What does the future of work actually mean?


Barry Winkless sits down with SiliconRepublic.com editor Jenny Darmody to sort the catchphrases from the reality of how the world of work will change.

Has the ‘future of work’ phrase become a little redundant? Experts have warned about it for years, but the conversation has become so saturated with trends and thought leadership that it can be hard to distinguish the nebulous details from the ones that will have a tangible impact on workers.

To delve into this area, Siliconrepublic.com editor Jenny Darmody sat down with Barry Winkless, chief strategy officer at Cpl and head of the future of work institute in Ireland. Winkless said that for him, the future of work is about three Ws: where we work, the who we are as a workforce and the actual work itself – the tasks that we do.

“The story of the future of work has yet to be written, but we’re at a good first-defined draft,” he said. “We’re going towards three things. One is more human, the second one is more societal, and then the third thing is more technological.”

While the growth of AI, automation and other tech trends have been major topics within the wider conversation around the future of work, so too has the fear around what these technological advances will do to the job market itself. Last year for example, a widely Goldman Sachs report claimed up to 300m jobs worldwide could be replaced by generative AI. Meanwhile, others are of the opinion that there will be a ‘reshaping’ of roles rather than a replacement.

“I’m a little bit on the fence, not because I don’t understand the topic but more because, from our own work and from other researchers’ reading, it’s not really definitive enough for me,” said Winkless.

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“I think the real interesting point for me is this is the first technology revolution where we’ve actually had intelligent learning machines. So, a lot of the commentary I hear is really looking at it through the last industrial revolution, and that worries me a little bit because we’re not talking about just data, we’re not talking about simple technology, we’re talking about learning, intelligent technologies that can do all sorts of stuff that we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Winkless also pointed to previous generations as a warning against assuming we know what could be coming down the track when it comes to the way we work, the way we adopt technology and the impact that could have.

“If you think even about our last industrial revolution, and let’s be really honest, the environmental impact of that way of thinking wasn’t something that was factored in at the very start of that industrial revolution. It was all about improving wages and working conditions and better products, but nobody thought about the after impact of those types of products,” he said.

“There’s a Japanese concept called shoshin, and it’s really about, no matter what you’re looking at, how do you adopt a beginner’s mindset? I think as leaders, we have an obligation to stand back, recognise that we don’t understand all of this stuff, and really ask the stupid questions and don’t let technology take the lead on our strategy.”

So, what will the true future of work be about? Winkless said it’s about switching the previous generation’s competitive advantage to a collaborative advantage. “How do we collaborate with competitors, how do we collaborate with the people that work for us, how do we collaborate with broad levels of diversity…how do we harness it to create newer solutions and how do we collaborate with the society in large to make things better.”

He also said we can expect to see a much more different approach to the make-up of the workforce itself. “Traditionally, most organisations would have a fairly large permanent workforce and what we’re already seeing in many organisations now, there’s a mix of permanent workers, temporary workers, part-time workers, contractors, consultants, pay-by-the-hour experts, so that whole mix, that cocktail of work-types is going to be a big thing as well.”

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