From the advent of the steam engine through to the creation of the internet, we as humans constantly strive for ingenuity and innovation. Our history is a story of individuals seeking to maximise use of the resources around us, to enable more productive and efficient ways of working. This ever-churning conveyor belt of workplace inventions continues to produce ingenious new technology at an astounding pace, with no sign of slowing down. AI, robotics, and automation, once the stuff of science fiction, are beginning to appear in more and more workplaces across the globe, and data shows this could yet continue.
Take our recent forecast of the UK’s workforce, for example. It found that the equivalent of 1.4 million full-time roles could be automated by the end of this year. That’s the equivalent of 4.8% of work currently undertaken across the country. This may not sound like a big number, but figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that around 1.5 million Britons are currently employed in the financial services and insurance industry. So automating 4.8% of all work is akin to automating almost the job of almost everyone working in finance in the UK. Those numbers might ring a few alarm bells. How, then, do employees and employers prepare for the impacts of automation on the UK workforce, across all sectors?
Taking control of change
Technological progress and the changes it brings are inevitable. We cannot be blind to the fact that certain skills – and large portions of existing job roles are likely to become redundant in the near future. In fact, we should embrace such change. Why? Because technology isn’t replacing the future of work. It IS the future of work. It can provide us with untold capabilities if we use it correctly, but no matter how advanced it becomes, it cannot replicate the innately human qualities that make us so unique. Future roles will see humans and technology working harmoniously side by side, augmenting one another and making our lives easier as a result.
The reality however is that this scenario isn’t far off, and many staple UK jobs may cease to exist sooner than expected. For example, our forecasts suggest large portions of work undertaken in the retail and financial services industries have the potential to be fully automated in the next year.
The burden of retraining to remain employable shouldn’t fall solely in the laps of those most affected by technological change, though. Society possesses the collective means to ensure the introduction of technology enhances our ability to work, rather than hinders it. We must put plans in place now to reclaim humans’ role in the future of work. It’s our responsibility as a society to ensure that employees are not only looked after in the short and medium term as technology is introduced into the workplace, but also be transitioned into new roles in the long term as it begins to take on more of their previous responsibilities.
The first step will require employers to identify the transferable skills of their employees and enrich those skills through training and education programmes. Doing so will ensure technology is integrated into the workplace in a way that won’t simply replace human workers, but instead enhance the overall productivity of the workforce.
It’s a process that will require two things. Firstly, a combination of insights, data and analysis to unearth the pinch points and opportunities on the horizon. Secondly, and most importantly, concerted intervention from businesses and government to future-proof the UK’s workforce. Targeted programmes that seek to retain, retrain, and redeploy employees so they complement technology, and vice versa, will be critical to ensuring we deliver an equally distributed future of work for all.
Prioritising those at risk
As with any successful plan, prioritisation will be key. We know that certain sectors are at greater risk of automation, with the wholesale and retail and financial services sectors two prime examples. Together, these sectors comprise almost five million UK workers, with our forecasts suggesting that over nine% of work undertaken in each – the equivalent of 932,000 full-time roles in total – is potentially automatable. The effects of automation are spread disproportionately across different industries, meaning efforts to mitigate its impact must be focused first on those who need it most. Fortunately, businesses have tools at their disposal that help to identify at-risk groups before the danger is realised, allowing them to put strategies in place to address potential issues before they lead to redundancies and unemployment.
Taking a top-down approach
Another key success factor is the level of support, both financially and strategically, provided by senior leadership. Change always starts from the top, and any impactful plan requires those in charge to drive movement themselves and guarantee results. In the case of the future of work, leaders have the best view of operations across an organisation, so it’s up to them to create a strategy that addresses the issues of role replacement that automation may bring for employees, whilst also allaying the fears of those at risk. It will require them to identify which roles are most likely to be affected, and doing so accurately demands investments in the right initiatives. Coordinating training and reskilling programmes is the next step, as this is needed to help transition at-risk employees through ‘job corridors’ into new, more in-demand roles.
Reclaiming the role of humans in the future of work is not the sole responsibility of business leaders, though. Based on our current trajectory, the UK government is likely to face widescale unemployment issues if technology is allowed to replace jobs without supporting the transition to new ones. Action must be taken to incentivise businesses to engage in proactive workforce planning. Otherwise, it risks the introduction of technology to the workplace causing an employment crisis. Targeted investment in programmes that promote the retraining and reskilling of employees – and in some cases, make them mandatory – will ensure citizens will remain employable, and also address the issue of skills shortages for new, technology-focused roles.
The capabilities of technology are both wonderous and frightening, and this is no more true than in the workplace. But humanity should be able to marvel at these capabilities with hope rather than fear, and for that to happen, a strategy that addresses the future role of automating technologies in the workplace is needed. Both businesses and governments must come together to devise a positive, proactive plan of action that allows for humans and technology to co-exist in the future, and pre-emptively transitions those in at-risk roles to new forms of work before it’s too late. Success here relies on definitive action – to create a future of work that benefits us all, action must start now.