US and UK recruitment firms are advertising record numbers of job vacancies this month as economies rebound from the pandemic. Will these be traditional office-based 9 to 5 jobs, or flexible remote work? —is a question for the short term. Longer term, are these jobs sustainable in the age of AI and are the likely job-takers ready for the future?
Either way the pandemic has forced a focus on the ‘future of work’ which is well overdue. New technologies, new customer priorities, and new social attitudes have been increasingly disrupting our workplaces and changing the way people work—shown up by the Covid crisis, these trends are set to accelerate.
In his new book, Work Disrupted, Jeff Schwartz, founding partner of Deloitte Consulting’s Future of Work practice, offers a clear and fundamentally reassuring guide to the future of work, dispelling some of the fear around automation etc. and focusing on the power of human creativity to find solutions to potential problems. Illustrated with examples and insights from real-world cases, he provides practical strategies for navigating and succeeding in the future working world.
Central to Schwartz’ message is that viewing AI, machine learning and robotics as a threat, as replacing humans, is a mistake. Rather, we should understand the enormous opportunities these technologies present for improving our lives and solving global problems—if we learn to work with them. He calls for us to ‘race with’ not ‘race against’ machines. Similarly, rather than resisting the breakdown of traditional full-time forms of employment, organizations should embrace diverse forms, and see that flexible and remote working, freelancing and the gig economy—work that suits people lives—can ensure access to much-needed talent.
Schwartz quotes Darwin’s comment that it is not the most intellectual or the strongest that survive, but the species that best adapts to change. Setting off into the future world of work will require a lot of adjustment to change. Stressing the urgency, he also quotes Paulo Coelho, “The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”
The core of the book deals with the adaptation needed to seize opportunities, build resilience and foster growth, starting with the need to establish a positive mindset—pivot not panic. Schwartz does not suggest we can accurately predict the future of work, but encourages us to seek and understand signposts that can aid navigation. He details the main signposts he suggests we consider in three areas:
Opportunity. Realising the potential of the future will involve: recognizing the need to work with AI and with machines; understanding the new ways of working and how to integrate these into our careers and our organizations; and embracing the potential of collaborative digital technologies to allow work ‘anywhere, anytime, with anyone’.
Resilience. For the individual this means planning for longer more varied working lives where skills will need to be regularly updated; for organizations it is about shifting from traditional hierarchies to networked teams and ecosystems, from a focus on process to one on projects and assignments.
Leadership. Leading the future workforce will require adapting to new technologies and new forms of work, and a move from controlling to coaching and managing through influence and inspiration. Leading the organization will entail less focus on cost and efficiency and more on innovation, new value creation and meaning.
In a final section of the book Schwartz offers a wider perspective and considers the need to set new agendas to facilitate the best possible future of work—here he lists challenges to social and public policy, legal and regulatory environments, as well as ethical concerns, and the urgent need to prioritise investment in education, training and infrastructure.
Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work, Jeff Schwartz with Suzanne Riss, illustrated by Tom Fishburne. Published by Wiley, 2021, ISBN 978-1-119-76227-0