The digital age offers unprecedented opportunities. Riding the tides of technology, firms are able to rise higher, faster, than ever before. As markets warp around them, businesses are themselves transforming in an effort to ride the waves, rather than be sunk by them. New ways of working, new organisational structures and shifts in strategy are therefore happening at an ever faster pace.
We are, says World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, living through the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, the era of automation and digitisation. If that sounds rather momentous, it’s because it is. But momentous change doesn’t always have to be positive.
Look back to the first industrial revolution. It was the birthing of modern society, the raising of mankind from the toil of the earth. But it was also brutal, dangerous and miserable for most of those who lived through it.
Working hours rose dramatically (think 70-hour weeks), even as conditions deteriorated. Accidents and illness were commonplace. For all the economic gains of the time, the average factory worker in Manchester circa 1810 had a worse lot than their farmer or craftsmen grandparents.
Is there a danger that we are condemning ourselves to the same fate? While digitisation and automation can create bountiful opportunities and grow productivity, they can also leave people behind.
For the pessimist, the age of AI is not one of abundance, but one where most people exist in a frantic, hand-to-mouth race against rapid-onset obsolescence, as we struggle in vain to retrain as quickly as a tech company can write an algorithm. Even within employment, work could become ever more intense and more demanding. Today’s out-of-hours emails could be just the first sign of tomorrow’s always-on culture.
Businesses will play a crucial role here. Will they put people first, or programmes? In the first industrial revolution, people were expendable (it didn’t really matter to a mill owner whether you liked your job – if you wanted to leave for the workhouse, that was your prerogative), but now this is not the case.
Even today’s most tech-driven companies live and die by the talents of their employees. Those that can attract and retain the best people, creating environments for them to be their best, will thrive. Those that do not will be swept away by the tides of history.
There is therefore a business as well as a moral case for ensuring employees share in the gains that technology can bring, not just in the pay packet, but in the nature of their work itself. By eliminating the mundane and helping us to keep track of our workload and our stress levels, technology has the potential to improve our quality of life at work, helping both employee and employer to flourish.
This is something we need to pay attention to now, because the pace of technology will overtake us if we do not. The surging tides of technology will transform your workplace and your business, for better or for worse. Which way it goes depends on how you react next.
Knowing you need to act is only half the battle. The trickier part is knowing how. At Sodexo’s Quality of Life Conference, London 16-17 October, you can hear how business pioneers have worked to improve their employees’ quality of life, sharing the challenges and lessons they’ve learned along the way. For more information, visit www.qualityoflifeconference.com.
This is the first in a series of articles exploring the impact major business and economic trends are having on our quality of life, in association with Sodexo. Visit MT’s quality of life hub for further updates.