Reclaiming humans’ role in the future of work

Ever since the concept of employment came to exist, workers have thrived on ingenuity and invention. From the advent of the steam engine through to the creation of the internet, we as humans regularly seek ways to make maximum use of the resources around us to create more productive, and ultimately more efficient ways of working.

There’s no sign of this changing any time soon. Technology continues to evolve, churning out new inventions at pace and changing the world of work daily. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation, once the stuff of science fiction, are being adopted at an astounding rate, and data shows this could yet continue.

Faethm AI’s recent forecast of the UK’s workforce, for example, found that the equivalent of 1.4 million full-time roles in the UK could be automated by the end of this year. That’s the equivalent of 4.8% of work currently undertaken across the country.

On its own, that might not sound like a big number. But let’s put it into context. Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicate that as of December 2020, 1.5 million Britons were employed in the Financial Services and Insurance industry. So automating 4.8% of all work in the UK is akin to automating almost the job of almost everyone working in finance in this country.

These figures make clear that automation may have a huge impact on the UK workforce. But how exactly do employees and employers prepare for this change?

Shaping our own future

It would be foolish to ignore the fact that certain skills – and large portions of existing job roles – are likely to become redundant due to technological change.

James McLeod

But rather than fear such change, we should embrace it. Why? Because technology isn’t replacing the future of work. It IS the future of work. The capabilities of technology are incredible, but it cannot capture the entire spectrum of innately human qualities that make us so unique. Every role in the future will see humans and technology work together, hand in hand, augmenting one another.

The reality however is that many staple UK jobs may cease to exist in the near future. Our forecasts suggest large portions of work undertaken in the retail and financial services industries, for example, have the potential to be fully automated in the next year. The notion that it’s the sole responsibility of those who work in affected roles to retrain themselves and find new jobs is misguided, however.

As a society we have the collective means to ensure the introduction of technology enhances, rather than hinders, our ability to work. What we need is a plan that reclaims humans’ role in the future of work; one that ensures employees are looked after in the short and medium terms as technology is introduced, and can be transitioned into new roles in the long term as it begins to take on more of their previous responsibilities.

This plan will require employers to identify transferable skills in affected employees and proactively enrich their existing skillsets with training, so technology doesn’t simply replace human workers, and maintain current levels of output, but enhances the productivity of the workforce.

Making it a success will require two things. Firstly, a combination of insights, data and analysis to unearth the pinch points and opportunities on the horizon. Secondly, and most importantly, concerted intervention from businesses and government to future-proof the UK’s workforce. Targeted programmes that seek to retain, retrain, and redeploy employees so they complement technology, and vice versa, will be critical to ensuring we deliver an equally distributed future of work for all.

Going sector by sector

Success will also depend on a few key factors, one of which is prioritisation. As mentioned, we know certain sectors are at greater risk of automation, with the wholesale and retail and financial services sectors two prime examples. Together, these sectors comprise almost five million UK workers, and our forecasts suggest over 9% of work undertaken in each – the equivalent of 932,000 full-time roles in total – is potentially automatable. So with automation disproportionately affecting different industries, efforts to mitigate its impact must be focused first on those who need it most. Fortunately tools are available to help businesses identify at-risk groups well in advance, and devise strategies to address potential issues before they lead to redundancies and unemployment.

Starting from the top

Another key success factor is the degree of support afforded by senior leadership. We all know those at the top must instigate change to ensure its results are truly impactful. In the case of the future of work, leaders have the best view of operations across an organisation, so it’s their responsibility to create a strategy that deals with the possibility of automation replacing certain roles, and allays the fears of those at risk. Investing time and money into identifying which roles are most likely to be affected is the first step, before then coordinating the necessary training needed to help transition at-risk employees through ‘job corridors’ into new, more in-demand roles.

Making it mandatory

These business leaders must have governmental support, however, if their efforts are to succeed. Based on our current trajectory, the issue of technology replacing jobs could begin to cause unemployment issues across the UK if action is not taken soon. The government must therefore act to incentivise businesses to engage in proactive workforce planning, if they are to prevent the introduction of technology to the workplace causing an employment crisis. Advancing investment into programmes that promote the retraining and reskilling of employees will ensure that citizens remain employable, and also addresses the issue of skills shortages for new, technology-focused roles.

The future of work is bright, and humanity should be able marvel at the capabilities of emerging technology with hope rather than fear. But for that to happen a strategy that addresses the future role of automating technologies in the workplace is needed. Both businesses and governments must consider a positive, targeted plan of action that ensures humans and technology complement one another in future, and proactively transitions those in at-risk roles to new forms of work before it’s too late. Success here won’t come from indifference, but from definitive action to create a future of work that we can all be proud of.


James McLeod

VP EMEA for Faethm AI


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