The global pandemic has brought the Future of Work very visibly into our present and heightened the risk that many are left behind with the past
During the serene and seemingly distant era that was pre-COVID life, the Future of Work (FOW) was already something of a catch-phrase that frequently ricocheted around the overlapping circles of academia, consultancy and think-tanks. The startling statistics around potential job losses which sometimes escaped the confines of these rarefied communities meant that, among the wider population, the FOW concept was becoming increasingly well-known and worried about. As with most other ‘Big Ideas’, there were also a sizeable number of commentators who still questioned whether the willpower of organisations and the wizardry of technology could reliably propel societies into the fabled FOW utopia, particularly in the case of emerging economies such as those across the African continent.
However, where corporate willpower and digital wizardry failed, Coronavirus has arguably succeeded: the sheer scale of disruption caused by the pandemic has shunted individuals, organisations and governments into a new reality of work that could scarcely have been imagined prior to 2020. The upshot of this is that urgency has kicked out complacency as the world grapples with the sudden arrival of a very unexpected FOW, making OYW-WCA’s panel session on this topic a timely contribution to this crucial conversation.
Due to the ambiguity that can sometimes shroud this oft-referenced concept, it makes sense to consider how to define the FOW and the panellists helpfully clarified the various ways in which to characterise the paradigm shift that it represents. Adopting a HR lens brought to the fore the importance of purpose over profit in powering people to perform at their peak in the FOW reality. With global work opportunities accessible from one’s bedroom, employers are forced to compete along more dimensions than just pay alone to win the hearts and heads of the best talent. This emerging mindset manifests itself in small but practical ways, one example being the growing popularity of virtual interviews that offer both convenience and comfort to interviewees.
In providing more positive portrayals of the FOW, like the above, the panellists offered a useful counterbalance to the usual, negative narratives that accompany most mentions of the FOW. However, the undeniable devastation dealt out by the pandemic meant that more sobering messages were unavoidable. As the economic landscape is redrawn, inequality is likely to sharpen between those who have the resources and resilience to adapt and those who do not. The imperatives of social-distancing further enhance the attractiveness of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots, technologies which were already making steady advances in the workplace and becoming commonplace colleagues alongside human workers. Rather bleakly, the FOW does promise a world of possibility but only for those who are prepared.
Drawing on their considerable stores of expertise, the panel powerfully expanded on what preparation for the FOW could look like today and, excitingly, there seemed to be a dazzlingly diversity of approaches to this. Although education featured prominently as a recommendation from all the panellists, the scope and strategic focus of their ideal learning diverged from the traditional exhortations to accumulate alpine test scores and framed certificates. Instead, core and transferrable skills, such as creativity, collaboration, resilience and critical thinking, were centred as the most valuable currency that could purchase sustainable and secure work for young people, whether for an employer or for themselves. Collaboration in particular was highlighted as the main enabler that could turbo-boost the circulation of resources and skills within communities on the continent, thereby raising capability levels more widely, despite the constraints that threaten to curtail cohorts of ambitious young Africans.
Given the scale of transformation the FOW will usher in, African governments certainly have a role to play in setting out smart policies and systems that shield populations from the sharp edge of this revolution but also support them to take fullest advantage of it. However, the panellists reminded listeners that, while one can hold onto hope of governmental action, they shouldn’t be held back by it. Ultimately, the Future of Work is here now and the youth of the continent cannot afford to wait for governments steeped in the past to catch up.