This Week at Work: 2017–01–07

Curated links on the future of work and work technologies

There was a torrent of material about the future of work and work technologies swirling by this week, far too much to report on in depth, so here’s my links and comments.

  • The “Work from Home” Dream Doesn’t WorkWork Futures contributor Greg Lindsay who looks at the ways that co-working and work technologies are changing the nature of work: ‘The first trend is how the shared office and the network have replaced the solo entrepreneur in her garage as the incubators for new companies and ideas. The second, more powerful trend is the steadily climbing number of freelance, independent, contingent, and temporary workers — more than 53 million Americans at last count, including 2.8 million freelance business owners. […] One reason startups and soloists are leaving their garages, basements, and office spaces is the increasing strength and ease of digital workflow tools, which make it possible for one to work from anywhere — thus inspiring them to rethink where they should work. Between Slack, HipChat, Dropbox, and Asana, we’re living in the golden age of hyper-intuitive collaboration tools.’ Go read the rest, and not just because he quotes me.
  • In Sweden, Happiness in a Shorter Workday Can’t Overcome the Cost Various Swedish experiments in a shorter work week have demonstrated that ‘shorter working hours make for happier, healthier and more productive employees’. Nonetheless, we won’t be seeing widespread expansion in Sweden — or in the US — any time soon. Why? In a nutshell, political conservatism and antipathy to the notion of people being paid the same amount for less time on the job is dooming it. In one experiment at a ‘Gothenburg retirement home, employees reported working with greater efficiency and energy when their hours were cut to six from eight a day. They called in sick 15 percent less than before and perceived their health to have improved at least 20 percent’, in a review last year. But the political climate, even in left-leaning Sweden, makes these policies untouchable. Liz Alderman reports that Amazon — after hugely negative press about overwork — ‘announced last summer that it would test a 30-hour workweek for a small group of employees and managers, giving them 75 percent of their current pay but leaving them with the same benefits as other workers’, but she does not mention any results.
  • Google is shutting down open access to the Google+ Hangouts API — In an updated FAQ, Google is obsoleting the Google+ Hangouts API, except for a short list of enterprise partners (DialPad, RingCentral, and Slack), and Hangouts on Air broadcasting tools (Toolbox, Control Room, Cameraman). Basically, Google wants consumers to use its Duo client, and will retain Hangouts for the enterprise… at least for now. Hangouts is in some was collateral damage from the drunk-falling-down-the-stairs treatment that Google+ is getting. Google Spaces, introduced in 2016, has had next to no impact, just another social experiment gone sideways.
  • The Positive Business Impact of Having a Best Friend at Work— HR Asia looks at O.C. Tanner’s 2015 Health and Well-Being Study,which clearly shows that ‘that having a best friend at work has a significant impact on an employee’s well-being, and therefore their overall work performance’. ‘72 percent of employees who have a best friend at work are satisfied with their jobs, compared to only 54 percent of those who don’t have a best friend at work’. Millennials are the most reliant on these close work relationships. In fact, if you’re a married, millennial executive, then chances are that you have a best friend at work.
  • Japanese insurance firm replaces 34 staff with AI — Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance is replacing employees with an IBM Watson-based AI that can calculate insurance payouts, with projected productivity increase of 30%. Fukoku Mutual will use the AI to gather the information needed for policyholders’ payouts — by reading medical certificates, and data on surgeries or hospital stays. Mainichi reports three other Japanese insurance companies are considering adopting AI systems for work like finding the optimal cover plan for customers. A World Economic Forum study predicted last year that robots and AI will lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries. The 15 economies covered by the survey account for approximately 65% of the world’s total workforce.
  • Why Men Don’t Want the Jobs Done Mostly by Women— Claire Cain Miller investigates why men won’t move into fields traditionally dominated by women, or pink collar work, despite the fact that with a few exceptions, the fastest-growing jobs are predominantly female, while the fastest-declining ones are mostly male. “The jobs being created are very different than the jobs being eliminated,” said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. “I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.” “Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment, and I think it’s a problem,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.” “We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market,” he said.
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illustration by Dave van Patten
  • Age Discrimination in the Workplace is on the Rise — But It’s Hard to Prove — John McDermott writes about Age discrimination, ‘simultaneously the most socially accepted and the hardest to substantiate form of bias in the workplace.’ “It’s notoriously hard to identify for a laundry list of reasons,” says Michael North, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “One is straightforward: Ageism is the most socially condoned form of derogating someone based on social category.” Reports of age discrimination increased 44 percent from 1999 to 2014. ‘If you think there’s a lot of tension between millennials and Boomers in the office right now, wait until 2022, when Gen Z graduates into the workforce, many millennials are in their 40s, and 31.9 percent of Americans 65 to 74 are still working. That figure is up from 20.4 percent in 2002 and 26.8 percent in 2012.’
  • Where machines could replace humans — and where they can’t (yet) — McKinsey & Company report (by Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi) from July 2016: ‘Last year, we showed that currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today.’
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  • The authors conclude that ‘the majority of the benefits may come not from reducing labor costs but from raising productivity through fewer errors, higher output, and improved quality, safety, and speed’. Senior executives may find it hard to respond to the revolution in their industries: ‘The greater challenges are the workforce and organizational changes that leaders will have to put in place as automation upends entire business processes, as well as the culture of organizations, which must learn to view automation as a reliable productivity lever. Senior leaders, for their part, will need to “let go” in ways that run counter to a century of organizational development.’ And finally, they will have to ‘rethink how workers engage with their jobs and how digital labor platforms can better connect individuals, teams, and projects’. And finally to hold the mirror up to themselves: ‘It could also inspire top managers to think about how many of their own activities could be better and more efficiently executed by machines, freeing up executive time to focus on the core competencies that no robot or algorithm can replace — as yet.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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