The Case for Making Work More Human
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” coined by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, entered the vocabulary of global leaders in 2015. Since then the so-called “cyber-physical systems” at the core of this revolution combined human and technological capabilities in unprecedented new ways. At the same time, they presented significant risks to the working humans. In our book, Humans at Work, we are making a case for the importance of maintaining the equilibrium between humans and technology at work. Only by giving humans the priority and focus in the design of the future work environments, will humans be able to flourish.
The dynamic relationship between humans and their tools has been the main engine of humanity’s progress for millennia. Digital technology adoption is no exception. The world became one large arena and organizations were adapting their physical footprint, corporate strategies. To not only to expand but also flourish companies had to innovate and reinvent themselves.
Innovation permeates all parts of today’s life and work. Organizations are taking advantage of technology and scientific discoveries to transform their business operations and subsequently the work environment. Routine or unsafe work can now be automated, lengthy production cycles optimized and shortened, the friction between humans and machines minimized. Vast amounts of data generated in the process can be used to create sophisticated insights, and “delight” the consumers, and not only. Shareholders have seen significant returns, consumers are expecting and receiving increasingly personalized experiences, corporate executives are seeing outsized compensation packages, and investors and stock markets encourage short-termism and financial engineering to manipulate earnings. These changes also came with downsides such as loss of privacy, decay of trust in institutions, health and environmental crises, and erosion of social contracts. It also brought new set of tensions to economies, the environment, and the control within and across sovereignties.
Economists refer to these positive and negative outcomes as “externalities” and one of them is called “moral hazard” that leads to decisions that maximize benefits for some at the expense of others without any consequences (toxic waste, noise and environmental pollution, congestion, abandoned and economically devastated neighborhoods and villages).
One of the big moral hazards of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is labor market externalities. Organizations obsessed with efficiency and shorter production cycles keep workers under constant monitoring, and continuously expect them to do more with less, and faster. Precarious employment, under-employment, constant risk of job displacement, pay insecurity, shrinking corporate benefits and social welfare programs are all pushing new segments of society into poverty. All these factors are amplified by the anxiety and inequality in the workplace that then leads to physical and mental health deterioration. We are seeing the consequences of these in the mass-migration of workers – be that between jobs, between careers/fields, between regions or even countries. Companies are starting to pay attention and grappling with the business impact because of lack of necessary talent to deliver on the business commitments. Retention strategies, broader array of benefits, higher compensation packages, no-interview hiring, flexible work and other attempts to stop the workforce hemorrhage are having limited impact as the power dynamics between the workplace and workforce is shifting more in the favor of the workers.
This is pointing to the precipice of a new kind of revolution—where cyber-physical systems are restructured and transformed around the human, to benefit the human and elevate human conditions for everyone.
We want to call this, accordingly, the “Humans at Work” revolution.
While the term “revolution” implies a sudden and forceful change of social systems and structures, this Humans at Work revolution should not hold those characteristics. Societal restructuring comes with a mix of small and large shifts in social awareness and focus. Industries and sectors are continuously evolving and very few disruptions happen overnight and unexpectedly. There is usually a slow progression of weak signals (events, papers, patents, developments, projects etc.) that point to the evolving nature of these disruptions and the building up of momentum.
Such signals have been pointing for a few decades now to a big transformative surge impacting the world of work. It includes not only how people work, how work is defined, who is considered workforce, and the value individuals get from work, but also the infrastructural elements organizations need to put in place to support these changes. We describe it with the formula (4+3) Ws. This formula represents four core elements—work, workforce, workplace, worth—and three enabling elements—worker journey, work experience design, and WorkTech. By examining each of these elements from both historical and present-day perspectives we are offering a solution to how to break down and reassemble the puzzle of work.
When it comes to being human, history and culture keep iterating, adding new tools and giving rise to the future. Technology has always had a disproportionate impact on how society organizes itself and how companies operate and create value. As consumers, we have lived through remarkable changes to our experience of using technology; the same transformation is now coming to the world of work. Technology cannot be stopped from advancing and taking over human tasks, and we try to communicate a sense of urgency for humans to take charge. As humans, we must be the mindful stewards of the unfolding tech revolution in the workplace.
The “Humans at Work” Revolution is here. Collectively, we can make the world of work work for everyone.
Anna Tavis, Ph.D – Academic Director, Human Capital Programs, SPS NYU
Stela Lupushor - Founder Reframe.Work Inc., NYU faculty, and workplace futurist
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