The Future of Work

Categories: Innovations, Trends & Technology, Management

By Harry Dochelli | July 23, 2022 << Back to Articles

There has been much discussion lately around a concept that goes by many names—the future of work, new ways to work, and the hybrid worker. Much of this focus has been on the disruption caused by the pandemic and the ways businesses and their employees respond.

Even before the pandemic, there has been, and will continue to be, an evolution in work, the way it gets done, and by whom. Automation has been at the heart of this, from the introduction of the assembly line to the new artificial intelligence (AI) tools and robotics that exist today. The future of work exists in a much broader context and is not a new concept to any of us.

As of late, the future of work and automation have taken on a greater sense of urgency with the current labor shortages we are facing. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that in April 2022, there was 0.5 worker for every job opening.

The factors behind this are many. Some of these factors are short term and have led to immediate responses like higher wages, signing bonuses, enhanced benefits, and flexible work schedules. These responses have increased the competitiveness for talent but have not completely solved the problem. There are other near-term challenges that require other responses, as well as long-term issues, such as the aging of the population and slowing birth rates, which indicate sustained labor shortages going forward. The long-term challenges will require long-term solutions, among which automation can play a role.

Any talk of automation within the workplace can raise concerns about the impact on workers. The debate over automation has often focused on its role in creating or destroying jobs.

A newer view, which has not received as much attention historically, is about how automation changes jobs. More recent research sees work shifting, as opposed to going away completely. For example, data from McKinsey suggests that about 30% of the work activities in 60% of occupations can be automated. Accounting for this, the future of work would not be fully automated, but a “hybrid” model, where workers and technology work side by side to complete tasks. This probably doesn’t sound too different than today, but as technology advances, it will be able to conduct more tasks presently done manually, become more complementary to the work done by workers, and perform new tasks that workers are currently incapable of.

Another effect of automation and innovative technology is the creation of new jobs. Any new software and hardware requires development and support. Additionally, as technology is able to assume manual tasks, it frees up workers to direct their attention to more value-added tasks and develop new skills.

Within the distribution industry, the near-term labor challenges are immense, with employment levels at all-time highs and ongoing challenges with attracting and retaining workers. These challenges will be sustained as demand for these services continue to grow. This is also an industry where the majority of work is completed by a manual workforce. The future of work within this setting is an expansion of what is being seen today, with workers working in tandem with technology. Automation within the distribution industry can help address labor shortages, as well as be a tool to build a more effective supply chain. Some of the benefits that automation can deliver in distribution are:

  • Augmenting the workforce by filling current and sustained labor gaps.
  • Providing greater flexibility in how work is done and supporting worker interest in flexible work schedules.
  • Meeting the challenges of today’s supply chain with a more intelligent and responsive approach to addressing demand shifts.
  • We are in a very dynamic time, and the future of work will continue to present new challenges to solve.

About the Author.

Harry Dochelli is the former president of ISSA, and is the CEO and president of Essendant, a distribution and fulfillment company with a leading role in the cleaning industry.