Co-Founder – FlexFibre
Last week, public attention fell upon the commuting class. The debate was all about whether the commuters should be classed as working if they spent their journey reading and sending work emails. This shift in the working day has all come about due to wi-fi upgrades on the rail network that has allowed better connectivity during the commute. In reality, it seems it has extended the working day.
Connectivity, it seems, is keeping us at the office, and more than ever when we aren’t there.
And it is only a part of the wider trend. At the beginning of this year, a French law was introduced that aimed to give the worker the right to ‘switch off’ from checking emails outside of work hours in companies with more than 50 people.
At FlexFibre we believe that the Future of Work will be defined by connectivity. When we install a network of leased lines with near real time bandwidth control, we are giving our clients a powerful tool to manage their connectivity. We have seen first hand how it can change the nature of work: From accessing the Cloud and giving the office worker ever more powerful software tools to do their jobs and collaborate on greater projects in real time, to the modern medical technician and factory worker using augmented reality and machine learning for better pattern recognition in diagnostics and quality control, connectivity is already here.
But how can we get this balance right between work and home life in an era of permanent connectivity? What will connectivity mean for the future of work?
When I use connectivity in my working day, which is every day, I don’t feel as though I am a cog in an unforgiving machine, to be removed and replaced by a fresher cog when my teeth are too worn to fulfil my role. Rather, I see myself as part of a network, communicating with others in real time who might be on different continents and working on different projects. It is my imagination and experience that I can bring into this network. Connectivity, to me, represents a ‘force multiplier’ in my working day – it allows my productivity to increase by a not inconsiderable amount.
In the UK, it is well known that we have a productivity problem. Whilst our unemployment rate is very low, our productivity lags behind that of other advanced economies. There are reasons for this: firstly, in the UK we are more a service orientated economy rather than a manufacturing one. This means that productivity is a great deal harder to calculate over those economies where goods are physically produced. Counting how many rotations I make as a cog is infinitely easier than calculating how many impulses I send across my organic network each day.
The second reason for our apparent lack of productivity is due to the structure of our economy: manufacturing in Germany is 22%. In this sector, productivity gains is dependent on investment into new technology: it is relatively easy to increase, via automation, unlike in the service economy where automation is more disparate. And in the UK, manufacturing is approximately 13%, so the area where productivity gains can be made the easiest is not so large anyhow.
With these two facts in mind, I would argue that the contribution of connectivity in the service economy is woefully misrepresented in productivity calculations, and that a new equation is needed to better represent this element of national product.
This isn’t just an ivory tower argument for economic theorists either. If we can recognise how much value connectivity can really bring in, then it will move higher up the list of national priorities and more into the public consciousness. You may think that we are already there with the push to a digital world, but I think that ignores some troubling issues: last week on Radio 4 for example, the UK Health Minister Matt Hancock highlighted the need for better IT in the NHS, citing examples of how hospital visits weren’t recorded on a GP’s record! (NHS and IT, BBC Radio 4, September 06th 2018).
Digital transformation in the private sector might be racing ahead, but in the public sector, where such change could yield huge benefits in services, it seems to have stagnated. And the public should see this as unacceptable.
Connectivity will also break down location barriers for those engaged in intellectual and design tasks. A coder can program from anywhere in the world, or a writer can write. The location of your job won’t depend on the location of any office or high cost building, but of the brain behind the work. This is in absolute contrast to those jobs which are defined by location: such as manual tasks like the trades and domestic workforces. This separation also risks inflaming political breakdown: those from ‘anywhere’ will be viewed by those from ‘somewhere’ with further hostility if the connected economy of the future continually rewards the ‘anywheres.’
No article on the future of work would be complete without a mention of Artificial Intelligence. There are conflicting research articles into what this will mean for the average worker: some reports highlight a decimation of professions, whilst others believe more new jobs will be created. I believe these are both too polarised assessments: AI will creep in over over time. A software will come out on the Cloud that will replace a part of a person’s job, but not that job in its entirety. That person will then take on more work in the organisation to make up for this. So it will continue until that person ends up doing a job entirely different to what they started out as, or the AI generalised super intelligence becomes a real thing. In this latter case, we are all in the unknown.
The main worry I have about a future of work where connectivity drives productivity forward is for those left behind. We need to ensure that everybody can perceive some benefit from the connected economy and that they feel part of the wider movement.
The risk if we fail is a breakdown in society and political tolerance and a move to extremes for answers.