Work: the future is already here

by | May 12, 2018 | Our Thoughts

How is the concept of work and employment evolving? What trends will shape the future of work?

I recently joined a panel discussion exploring future of work. When preparing for it, I decided to approach the topic by applying the same way of thinking my team (Chair in Digital Economy) uses to imagine future of industries impacted by the digital economy. Together with others on stage — Sally Dominguez, Ashley Fell, Bronwyn Lee, and Jason McDonald — we engaged in an hour-long discussion, exploring opportunities and discussing exciting future ahead of us. Here are some thoughts that I shared with the audience.

Employment as a concept is changing

We tend to think about employment as an immutable concept. However, just like any other construct in society, employment is evolving. There was a time when there were no employers and employees — the concept did not exist, we were just “making a living”. Similarly, it is possible (and likely) that the idea of employment will disappear from our vocabulary at some point in future, being replaced by another approach. I like to think about the evolution of employment in five stages:

  1. The emergence of employment — the concept of a paid job appears — those who own capital hire those who need capital (or other resources).
  2. Optimisation (industrialisation) of employment—employers seek optimisation gains and focus on the best utilisation of existing workforce. We witness the emergence of HR (human resource) systems.
  3. Automation of employment—not exactly hiring robots yet, employers focus on centralisation of skills. We witness the introduction of shared services, outsourcing those skills that are not critical for the organisation, seeking productivity gains in technology employment (for instance remote collaboration).
  4. Digitalisation of employment—tech industry realises the potential of changing the dynamics of employment markets. We witness decreasing power of employers and increasing power of employees. The emergence of platforms helps to remove market frictions and entry barriers for employees, giving rise to first waves of “gig economy” employees.
  5. Individualisation of employment—a trend we are only beginning to see, where a further shift in power distribution means that the employee is at the centre of everything. We witness first examples of employees “hiring employers” to pursue their goals. Platforms such as Kaggle are a good illustration of what to expect in other areas of the economy.

These three trends may shape future the most

Given the fifth stage of employment — individualisation of employment (I like to call it Employment 5.0) — is imaginable in the coming years, I am expecting we will see the following three trends growing in dominance:

  1. The rise of Employer Resource Management. Employees will control relations with employers, rather than the other way round (Human Resource Management). A new breed of applications — let’s call them Personal Resource Planners — will make it very easy to maintain many-to-many relationships between employees and employers. Currently, most relationships are many-to-one (an employer typically has many employees, but many employees typically have only one employer). Early signals of this trend are visible in many-to-many gig-economy platforms (KaggleFiverrAirtasker).
  2. Devices and algorithms will be the new employees. Many skills will be growingly fragmented and disassociated from individuals (codified), offered as services by the very same individuals. Especially in highly specialised skills areas, we will see a growing codification of competencies, a trend currently emerging among software developers and knowledge workers. This trend is not science fiction. We can see early discussions concerning ethics of such approaches.
  3. Employees will become proactive — faster than employers. Having access to more and more information about employers, employees will increasingly be able to offer their services even before employers realise they need them. Imagine a local government sharing some of their data using open data platforms. Individuals accessing the data may become aware of a potential future problem before the government does. This trend will lead to reimagining the “job offers” market, effectively flipping it. We can see early signals: white hat hacker space is likely the most advanced in this area — employers are typically not even aware that they truly need help when white hat hackers reach out to them. Platforms such as Hacker Onealready allow employees to reach out to future employers proactively.

Will employment evolve as described above? Will these trends come true? It is truly impossible to say so with confidence — so many factors may influence the future. However, none of the points above is a wild, futuristic, speculation: they are all weak signals that — in my opinion — we should currently be paying close attention to.

The Chair in Digital Economy is a joint venture and a globally unique partnership between, QUTPwCBrisbane Marketing and the Queensland Government. The Chair sets a world-class standard for collaboration among academia, industry and government. With all its partners, the Chair in Digital Economy has a shared goal to explore and develop new creative opportunities in an age of great disruption.

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