The Future of Work

It’s time to blog again. Apologies for the very long hiatus. Various reasons, but back again now.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post some things that have built up over the last few months, but I was inspired by today’s Observer ‘New Review’ section which provides an excellent insight into some changes that we might encounter in the workplaces of the future. 

As Ergonomists and Human Factors specialists it is our job to anticipate these changes, understand their impact and make sure that we and our colleagues have the tools and understanding to make sure that we are able to continue with our mission to design and evaluate workplaces and technologies that will support productivity and health.

E/HF is a changing discipline, but are we changing rapidly enough? Are our methods and our knowledge keeping up with change. The Observer piece (Sunday 29th November, New Review section) highlights five trends which I doubt will be news to any of us, but which require careful thought for E/HF theory and practice.

The first change highlighted is Artificial Intelligence. We have long considered how to design for automation (Lisanne Bainbridge’s 1983 ‘Ironies of Automation’ is still my favourite E/HF paper of all time) but we now have the real scenario of collaboration between technology and humans, where those technologies do not just execute actions programmed and anticipated by people, but which learn and evolve. The potential impacts of some of these change were articulated finely by Bainbridge, but perhaps we should now move our focus from worrying about these changes to developing methods (perhaps extending methods such as Cognitive Work Analysis) that can truly capture human-technology hybrid working.

The article also notes changing workplace structures – that a career path will become less about ‘moving up a ladder’ and more likely to support ‘individual entrepreneurs’ within a company environment. This could work well for E/HF– we know that we often sit within and interact with many different parts of an organisation, and I can think of several CIEHF members who did not necessarily get employed to have the wide ranging and influential role that they now have, but, because of their individual expertise and the broad value of E/HF, are able to influence many different parts of their organisation.

Coupled with this are two aspects that I have covered in some of the talks I’ve given this year about the future of E/HF – the ‘Human Cloud’ and monitoring at work. Both of these present risks and opportunities. The Human Cloud, where individuals are used to complete short micros tasks and paid on a piecemeal basis is something that Rob Houghton and I have considered as part of our work with our Horizon Digital Economy hub, and clearly presents risks in terms of employee status, pay and working conditions. Monitoring at work could also present us with a rich mine of data recording human performance at work (as also discussed by Colin Drury at this year’s EHF conference) but presents significant ethical challenges.

The final change noted in the article is one very familiar to us as a community – the end of retirement. Ensuring that the needs of an ageing population are accommodated and that we design work pathways, setting and pay structures to acknowledge this.

We need to be at the forefront of this debate as a discipline, and ensure that, when organisations encounter these changes, we are able to provide them with solutions.

The Future of Work

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