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What is the value of work in the age of automation?

By David Smith, - Insight

What’s your job really worth?

Is it how much money you make for you and your organization? Or is it the contribution you make to the world around you?

While traditionally our Western society has defined the value of work by the former (nurses, for example, are not highly paid, despite the critical nature of their job), I believe we’re moving towards a world where the latter is true.

I speak to people in financial services, for example. Previously the big banks had their pick of the Ivy League/Oxbridge grads, but now they tell me the most talented young people want to be part of organizations that contribute directly to social issues.

It’s a massive shift from the money-first attitudes of old I mentioned above. And if people care about the social impact of the companies they work for, it stands to reason those same principles will help determine where they spend their hard-earned money.

Brands like Uber have begun to learn this the hard way. Silicon Valley is usually held up as the pinnacle of enlightenment. Yet Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has now resigned in the wake of a month of scandals that has disenfranchised the company’s drivers, customers, employees and shareholders.

Customers have power, and if they don’t agree with the way your company is behaving you’re going to know about it.

So how can companies get the most out of the fourth industrial revolution without demeaning the value of their employees’ work?

Empowerment vs. exploitation

Automation has the power to completely transform the way we work. How we use that power will ultimately determine the type of society we live it.

Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor recently wrote about working for a company in which your boss is effectively an algorithm.

Referring to UberEats employees striking about a pay dispute in London last year, she described them as “workers without a workplace, striking against a company that does not employ them…managed not by people but by an algorithm that communicates with them via their smartphones…they are rebelling against an app update.”

The app update in question involved UberEats’ drivers – who have no set wages and are paid for each job they do – waking up one morning to see the reward-per-delivery had dropped.

No warning. No apology. No human input whatsoever.

And that’s the point here: we cannot let automation spell an end to the human touch.

The principle behind the gig economy that companies like Uber and Deliveroo provide is a noble one: empower people to be their own boss and work as much or as little as they choose.

But the automation technology that has enabled this new economy to thrive could also be its downfall.

Removing staff schedules and simply letting people log in when they want means more workers competing for business during peak times, resulting in fewer available jobs per user. Flexible working is supposed to have the opposite impact: enabling people to better plan and manage their workload around their personal lives. This seems like a step in the other direction.

Both Deliveroo and Uber have also come under fire for putting undue pressure on their ‘employees’ using automated updates. The former uses algorithms to closely monitor rider ‘performance’ and compare it to how fast it believes they should have been, while the latter has reportedly been sending its drivers ‘nudge’ messages encouraging them to work longer.

The problem with these approaches is they don’t leave any room for the things that make us human. Perhaps that Deliveroo driver is going through a personal crisis and isn’t sleeping well, making them tired and sluggish. Perhaps that Uber driver is already at breaking point with stress and needs to be encouraged to rest rather than respond to another ride request.

If you have a human manager (assuming they were understanding), you can discuss these things. But in an automated world everything is much more black and white. Do or don’t. Good job or bad job.

Is all of this indicative of a company that truly values its staff, or even considers humans more important than machines?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

The workers control the means to production

We all want our companies to be more efficient – our costs to be lower. And yes, these are benefits that automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics can bring.

But such progress must not come at the cost of devaluing employees.

Simply disrupting a market is not enough. You need to make social issues like treating employees fairly a fundamental part of your approach. If you don’t, you might see short-term gains, but your success will never be sustainable.

Clearly companies like Uber are now cottoning on to this – the taxi brand recently announced plans to offer disabled people free lifts to polling stations, in the same week it fired more than 20 staff on harassment charges.

But we need more than just PR-friendly soundbites. If we want to live in a society that values people as well as profit, we need to build companies that empower customers and employees to recognize the value of work.

Going back to the example of nursing, is it possible to use these advancements in technology to effectively rebalance our economy and enable us as consumers to ‘reward’ those people who care for us in hours of need?

A complex question for sure, but in reality a banking transaction is a commodity delivered millions of times per second. Quality care, on the other hand, takes time and compassion.

The fourth industrial revolution is coming for all of us. None of us want to be chewed up and spat out by its dark satanic mills, but over the long term this relies on employers understanding the value of human input.

But the power is, I believe, with the people. Companies that fail to see that may initially find themselves on the receiving end of a boycott, as Uber did.

Or eventually being disrupted altogether.

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