You could be forgiven for thinking employees in the workplace are doomed, as advanced technology removes the human component from businesses or organisations. But the reality of the debate about whether technology, automation and robotics will decimate the workforce is much more balanced. The dystopian future that is often described is not inevitable.
Of course, there are grave fears about unemployment and concerns about the social and political disruptions that could take place as technology advances. But often these fears are not inherently linked to technology. They are the manifestation of what workers are feeling in the present. So, what we see is a projection of our present unease onto technologies that are developing.
A good example is big data. When we consider how this can be used to monitor our actions, this isn’t something that is coming; it’s a fear today that our managers can track our every move and action. We're not really worried about how robots will take our jobs in the future, what we are really talking about is how insecure our jobs are today.
The fear across workforces is that the technologies they are being asked to use may make their job security precarious. The key is that you have to make technology part of people's everyday lives. Organisations need to keep the discussion about new technology positive and reiterate that technology can be a force for social good.
Businesses must educate their workforces about why they are using technologies, or why they are about to implement new technology. If a workforce understands this, they will feel less anxiety about the technology itself.
People are not opposed to technology. Just look at the number of apps that have been created. They do understand that technology can be beneficial. It’s about framing that argument so your employees know the benefits.
Businesses and their leaders need to think carefully about the technologies they deploy. They should ask themselves these questions:
Technology for its own sake can be the endgame for many organisations, which is why their staff become anxious about their jobs and how these new systems may replace them. Instead it should be an enabler and support them to be better workers.
It’s time for businesses and their employees to shift their thinking. The question is how can technology enhance the working day? Workers can appreciate that some technology can be beneficial. For example, systems that free them from time-consuming administration and release time to do the more exciting aspects of their jobs.
The adoption of new technology is inevitable. There is no question that technologies including artificial intelligence, big data and robotics will have a profound impact on work and workers. I also see augmented reality and virtual reality having an effect, but perhaps less so.
But will these technologies create real innovations and will they be disruptive in business? Will businesses use these technologies to perpetuate the profit-based systems we have today, or will they use these technologies to evolve to a more egalitarian or democratic business environment that is based in collaboration?
I don’t think we will see one or the other approach become instantly dominant. But the advent of these technologies will prompt conversations over the next decade about what kind of working lives we really want. And how can technology help us achieve those goals. People leaders must ensure employees are central and included in these conversations.
Dr Peter Bloom, Head of the Department of People and Organisations at The Open University Business School.
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