Shaping the Future of Work Post COVID-19

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

October 22, 2020

Robots and automation are on their way to becoming ubiquitous in various aspects of work and society. From large industrial robots that are used in vehicle assembly operations to ones designed for domestic use, robots are increasingly becoming an important part of professional and personal lives. Arguably, they are indispensable already.

Automation is increasing speed and efficiency, and redefining how we work. But increasing robot use has not eliminated human intervention, and is unlikely to do so. Even in the case of a ‘lights-out’ factory, it still needs actual human workers, albeit in fewer numbers.

The pandemic has already led to a prevalence of ‘work-from-home’ and the increasing buzz around remote work, and the future holds possibility of further lasting changes arising from technology breakthroughs in different realms.

In light of these rapid changes being witnessed, Horasis is convening the Horasis Asia Meeting on 30 November 2020. It is a virtual event that will be conducted on the innovative online conferencing platform called Run the World. What the future of work will look like, is one of the topics that will be addressed at the event.

Differing schools of thought

The increasing uptake in robot use has been the subject of much debate. A common argument is that robots will replace many job roles and that will therefore lead to higher unemployment levels. Sure, there is substance to this perspective. But let us take a step back in time and examine how events in recent history have played out.

The first industrial revolution was marked by the use of steam powered machinery. It allowed faster production cycles and it would have required fewer people to execute the same work. There was disruption to jobs but it did not lead to soaring unemployment levels. Rather, it led to less physically intensive work, a reduction in working hours and higher wages. It also resulted, eventually, in more people working.

In the early 20th century, automobile production received a huge fillip when Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. Again, several job roles became redundant when he did so but the outcome of incorporating an assembly line led to a reduction in production time – from an earlier 24 hours per vehicle to only an hour at best. Ford’s vision was to enable the organization’s workers to earn a wage that would enable them to purchase the very product they were making. As it turned out, he was able to fulfil this lofty goal.

Disruption has been the norm

Across the ages, people have adapted and newer employment avenues have opened up. The underlying idea is to adjust as we keep making technological advancements. In times to come, autonomous vehicles will form the majority of public transit systems. This will completely eliminate job roles such as bus drivers or even taxi drivers. But building of autonomous vehicle enabling infrastructure will need more engineers and programmers.

Similarly, only a decade ago, mobile gaming was just beginning to gain in popularity. This was largely on account of standardized operating systems that allowed game developers to create games that could be played across devices built by diverse manufacturers. In this brief span of time, mobile gaming has become a massive industry in itself, with thousands of people finding employment in this space alone. It has since even become a competitive sport and has spawned further segments such as advergaming. All this in the span of only a decade.

With changing job role demands, upskilling is key

For all of this to happen we need upskilling, without which, our worst fears about unemployment could come true. And sufficient investment in the right kind of training programs and courses can help society adapt and prepare for the changing nature of jobs, which will require entirely different skillsets.

Higher education institutions in emerging economies must accommodate for these changing trends. The prevalent curriculum of a three- or four-year program cannot be discredited. However, there is pressing need for the introduction of vocational courses that can both teach a valuable skill and make the individual job-ready in a matter of months, as opposed to several years.

Alphabet’s Google Career Certificate is one such example. These programs developed by Google take only six months to complete as opposed to college degrees which take three to four years, and provide job-seekers with the opportunity to learn job-ready skills. This is but one example of growing acknowledgment that how we learn needs to change in keeping with what we need to do.

One of the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a full embrace of work as we knew it. There are bound to be changes in the way we work, at least in certain areas and sectors. The positioning of services will have to be tailored to changed consumption patterns. Lower skilled urban dwellers have to examine areas that are likely to see more demand. For instance, ‘at home’ services are already finding favor. Skilled workers in many segments may not be able to work from home but they could very well provide their services at end users’ homes. There will be a marked increase in the gig economy too and in contract job roles. 

Robots are machines and machines have long disrupted

Amidst increasing urbanization and changing lifestyles, for most millennials, engaging in agriculture is not top of their mind. They would rather work in less physically demanding environments in areas that are seen as being “attractive” or “cool”. With increasing rural to urban movement, agriculture and animal husbandry—major industries across emerging economies—will have to turn to higher levels of automation to continue delivering current levels of produce.

While this is already happening at a large scale in several developed economies with large farming sectors, it is something emerging markets—which are seeing the most rapid rates of urbanization—will soon have to turn to as well, to be able to feed their growing populations. With a dearth in workers to perform agriculture related job roles, there is no alternative but to use technology to plug the gaps in labor demand and availability.

Robots are machines and by this yardstick, machines have been affecting jobs since the first industrial revolution; since the invention of the wheel even. But for the most part, we have adapted and we must continue taking these changes in stride. Will this time be any different? Not if we plan well.

Featured Photo: Engineers work with medical robotic equipment. While the future of work will entail greater use of robotics, it cannot eliminate human intervention.