Over the past 25 years we have seen a rapid proliferation of workplace technology, automation and artificial intelligence. The evolution of the fourth industrial revolution has dramatically impacted how we live and how we work. With employee disengagement at an all-time high worldwide – are the robots to blame? Or will they save us from daily drudgery and give us the space to build more humane corporate cultures?
Corporate Culture is Broken
In Gallup’s 2013 report on The State of Global Workplace, they identified that 87% of the global workforce is disengaged at work.1 Korn Ferry Hay Group, a global management consultancy, estimates that wages lost due to employee disengagement is valued at over £380B annually. And over 50% of global business leaders say that employee engagement is a major challenge.2 Companies began evaluating employee when the industry began in the 1990s. And over the last 20 years, the numbers have stagnated. Leading many people to speculate about the reasons why.
Especially because organisations with high employee engagement will derive benefits in addition to happy employees: The stock value has higher earnings per share, and the businesses experience 22 percent higher profitability, 21 percent higher productivity, 10 percent higher customer engagement, 25 percent to 65 percent lower turnover, 37 percent lower absenteeism, 28 percent lower shrinkage (theft), and 48 percent fewer staff safety incidents.3
It’s clear that the global white-collar workforce isn’t thriving – but what is the source of this dissatisfaction? Many people are quick to point the blame on the rise of workplace technology, automation and artificial intelligence.
And it’s a fair assumption – but it may not be right.
What is Corporate Culture?
Investopedia defines corporate culture as, “…the beliefs and behaviours that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.”
Common corporate culture challenges run the gamut from simply bored employees to high turnover (which is on the rise in the UK and globally) and low morale.4 But at their root most of these occur because of (1) inconsistency (2) poor communication and (3) a lack of meaning and personal fulfilment at work.5
If culture – a key driver in employee engagement6 – is the combination of rituals, artefacts and collective norms, is all this technology helping or hurting?
The Rise of Workplace Technologies
The growth of technology in the workplace has exploded in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Beginning in the early 1960s with the introduction of the electronic calculator, followed by personal computers and then the dawn of email and internet which was widely used beginning the late 1980s, technology has permanently altered our social and culture experience at work and at home.
These early waves of workplace technology are rapidly being displaced by what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production.7 The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. And has given rise to innovations in workplace technologies from Slack to Basecamp designed for increased collaboration, along with increased automation – especially in retail and manufacturing. Now, we are witness to a new frontier – in the form of artificial intelligence (AI).
At home, you may be one of the 1.8 million people who use Amazon’s Alexa to control the lights, unlock your car, and receive the latest stock quotes for the companies in your portfolio. Investment in AI has accelerated from $282 million in 2011 to $2.4 billion in 2015, a 746% increase in five years. In 2016, this continued to increase with roughly another $1.5 billion being invested in more than 200 AI-focussed companies in 2016.8
While AI’s use in the workplace is still new – it’s already having an incredible impact. In Ted Greenwald, March 2017, Wall Street Journal expose on the rise of AI at work – he explains how AI is transforming human resources by creating capacity to digest metadata that can better forecast turnover rates and identify applications with the highest likely hood for success and loyalty. But also helps employees to streamline their work and develop efficiencies that allow for increased human interaction and creativity.9
Is All This Technology Bad or Good for Company Culture?
Much academic research has been done on the impact of technology in the workplace, and the results are varied.
In a 1930 essay, English economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about the onset of “a new disease” which he named technological unemployment, that is, “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
From exhausted executives to always available middle managers, most global employees are exhausted and working hard, with ever increasing productivity not keeping pace with a rise in real wages.10
I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that you’re currently spending over 75% of each work day, answering email. And when not answering email, a recent study from McKinsey would suggest that you are most likely using the other 25% of your time populating Excel spreadsheets, moving files from folder to folder on your desktop or company intranet, and updating a PowerPoint deck for an upcoming presentation. If you are a white-collar worker in the global economy – your day is owned by your computer. (Check out the Washington Post’s “Email Calculator” to find out how much of your life you have spent answering work emails.)
According to the Pew Research Centre’s study on Technology’s Impact on Workers – the positive side of all this technology is that employees feel that they can:
Expand the number of people outside of their company they communicate with – 51% of these internet-using workers say this.
Allow them more flexibility in the hours they work – 39% of online workers say this.
Increase the amount of hours they work – 35% of online workers say this.11
An article in the Harvard Business Review highlights that workplace technology can help (1) improve performance (2) build a culture of opportunity and (3) democratise access to information.12 And while companies are exploring the end of email they aren’t exploring the end of technology at work.13
Can AI Help Build a Thriving Company Culture?
Research firm Forrester predicts investment in AI14 will increase by more than 300% in 2017 over the prior year.15 Businesses will use AI to gain powerful insights for faster decision making in areas such as strategic planning, marketing, product development and e-commerce. But it could also lead to less email, better data analytics, less schedule and more efficiency in general.
A thriving company culture is based on effective communication and alignment between personal motivation and corporate behaviour.16 And based on current trends in automation and other AI applications, the following shifts in corporate culture may emerge over the next decade.
Increased Face-to-Face Communication – with office technologies designed for chat functionality, video conferencing and the ever present email, the majority of the global workforce prioritise computer mediated communication as it is deemed more efficient. And in the case of remote workers – essential. If your productivity could remain the same and a chatbot could encourage you to visit your colleague in person, behaviours could tip in a new direction.
Improved Trust Between Employer and Employee – The social contract between employers and employees has weakened over the past two decades. With decreased support for unions, the globalisation of work, and increased employee monitoring – the relationship between the workforce and institutions is more tenuous than ever. Can AI act as a governing tool, specifically working to monitor instances of policy infractions and other activities that disenfranchise workers so that managers were better able to build trustees with their supervisees?
Better Integration of Corporate Social Responsibility Into Core Business Practices – Ultimately and perhaps most importantly, mass automation may create new jobs,17 freeing up existing resources to dedicate more human and financial capital to advancing social and environmental equity.
What if the Robots Take Our Jobs?
There is a concern sweeping the sector which must be addressed – and that concern is that the robots will take all of our jobs.
Author Martin Ford, explores technology and the threat of a jobless future in his 2015 seminal text, Rise of the Robots.18 A futurist, Ford’s work paints a vivid picture of a work landscape so profoundly disrupted by technology that white-collar workers from lawyers to accountants would become irrelevant.
Others have imagined similar scenarios as robots, automation and artificial intelligence perform more tasks and there is massive restricting of work, experts say a wider array of education and skills-building programmes will be created to meet new demands.19 There are two uncertainties: Will well-prepared workers be able to keep up in the race with AI tools? And will market capitalism survive?
A new report by the Brookfield Institute shows that new developments in artificial intelligence and robotics put 42 percent of Canadian workers at a high risk of seeing their jobs disappear or significantly changed in the next two decades.20
The scale is massive: almost half of all jobs in the Western world (47%) could be automated by computers within the next two decades according to The Economist and researchers from the University of Oxford’s Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology.
There are also voices which claim that automation will not have any impact. Bob Gordon, for example, trying to explain mediocre US productivity growth concludes that “the benefits of the digital revolution were over by 2005” and that AI will only have a very limited impact.21 On the other side, the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking goes several steps further by predicting that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. The debate is broad, to say the least.
Fortunately, there are countries who are preparing for the inevitable shift in the nature and availability of work. Consider Canada’s recent announcement made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, about the country’s plans for dealing with these rising trends. Canada has formed a comprehensive strategy that includes significant investments in education and training for the jobs of the future, and explore alternatives for a jobless future – like a universal basic income.22 An approach that every government should be considering.
The ability and opportunity to exist in community is a critical component of human identity. Workplace technologies, automation and AI that will continue to dramatically change the landscape of labour in the EU and around the world. And just maybe – the robots will be friends rather than foes, kindly liberating us from the tediousness of the modern work era and giving us the freedom to engage in more creative and meaningful pursuits.
Featured Image: Industrial robots at work in Kunshan Daya Auto Parts Company © SCMP Pictures[/ms-protect-content]
About the Author
Simone N. Sneed-McGurl is a creative problem solver living at the intersection of doing good and doing well. She thrives on helping innovative leaders to fund social impact initiatives, activate critical stakeholders and engage partners for the long term. She is currently the Director of Board Relations at the Environmental Defense Fund and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service Management at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Administration. Feel free to visit her website www.simonensneed.com
18. http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015 /05/18/407648886/attention-white-collar-workers-the-robots-are-coming-for-your-jobs