By Gloria Lombardi

Advanced automation is entering the workplace, with more technologies, such as artificial intelligence and robots, carrying out physical and cognitive tasks. Those emerging tools are eliminating, augmenting, or transforming many types of jobs.

What does this mean for the way we relate to work and for the future of our professions?

MARGINALIA speaks with digital workplace expert, Sharon O’Dea, co-founder of Lithos Partners, blogger at Intranetizen, and CIPR #AIinPR panel member. In this interview, O’Dea describes the key trends to consider when it comes to the changing nature of work. She shares her latest thinking and exploration of the impact of AI at work, and gives examples of disrupted professions and industries. She also dives into the ethical considerations around technology and diversity in the workplace.

Gloria Lombardi: What are the latest future of work trends?

Sharon O’Dea: Work is always a reflection of the trends that are happening in the wider world, around changes to technology and society. Our lives and workplaces are changing in rapid response to disruptive developments.

The very nature of work is changing. The growth of the gig economy, for example, but also legislative changes mean that what constitutes an ‘employee’, or someone who works, is transforming. A person could be a Uber driver in the morning and a Deliveroo rider in the afternoon. And, technically, they’re not an employee at either company.

At the same time, there are many consultants who work for multiple clients, maybe on short-term time projects and contracts.

So, the nature of who is and isn’t at work, and when we are at work, is transitioning. As is our relationship with technology, and what we want to achieve in our roles.

At the moment, I’m on a panel with the CIPR, looking at the impact of artificial intelligence on the communications profession. All manner of industries will be hugely transformed by automation; a lot of people’s roles will change, as will their tasks.

GL: How will AI and automation actually impact the future of work? Could you share some examples?

SO: The book, ‘The future of the professions’, by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, looks at the technological and societal changes that will affect many key occupations and professions, such as law and accountancy. While it’s impossible to predict the future exactly, there is a recognition that many services that we use outside and inside of work are becoming smarter and more targeted. Lots of repetitive tasks and analysis type of work could conceivably be done by AI in the years to come.

Looking at the PR profession, tasks such as media monitoring, evaluation, and planning, will likely become automated. And they already are in a relatively simple way.

We can often be quite blasé about the communication profession. We say that it’s all about creativity, words, thinking, talking, and understanding that how and what we say or do may emotionally impact people, making them more likely to think well of the company. While it’s certainly true that parts of communications practice are based around emotion, there are other parts that are all about process – which could be automated. So the communication profession is ripe for disruption.

There will be people negatively disrupted by emerging technologies. Potentially, fewer people will work in certain industries as machine learning, automated processes, and conversational bots become more commonplace. Many roles could potentially disappear forever. For example, in PR teams there might well be an employee who scans the newspapers in the morning and picks up relevant stories. All of that type of work could be done by AI in the future. That leaves the training path into professions, including communications, less clear than it was.

If humans are only needed for extremely detailed knowledge work, then all of the steps below that – all of the routes and opportunities to reaching that level of expertise – could be closed off. We need to think more carefully around what that means for learning and development.

But, at the same time, AI will make most people more effective. It will be almost a shift, similar to the advance in desktop computing; taking the grunt work out of work. When AI becomes integral to the workplace the mundane tasks, such as booking leave at work, could very easily be done by emerging technologies.

For most people, AI will simplify and streamline work; it will enable them to plan and measure more effectively.

Global law firms are currently going through tremendous disruption. Lots of the process driven legal work is already being placed by bots. The discovery and the reading of reams of documents done by paralegals, is going to be done by computers. This could potentially reach a point where the only real need for lawyers would be to do the extremely detailed contract type of work. The flip side, is that it reduces the marginal cost of delivery of knowledge as a product; it opens up the legal services to a much wider group of people who wouldn’t previously be able to afford them.

GL: What advice do you give to organisations that are somewhat lagging in terms of digital transformation and not even considering AI yet?

SO: Artificial intelligence will disrupt most work when it becomes less visible. It’s already present in many off the shelf technology products that enterprises buy and adopt. So I advise such organisations to buy and use smart applications., rather than trying to develop AI tech themselves.Companies can buy digital workplace products that analyse employees’ written communications and provide pointers on how they could improve it. These tools will become more and more common.

Organisations should actively explore where AI and bots can help. The challenge is to focus on what is the most effective way of delivering the organisational objectives. I suspect that it will end up being a classic hype curve where people will throw lots of money at AI.

There are some things that bots definitely do better than humans, but equally there are things that humans do considerably better than the computers. The trick is getting the balance right and understanding the best way to achieve the business’ needed and stated outcome.

GL: From an AI ethical perspective, there are some important considerations around the way AI is trained and developed. Using big data inherently risks feeding the AI with biases.

SO: Bots and AI can deepen inequality. In her book ‘Technically wrong’, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, describes how many algorithms are often a reflection of the creators. At present, that usually means white men.

The data used to train systems, and particularly training artificial intelligence, is often based on the experiences of a relatively narrow section of the society. Famously, there was an example where the AI was trained using automated image scanning and then it was to describe the content, which was fine for many objects. But when it came to black men, it labelled them ‘gorilla’ – that was extremely embarrassing and fairly horrific for everyone involved.

That sort of situation comes about because the photo sets that developers give the system to train on are based on the pictures that are in the possession of white people.

There are also gender, ethnic, and social diversity issues to consider. Many technology firms, in general, are heavily slanted towards men. Also, many developers come from a narrow section of society, which tends to be relatively middle class backgrounds. Therefore, their approaches reflect their understanding of the world and what they believe users need.

But, when you have much more diversity, you can bring more perspectives in the team. That leads to a better social product, and better understanding of how it could appeal to a wider range of people – it meets the needs of individuals who aren’t like you.

GL: How is the physical workplace evolving? How does the digital economy impact it?

SO: As I said at the outset, our ways of working reflect our society. The changing nature of work means what constitutes a workplace is changing too.

I’ve seen a clear tipping point – certainly amongst my social circle – in the proportion of people who work at least part of the week at home. So, offices are changing to reflect that trend. We’re starting to see a lot of co-working spaces, such us WeWork, appear – these places provide more flexible ways of growing and scaling a company. But they also give people a different taste of what constitutes the workplace.

Within workplaces themselves, you see far less sitting at desks to use a desktop or laptop computer.

And, because the technology has become more mobile, people are working on the road a lot more. As a reflection, many physical spaces shrink, and evolve to recognising that people do indeed get up and move, and do different work in different physical situations. Sometimes you might just want to take a call, or do some decent thinking away from your desk. And, there’s a recognition that different types of tasks are better done in different types of physical situations. We do some work better at home. For some tasks, we need to be in a room with other people and meet, and talk, and discuss things face-to-face.

GL: Any final consideration to leave our MARGINALIA readers with?

SO: The changing nature of work requires a cultural shift and the recognition that change isn’t always positive for individuals. Some will be net losers, while others will be net winners.

There is a need to support organisational change that comes with digital transformation in order to win hearts and minds, and bring people along with you. But any investment in technology, or in other infrastructure, has to be known to be worthwhile. Because, you need people to use the tool properly and get the most out of it.

In any kind of digital transformation, it’s only partly about technology. Technology is absolutely important, but fundamentally it’s about real people, with real emotions and real needs. We need to understand what workers want and like, and ensure that decisions around technology are based on the needs of users.