How AI and ML could affect white-collar workers

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), the Internet of Things: the rapid pace of technological change we are witnessing today will have a profound effect on the way we live tomorrow. From the time-saving convenience of driverless cars to fridges that automatically restock when the contents run low, there is no area of our existence that will remain untouched. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the concept of work – how, when and where we do it – will also change dramatically.

Richard Baldwin, professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute Geneva and the author of The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work, believes that white-collar jobs are under greater threat than ever before. In an article in the Financial Times, he explains it like this: “The explosive potential comes from the mismatch between the speed at which disruptive energy is injected into the system by job displacement and the system’s ability to absorb it with job creation.”

According to a recent IMF study, South Africa has a skills mismatch of over 50% while demonstrating high population mobility and a low ranking when it comes to rating of ease of hiring foreign labour. According to ‘Human Resources Director’, the UK’s digital skills gap will see a £141bn shortfall in GDP over the next decade.

Workers who neglect to upskill for the modern job market may find their talents become redundant when AI and ML can do all the things they used to do faster – and cheaper. But for the lucky ones, the basic law of supply and demand will apply the other way around: those workers whose skills are in demand will find they can name their price when it comes to getting hired.

This is a seismic shift, and it will have a seismic impact on patterns of working too. It’s thought that a scarcity of talent, and the corresponding escalating price of retaining it, will mean that those with the sought-after qualifications will be increasingly hired on a project basis in a bid to control costs more effectively. This also has a knock-on effect on the investments a business is likely to make in terms of bricks and mortar, and on HR, procurement and recruitment arrangements.

It’s likely to have implications for the future of finance professionals too. Machine operators and assemblers, clerical workers, and craft and related trades workers are likely to be hardest-hit, according to research quoted in the FT article and carried out by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers – but the same study predicts that 30% of finance and insurance jobs will also be at risk of automation by 2029.

Some argue that AI and ML will prove beneficial for white-collar jobs, allowing workers to avoid the drudgery of menial tasks and concentrate instead on the more creative things that only a human can do, yet others are less sure. What is for certain is that no one really knows, and the best way to future-proof yourself is to prepare for every eventuality.

One thing finance professionals and other white-collar workers are likely to have on their side is time – or time to adjust, at any rate. Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University, believes that integrating machine-learning technology needs a window of adjustment just like when a new IT system is bedded in to suit the particular needs of a business. “If you’re bringing in the latest accounting software, the company has to change the way it’s doing reporting, controls, to do a lot of stuff,” he tells the FT. “It’s actually a much slower process of adjustment.”

As the world of work switches to a project-by-project (or on-demand) model, so too will the ways people are hired. Whether people are permanent, non-permanent, working remotely or on an on-site basis, they will need to stay in touch with each other. Anyone who’s worked from home will have experienced the isolation that can result from being alone all day, and will recognise the importance of human contact and the motivational aspects of feeling included as part of a team. Ironically, the technology that’s causing us to rethink our jobs also has the power to keep us connected wherever there’s a Wi-Fi signal – and the right cloud-computing software means that tasks can be shared, discussed and worked on remotely without much hassle.

“Flexspace like serviced offices can also help,” says Joanne Bushell, MD and VP Sales in Africa for IWG plc. A project-to-project business of the future is still likely, at some point, to find it needs to gather the troops – we’re social creatures after all. And those who find themselves working from home a lot might benefit from the camaraderie found in a building of fellow portfolio workers, whatever arrangement their employer manages. (As seen from the worker’s perspective, who trends suggest is increasingly likely to work for more than one company, a ‘fixed’ yet flexible location makes sense when there are multiple clients of one’s own to service.)

Whichever way we look at the world of future work, what’s clear is that while some things can be predicted the extent to which things will change and the timescale for when those changes are likely to happen is anybody’s guess. But what we do know is this: the future is flexible.

Source: the global operator of leading workspace providers, IWG.

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