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Robots and the jobs we love to hate

Sat 14 Dec 2019 | Euan Davis

We need to stop defining ourselves by what we do

We tend to think about work in terms of “jobs”. You are a programmer, a doctor, a consultant, or a lawyer. When we introduce ourselves, convention dictates we talk about our jobs rather than who we are. The shorthand of our titles allows us to judge and be judged, whether at cocktail parties, in the gym, and in the office.

But defining ourselves by what we do not only prevents people from trying to change jobs when work itself changes. But it also makes new technologies, like AI and robotics, appear more threatening than they actually are.

When we’re young, jobs are typically a minor element of our personal identity, and job-hopping is a way of trying on different identities or as a means to an end: today a barista, tomorrow a marketing person. As people mature and the jobs market channels us into our niches, identities become fixed and fused with whatever puts bread on the table.

However, this traditional way of working freezes the mental model of what work is and limits the ability to reinvent, morph and change ourselves, and ultimately find a better, more meaningful livelihood.

Is it any surprise, then, that many people are concerned by the rise of robots? Many people are unable to imagine how their work is changing because losing one element of a job to a machine feels like losing a piece of their identity. If I’m a doctor and now a machine can be a doctor too — a better doctor, even — then what am I?

From jobs to tasks

New and evolving technologies require people (and companies) to think about work far more fluidly and accept change and reinvention as a fact of life.

Tomorrow’s work will shift considerably in a single lifetime, especially as people live longer than ever before in certain countries. The first person who will live to be 125 has possibly already been born. The idea that this man or woman might work in the same role until they retire is anachronistic.

Unlocking the shackles of the “job” requires a linguistic shift. The next time there is a worrying headline, try replacing the word “job” with the word “tasks.” In that way, it becomes clear that whole jobs are not being automated, only certain aspects of the job. Most work will be augmented by intelligent machines, not obliterated.

The efficient sharing of work between humans and machines will happen at the task level. Intelligent machines will take on the “science of the job”, while humans master the “art of the job”. Wave goodbye to repetitive tasks that no one wants to do (think form-filling) and welcome with open arms the kind of work that deserves that prime spot on LinkedIn pages: brainstorming, complex problem-solving, creative thinking.

However, workplace strategies need to adapt to the realities of how modern jobs are undertaken. How we find, engage and retain talent needs to shift around the changes in jobs and tasks. Leaders can start by breaking down all work into tasks, instead of breaking down whole jobs. Do this then careers become infinitely more fluid, and the necessary upskilling easier to imagine.

From PA to RPAs

A relevant example is the move from personal PAs to one or several Robotic Personal Assistants (RPAs).

From the King’s retinue a thousand years ago to the loyal butler Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey, assistants have always made work easier. Post-1950, every executive from Mad Men’s Don Draper to Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor had a personal assistant.

But by 2000, Microsoft Office and the Internet made office typing pools, secretaries and personal assistants more or less redundant. Individuals did their own scheduling, typing and printing.

The immediate trade-off for the “department of do-it-yourself” was, of course, extreme inefficiency. The amount of time spent booking travel, doing expenses, getting a presentation template or obtaining information on a corporate intranet is enormous.

Now, with new Robotic PAs, from Siri and Alexa to digital travel assistants organising business trips and completing travel expenses before the traveller is home, these tasks are completed effortlessly. Obliterating these tasks does not necessarily obliterate the PA’s job. On the contrary: new technology frees up resources, liberating PAs to do more fulfilling, enjoyable and lucrative work such as research and planning, time management and agenda preparation.

Several years ago, we asked over 2,000 senior leaders what skills they’d need in five years. Without exception, every skill put forward was a human skill, and, on average, the leaders said they will need an extra 15 percent of them by 2025. So why isn’t every doctor, lawyer, teacher or rental car agent using automated personal assistants to “find their 15 percent”?

To “beat the robots,” we shall need to join them. Robotic personal assistants will help buy back at least that 15 percent capacity (or more) needed for the skills of tomorrow. And that is nothing to be afraid of.

Experts featured:

Euan Davis

European Lead, Centre for the Future of Work


automation robotics
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