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Back to the future at work

More leisure time, long hours or loads of learning – what does the workplace of the future hold for us?

It’s almost 90 years since John Maynard Keynes predicted a new age of leisure. The esteemed economist foresaw a time when a 15-hour working week would be standard in developed countries. In fact, we’re more likely to work 15-hour days.

Not even greater longevity is providing the kind of leisure age he thought possible. The high number of people without adequate pension provision means many people’s golden years will be spent still at work.

About the only certainty surrounding the future of work is that it will be increasingly digitised. Software isn’t just eating the world, it is transforming the workplace.

But unless this transformation is properly managed, both by governments and employers, it risks leading to a new class of haves and have nots. Those who have the opportunity to retrain and upskill will have the opportunity to keep pace in the workplace. Those who have not, will not.

It is a vista that is already causing concern. Research from PwC Ireland highlights an "acute need" for digital upskilling. A global survey of technology, jobs and skills undertaken by the accountancy firm finds that fear of automation is understandably greatest among those getting the fewest opportunities to upskill.

More than a third (34 per cent ) of adults with secondary education or less say they are not learning any new digital skills, compared with just 17 per cent of college graduates.

More than half (53 per cent), of workers believe automation will significantly change or make their job obsolete within the next 10 years. More than three quarters (77 per cent) of adults would learn new skills now, or completely retrain, to improve their future employability.

‘Skills to adapt’

“The mismatch between the skills people have and those needed for the digital world is fast becoming one of the world’s most important problems. While technology will likely create as many jobs as it displaces, they will be very different, and people need the skills to adapt,” says Ger McDonough, partner PwC, people and organisation.

While there is a huge appetite among people to learn, the opportunities to do so are not evenly spread. “These disparities are only going to get more extreme without serious attention from governments, NGOs and businesses,” he says.

With longer working lives, upskilling becomes more important than ever. Here too, demographic deficits are emerging, with 69 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds feeling positive about the future impact of technology on their jobs, compared with just 50 per cent of those aged over 55.

Equally, while only 18 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds say they are not being given opportunities to learn new digital skills by their employer, for the older cohorts that figure more than doubles, to 38 per cent .

If organisations are to cope with – not to mind capitalise on – the rise of emerging technology trends such as automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the ability to upskill all of their workforce will be key.

“Whatever the technology, it is only ever as good as a leader’s ability to identify the opportunity, a technical team’s ability to deliver it, and people’s ability to work with it every day,” cautions McDonough.

The need to upskill staff is relatively new. Historically, organisations simply let go people whose skills were obsolete, and looked to other industries in order to recruit new ones. In a tightened labour market, that’s increasingly hard to do, and increasingly expensive to pay for.

That makes learning a more efficient alternative. But “we just don’t have a track record of enabling lifelong learning in our organisations”, says McDonough, who reckons that in the future, that will have to change.

“Such is the pace of change now, and the technological transformations being experienced, that employers realise they can’t protect jobs, they can only protect their people.”

‘Particularly acute’

It’s particularly acute in sectors such as financial services, where people with both digital skills and core banking skills are now required, points out Dervla McCormack, partner, PwC financial services advisory.

PwC’s survey work in that sector shows the biggest barrier to digital innovation now is a lack of skilled teams. It suggests 84 per cent of the financial services sector in Ireland is concerned about skills shortages as an impediment to growth, compared with 76 per cent of their global counterparts.

Employers must address these skills challenges while at the same time cope with rapidly changing employee expectations, chief among which is an issue that harks back to Keynes – how to achieve a better work-life balance.

"It is a huge issue right now, particularly as there are less definite cut-off points now in terms of working the traditional 9am to 5pm, or in terms of whether work is done in the office, at home or in a coffee shop," says Catherine O'Flynn, head of employment and benefits at law firm William Fry.

The need to ensure employees don’t burn is rising in our ‘always on’ smart devices culture. But managing an increasingly flexible workforce, which includes a greater cohort of atypical, freelance or project-based workers, as well as staffers working in remote locations, will bring its own challenges.

Employers will still have to navigate this rise in atypical working in a way that meets all their health and safety obligations. Mental health will have to be protected too, as “some people thrive on remote working but others can feel isolated”, says O’Flynn.

The challenge will be to provide staff with the flexibility they need, the support they require, and a collegiate culture among disparately located teams. It will also be to keep staff learning, so as to leverage the benefits of technological advances.

But don't rule out the leisure age just yet. The UK's Labour party has committed to a four-day working week, and it has already been trialled by giants such as Microsoft in Japan, where it led to happier staff and productivity gains of up to 40 per cent. It begs a Keynesian question – if we're that great in four days, what would we be like in two?