8 May 2018

Ahead of presenting at this year’s Future of Work Summit 2018, Partner and joint head of the employment team Dominic Holmes spoke to Gabriella Jeakins about automation and its potential impact on the workforce, and the tech skills that will be required in an automated world.

What skills do you see as the most in-demand in tech currently?

One consistent theme that is being talked about is the move from “STEM” to “STEAM” skill sets. It has long been recognized that our education system needs to produce more people with an aptitude in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), to meet the requirements of the future world of work. To this, we can now add “arts” — the “A” in “STEAM.”

“Arts” can be defined quite broadly and will encompass a range of attributes that complement STEM skills.  In its most obvious form, people who have an aptitude for creativity and design will provide the impetus for future tech innovation.

However, those who have a wider appreciation of the ethical and wider societal impact associated with technological advances have much to contribute. Complex algorithms now make decisions with potentially life-altering consequences, whether that relates to parole applications for convicted criminals or job applications for those seeking to progress their careers. This brings with it the risk that machines may make bad or biased decisions that deprive someone of their liberty or the chance to earn a living. Tech also provides us with opportunities to advance medicine and food production through genetic modification and cloning, but some people are understandably uncomfortable with that.

As the pace of progression quickens, important moral and ethical questions are rightly being raised about the potential longer-term consequences of our reliance on technology and what happens if things go wrong. The tech world needs people who can evaluate those issues and feed their analysis into the development or modification of technology.

How is automation going to change the workforce over the next five to ten years?

It has the potential to be transformational. In many cases, machines are able to perform certain tasks more efficiently, reliably and consistently than humans. They do not take time off sick, go on holiday or strike in protest.

In my own profession, some types of legal work are already being automated. My own firm, Taylor Vinters, is incubating a legal tech business, ThoughtRiver, which uses clever algorithms to automate risk analysis of contracts. This type of technology, if used in the right way, will ultimately benefit clients and free up lawyers to spend more time providing strategic advice that clients value most.

Much will depend on how willing businesses are to spend time and money in identifying potential applications for automation within their organisations and then actually implementing the technology. They will need to be satisfied that investment in automation will provide appropriate financial returns or other long-term benefits. Importantly, they will also need to trust the automated processes and the decisions/actions that AI systems take.

Of course, automation is hardly a new phenomenon. Human labour has long been replaced by technology (from the Industrial Revolution to the introduction of robotic arms in factories). We have become comfortable with this form of automation, as we know how it works and can generally override the system if it malfunctions or produces undesirable outcomes.

With AI, it is more challenging. I have written elsewhere that to get the most out of such technology humans must relinquish some control and allow a machine to learn, correcting and improving its outcomes as it processes ever larger quantities of data. Ultimately, the success of widespread AI depends on creating an environment of trust. Developing transparent or explainable systems is key to ensuring that people have a better understanding of how algorithms make automated decisions.

As technology has progressed, humans have ultimately learned to adapt and find new types of work. I fully anticipate that the same will happen here and we should not underestimate the continuing value of human labour in the future workforce. Human creativity and “soft skills” such as empathy and developing human relationships will still be vital in many lines of work. People like dealing with people. Automation can augment what humans do and complete tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous much more quickly and safely. It is this collaborative relationship between man and machine that will redefine the workplace for future generations.

What impact do you think automation will have on diversity and inclusion in the workplace? What needs to be done to ensure it doesn’t lead to further inequality?

Technology has significant potential in improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For example, in certain scenarios, assistive robotics could be used to encourage greater participation at work for older or disabled people, helping them to pursue rewarding careers and make valuable contributions in the workplace.

In another context, we are already seeing the widespread use of automated decision-making in recruitment processes. Sifting through high volumes of job applications from candidates will often a disproportionate amount of time and talented applicants may be overlooked due to human fallibility or unintentional bias. AI can now be implemented to review application forms and produce a short-list for interview.

This brings some obvious benefits, but there are potential pitfalls as well. Automated decisions are not immune from the risk of unintentional discriminatory outcomes which, if left unmonitored, may have a detrimental impact workplace diversity and inclusion.

Longer term, there are inter-generational issues that need to be considered. Younger workers may find it hard to get entry level jobs (and may be competing against machines). Alongside this, increased life expectancy and lower pension returns may mean that older workers wish to prolong their careers.

Employers should consider taking steps to ensure that workers at all stages of their careers can derive mutual benefits from working together and from working with technology. For example, younger and older workers might be paired together in two-way mentoring schemes or more formal job-sharing arrangements, to work side-by-side for mutual benefit. It goes without saying that employees who are asked to work alongside technology need proper training on how to use it. For those who find that their work is replaced by a machine, where possible they should be given opportunities to retrain to do something else.

What does future leadership look like?

I think that the most effective future leaders will be those who recognise the potential value of automation, in the specific context of their own organisations and sectors.

They will spend some time thinking about how technology can augment their workforce over the next 5 to 10 years. What tasks or processes might be done more efficiently or reliably by machines rather than humans? How can they better make use of data they already collect and process to improve financial performance, enhance existing products or services or offer new ones?

These leaders will engage with tech developers who may be able to create bespoke solutions to meet their specific needs (and may even employ them in-house). They will use data scientists to exploit and analyse the huge volumes of information they already have.

Alongside this, they will also consider the long-term impact of automation on future resourcing requirements and communicate openly with existing employees about the future. Effective consultation with the workforce will help to maintain good staff morale and productivity, by addressing any underlying concerns about job security and being clear about how employees will be given the skills to work alongside any new technology.

What will be your key message at the Future of Work Summit 2018 and what are you hoping to learn?

Automation will certainly change human resources as we know it.  The organisations that manage that change successfully will be those who recognise what tasks machines can do significantly better than humans and automate those things only.  Focusing human effort on activities that humans do best will result in a happier, more engaged and more productive workforce overall. This requires a longer-term people strategy that goes beyond the usual succession planning, together with open dialogue with the existing workforce about the benefits of automation on what it means for them.

If you are interested in exploring automation further then join Dominic and other leading experts at this year’s Future of Work Summit on 14th June at London Tech Week as they discuss how the automated world will impact human resources as we currently know it.