but they can also help improve the meaningfulness of our work. That's why for me, the future of work is all about the quality of livelihoods.


So often, the future of work conjures up images of workers rapidly being replaced by smart robots thus its understandable that people are fearful. But it is important to remember that this isn’t new, that anxieties tend to rise during any time major breakthroughs. When astronomer Copernicus published his theories of a heliocentric world in 1543, they punctured all previous beliefs of how the universe functioned and unleashed the Scientific Revolution. What we now embrace as an important milestone was met then with waves protest and fear. More recently, following early mechanical developments of the first Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, workers staged riots to protest the mechanization of people's jobs.


But while today's technological developments are changing old boundaries between humans and machine, making some functions obsolete, they're also creating new jobs. In the United States, one-third of the new jobs created over the past 25 years are thanks to new technologies and in France, for every 1 job destroyed by the digital age, 2.4 new jobs were created. Importantly, the transformations occurring in today's workplace are empowering people to engage in more rewarding and meaningful work experiences.


Just think about it: many jobs today are repetitive, menial, and do not spark any creativity or meaningful use of our brains. These are jobs that need to get done, but not necessarily done by a human. The quality of the work often declines over long shifts of time when done by a human, as concentration falls off when doing repetitive tasks, and the person doing the task isn't satisfied or fulfilled.


If we deploy robots to take care of the drudgery, we free ourselves up to do more engaging, valuable work. Already, some 37% to 23% of companies are investing in adopting robotics into their workforces by 2022 so that their work flow is more efficient and their human power liberated to better utilize their cognitive and creative skills.


Take the automobile manufacturing plant. Over the past several decades, robots have become integral components of the auto industry, taking over strenuous, repetitive tasks in the metal fabrication process or affixing windshields on cars. They've made the process more efficient, performing the same task over and over again, and they've made it safer, removing humans from dangerous conditions. In the process, these robots have liberated their human counterparts to develop new skill sets, with some even collaborating together at workstations around the world.

An aircraft factory worker learning heavier welding, 1943. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress


The scenario isn't radically different in the health care and hospitality fields, where robots can chip away at a variety of tedious tasks like transporting items from location to location. This frees up humans to spend time serving their guests or patients, to provide higher value service which in turn helps to boost morale. Worker engagement and attitudes can improve in the workplaces where these robots are deployed, as humans will be more satisfied and happier with the quality of their interactions.


We can even look to the use of robotics in commercial kitchens where incorporating robots into the workforce can have a meaningful impact, enabling workers to do more than simply executing a job. For example, today's restaurants are experiencing a shift to being plant-forward. This is great for a healthy diet, but a problem for many kitchens because vegetables require more labor (prep work) than meat options. To deal with this problem, many operators bring in precut vegetables to their kitchens because it is a cheaper alternative and requires less labor on site. The vegetables are often cut at the farms where they were grown, thus they lose some of their freshness during the transport from farm to restaurant kitchen. Imagine instead that robots can do the prep work cost effectively with a small footprint on site in the kitchen; overall food quality would improve for the guest while workers behind the scenes are freed up from the slicing and dicing tedium.


I suggest we rethink how we hire, deploy talent, and retain staff by leveraging the use of robots. Let's employ robots so that we can create career opportunities for those who haven't had that chance to move up the ladder. Let's ensure higher efficiencies and quality of work product.


Let's work together in this fashion to create a win-win situation for all involved. Staff is happier if they are engaged in interesting work. Their bosses are happier because moral is improved. Customers are happier because the quality of the end product is higher and more consistent. Operations are improved and retention is better. Meaningfulness in the workplace is especially important today as a low unemployment and the gig economy enables staff more choices of where to work than ever before.


Don't we have an obligation as business leaders to create a working environment where humans are happy and engaged? Let's use robots thoughtfully to create a better workplace and keep businesses in business longer.

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