Our future depends on the humanization of work

One of the reasons that my focus is increasingly shifting to the future of work is that it is in fact a large part of the future of humanity. And if we don’t get this right it might not look pretty.

The two primary drivers of a changing work landscape in coming years remote work and work automation. Almost all work will be able to be done anywhere, and a growing proportion of today’s jobs will be supplanted by machines.

The replacement of human workers by machines is of course a large part of human history, and so far we have consistently created new jobs faster than old jobs have disappeared.

However machine capabilities – including robotics, spatial cognition, and natural language processing – are developing so fast that there is a real chance that there will be insufficient new jobs to replace the ones that disappear.

In the ebook Race Against the Machine, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of MIT, describe the challenge of the inexorable rise of machines in the workplace, concluding with a rather gloomy view of our ability to respond.

John Hagel of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge has made a great video responding to the book’s ideas.

Hagel notes that how the modern corporation evolved has largely created the problem:

If you have tightly scripted jobs that are highly standardized where there’s no room for individual initiative or creativity, machines by and large can do those kinds of activities much better than human beings. They’re much more predictable. They’re much more reliable. We as human beings have flaws. We tend to get distracted. We tend to go off into unexpected areas.

So I think that the real reason that we have such an issue in terms of unemployment and job loss through automation is that we’ve crafted these jobs exactly so that they would be vulnerable to automation. We’ve put kind of a bull’s eye target on workers around the United States and around the world and said, “Come after me. Shoot me. I’m the target for automation.”

But the business environment is substantially different today:

Now we’re in a world that’s more rapidly changing, more uncertainty, more of those extreme events that Taleb calls the “black swans” that make it really critical for us as individuals in the workplace to take much more initiative, to be constantly exercising creativity and imagination to respond to the unexpected events. That’s a very different model of work. It requires a very different way of organizing our institutions and a different set of work practices that are much harder to automate.

When you have that kind of imagination, creativity, trust-based relationships that are required to really address these hard problems, it makes it much less vulnerable to that kind of automation

Hagel goes on to say that we need to “race with the machine” rather than against it. This is absolutely a central aspect of our future.

However perhaps the most important perspective is that work must be humanized.

As Hagel eloquently described, the problems we face have largely arisen because of the dehumanization of work. As we have built processes and structures that have made people into cogs in machines, it has indeed made them eminently replaceable.

In fact one of the great promises of the increased mechanization of work is that in a way it it forces us to be more human.

We are continually being pushed into the territory that distinguishes us from machines: emotion, relationships, synthesis, abstraction, beauty, art, meaning, and more.

Part of this is in designing jobs that draw on our uniquely human skills, and for all of us to bring our humanity to bear in our work.

Yet the broader frame is an economic structure that has made work inhuman and readily replaced by machines. We need to fundamentally change the nature of organizations and how we work together to create value. The systems must be humanized in order to allow the work to be humanized.

That is our challenge, our task, indeed our imperative if we wish our collective future to be happy and prosperous. Let us work hard to humanize work.