Attracting and retaining staff is of strategic importance to businesses across many sectors due to acute skills shortages. Technological advances continue both to create exciting opportunities and to pose serious questions over their impact on jobs and the potential to further exacerbate growing divisions in society.
Technological developments continue to advance at an unprecedented scale and speed, profoundly changing the world of work. The work of tomorrow will be unrecognisable (and in some respects unforeseeable) to many people today.
Automation and new technologies
The skills shortage has become more pronounced over the last year. Attracting and retaining people has moved to the top of many organisations’ priorities, supporting those who favour the “not enough workers” theory for the future. However, pessimists continue to point out that the significant increases in productivity, a feature of past industrial revolutions which created wealth and grew the economy, have failed to materialise, at least to date. The unprecedented scale and speed of change also indicate things may be different this time. Latest OECD data reinforces this, identifying modest productivity rises in the G7 nations between 2015 and 2021 ranging from 11.4% in Canada to 1.8% in Italy (UK is 5%) over the six year period, compared with much faster rises in productivity in previous decades.
Skills shortages are leading businesses to look to alternatives to human labour. With employers struggling to find HGV drivers, farm workers and abattoir staff amongst others, businesses increasingly look to automation. For example, the use of QR codes to order in bars and restaurants as well as developments in robot technology will reduce the need for waiting staff. Today’s skill shortages in this sector may be short-lived.
Foreseeable and unforeseeable technological developments will make many aspects of daily life unrecognisable from today and have a knock-on effect on the world of work. Vastly increased battery power will continue the move to electric powered transport. No doubt technological advances will also enable the capture of the power of renewables including tidal, solar and wind more cheaply and effectively. Universally available cheap, clean energy will have a profound effect on the world of work but the timetable for reaching that potential is highly uncertain.
Increased automation has drawn attention to the divisions in society between those adept at managing their lives online and those, particularly older generations or people with disabilities, who cannot or do not use online technology. According to data from the Office of National Statistics, 1.34 million adults over the age of 65 in 2020 had never used the internet. In the UK this is illustrated by steps taken by the rail companies to close tickets sales counters in stations and rely on online or ticket machines, potentially disenfranchising a section of the population. This promises to be an issue of increasing concern in the years ahead and raises issues of service providers’ duties to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate those with disabilities. A report into Public Attitudes to Data and AI from the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation showed that 38% of people in the UK had very low or low digital familiarity. Unsurprisingly there was a strong correlation between age and digital familiarity, with an average age of 71 for those with very low familiarity. Two thirds of those with very low familiarity were female but there was little difference in familiarity across socio-economic groups.
Changes arising from the success of home working during the pandemic have transformed work, perhaps more than any other development in recent years. This transformation in working practices brings novel challenges and increased complexity. For example, remote working increases cyber security risks, and cross-border remote working requires the navigation of employment laws in other jurisdictions and data transfers across borders.
In the years ahead, virtual and augmented reality promise to drive similar changes in working practices. This Future of Work Hub podcast explores how more and more businesses are looking to this virtual world to explore the opportunities they offer.
A more immediate development will be the demise of the password to access systems with enhanced network security. MIT cites this in its top ten technological breakthroughs for 2022.
Attention continues to be paid to the employment implications arising from the increased role that data and AI play in making employment decisions.
As part of its inquiry into the UK labour market post-Brexit, the UK government published a call for evidence, which included questions on the use of AI and technology in the workplace and the appropriate protections for workers. While the current UK government’s appetite for responding to this is unclear, regulatory changes can be expected as AI developments accelerate.
In the meantime, guidance for employers and businesses continues to emerge. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has extended its guidance to organisations on the use of AI and data protection with a new toolkit. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also published advice on the use of AI in public services. In the US, particular concern has been addressed to the impact on increased use of AI on workers with disabilities and there are wider questions about the impact it could have on the rule of law.
The EU has also published a proposal for a directive on adapting non-contractual civil liability rules to artificial intelligence which reinforces the direction of travel to greater regulation of the use of AI.
In relation to data privacy, a possible change in the months and years ahead to free flows of data is the UK’s threatened removal of the European GDPR from domestic regulation and its replacement by a new domestic data law. If the new data law is unacceptable to overseas regulators and the EU rescinds the UK’s adequacy status, any such change could have very negative consequences for British or international businesses which need to transfer personal data from the UK.