Technology is at the centre of every modern business, and it is changing how and where we work. The digital era has brought with it a variety of efficiency savings and other benefits from instant communication to improved insights, but a coinciding growth in job insecurity and the march towards automation should also give people pause for thought.
For years the world of work has been built around the office environment, with each employee required to clock and clock-out of their work day and everyone in the team sitting within a few metres of each other. This setup has meant that businesses have only been able to choose employees from those within their town or city, and employees have wasted hours of their day in cars or on public transport getting to and from the office.
Technology has completely revolutionised where we work. Today, businesses can find the best talent from around the world to work on their projects, with an increasing number of companies following the path set by firms such as WordPress in having a completely distributed office. Each employee can work from home or a local co-working space, communicating with their team via email and messaging tools, and entrusted by their managers to get the work done. Whilst some may miss the hubbub of the office, this setup saves the company money on renting office space and more importantly saves the employees time and money on their commute.
Communication and collaboration
Ever since the invention of the printing press, technology has been at the centre of communication and the digital era has seen the pace of change accelerate. Email dramatically changed the speed in which work can be performed teams no longer needing to wait days for documents to arrive by post, but instant messaging and collaboration tools have moved things ahead further.
The development of instant messaging tools like Slack have made the distributed office possible, with each team member able to keep everyone else informed of their progress, ask questions, and share files within seconds. Add to this the collaborative nature of tools like Google Docs and teams spread across the globe can now work more efficiently than those that used to sit next to each other in an office.
Big data and artificial intelligence
Big data has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, but in essence the idea of tracking and recording every process and transaction within a business has made it easier than ever for businesses to find points of friction they can improve upon and find new ways they can generate profits.
This kind of analysis was once performed by expensive strategists, who relied on much smaller datasets to make their predictions, but now the the processing is left to the machines. The fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning have seen huge growth in the last five years as companies look to analyse the large volumes of data they have been collecting, and the AI is able to spot inefficiencies, synergies, and gaps in the market that would have been impossible only a few years ago.
As the intelligence of our digital tools improve, more and more work can be performed cheaper and more effectively by machines. This is a boon to businesses, where employee salaries are generally the most costly expense, but the march towards automation will put many people out of work and could cause problems for civil society.
Over a third of workers are expected to have their jobs replaced by automation in the near future, with automation is most likely to impact jobs that involve repetitive tasks, numerical analysis, or little creative or social intelligence.
Factory workers are already being replaced by robots on a massive scale at firms such as Foxconn, we already select our own orders from a touch screen at fast food restaurants like McDonalds, and it is no secret Uber is looking to provide driverless cars and put taxi drivers out of business. Automation is already here, and yet society seems unprepared with most people under the illusion that it will only affect other people’s jobs.
Our political institutions, the rule of law, human rights, the banking system, our education system – and even capitalism itself – are products of the industrial age. We have learnt to navigate the industrial economy as individuals, and as societies we can exert some control to define its shape and limits. But we have already moved into the digital age, and society needs to understand and adapt.