How tech is changing the way we work and play

People office
Research shows we're working and playing 'smarter'

The presence of digital technologies is opening up new areas of work and creating new industries.The UK now employs 850,000 information technology and telecommunications professionals[1] and throughout this paper we have offered examples of digital technologies driving increasing value across other industries.

In the past, the technological limit for computerisation appeared to be the ability of machines to handle highly variable, non-routine and cognitively complex tasks. There is no simple set of rules for how to manage a legal practice, for example. However, it appears that digital technologies are entering a new era of complexity.

Massive data sets, machine learning and other advances mean it is increasingly possible to break down large problems, such as driving a car into manageable challenges which can be modelled by computers. Dr Carl Benedikt Frey argues that this is already and will increasingly place a premium on three types of work in our society:[2]

  • Perception-rich activity – our ability to rapidly discern between objects and ideas in highly complex environments.
  • Creative Intelligence – computers and digital networks struggle to discern between and value creative ideas. Eric Schmidt put it that "There's something about humans that technologists always forget. Humans are creative and unpredictable".[3]
  • Social intelligence – our ability to understand people and the subtlety of their messages means that we can add the greatest value to computers when roles focus on understanding people.

These are the activities where human activity and digital technologies show the greatest complementaries. The significance of perception, creativity and communication-based work is important. It implies that training in arts and humanities, our ability to understand people, to think imaginatively, could be just as much of an enabler for the smart society as a good grasp of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Smarter coordination at work

Digital technologies are allowing us to re-think how we manage our workplaces. A trend identified by panellists was the increased use of digital to augment and improve people management practices.

Recruitment appears to be changing most quickly. It appears that using automated systems for applications and even algorithms to scan CVs is changing the role of the human resources department from delivering a recruitment process towards managing a process.

This is freeing up resources to invest when recruiting for a non-standard position, to invest in more in each face-to-face meeting with candidates or to look for the truly creative or distinctive individual.

Panellists suggested that this change on the side of employers is being matched by applicants embracing new technology. It was suggested that together this shift is improving the functioning of our labour market and delivering better matching between roles and employees.

The importance of metrics

Panellists suggested that data driven metrics are also becoming more significant performance management tools. Metrics reach far beyond estimates of the value of productive capacity and span indicators as diverse as company/ sector networks, locational information, as well as health and well-being measures.

Termed human capital metrics, over the next five to ten years we can expect the digital information which some managers have and use to support decisions will become the organisational norm.

Panellists also identified a second trend. Many organisations report a new generation are entering work is seeing new opportunities to introduce digital technologies.

Often termed 'Millennials', many are keen to use these to work more flexibly than before. There also appears to be a very high willingness among younger workers to either use their own devices (a trend known as Bring Your Own Devices, BYOD) or to invest their own money on technology to improve how they work.

'An incredible opportunity'

This trend was identified as an incredible opportunity for many organisations to unlock user-led solutions and to improve productivity. It appears that unlocking the next level of gains from this agenda will require major reconfiguration both of IT support infrastructures, but also in line management support. Survey evidence indicates that high users of technology are also likely to be caused the greatest stress by it.13

A vision of a future smart world of work has often been articulated. A combination of connected work devices, smart joined-up reporting systems and intelligent sensors can usher in a truly post-bureaucratic workplace, where, instead of hierarchical supervision and overly intrusive monitoring being the norm, everyone takes responsibility for the success of the whole and trust replaces suspicion as the default behaviour.[5]

Technology can be a 'leveller' by democratising the organisation and empowering employees at all levels with information. The frontline sales representative is not only equipped with all the real-time information that he needs for performing his job and making decisions on the spot, but also has as much access to information as senior management.

Open book organisations can now truly live up to the billing. These enhance the sense of parity and increase the motivation to participate and engage. Smarter coordination through platform technology fosters stronger collaborative organisational cultures, and thereby enhances commonality.

How we play is changing too

The emergence of on-line virtual communities is creating new opportunities for us to socialise and connect. The use statistics for UK social media hint at how highly people value these services. Facebook has 31.5 million UK users (24 million of whom log on each day) [6], Twitter has 15 million [7], and LinkedIn 10 million.[8]

These mass-use platforms offer people new ways to keep in touch with the people they are interested in. Here, or on blogs, we are able to passively push out information about our lives offering others the choice to interact with us or to ignore.

Now when we meet up our friends already know that we went to Hong Kong last month and can jump straight into discussing how it was.

Panellists contended that it would be down to users to ensure find ways to get the greatest benefits from the next wave of advances in social media. Key enablers identified here included users building a deeper appreciation of privacy implications associated with social media use as well users finding ways to prioritise and manage the flow of information from multiple social media platforms.

  • Working on the Towards a Smarter Society report in partnership with Samsung UK, Charles Levy is a Senior Economist at The Work Foundation and David Wong a Researcher at the Big Innovation Centre. Follow the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7 of the report.

References: [1] ONS (2013), EMP04: Employment by occupation. [2] Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M. (2013), The Future of Employment. [3] Glen Beck interview with Eric Schmidt, 24 February 2014. [4] Cornerstone (2013), The State of Workplace Productivity Report. [5] For more on post-bureaucratic organisations, see Heckscher, C. (1994), "Defining the post-bureaucratic type", in Heckscher, C. and Donnellon, A. (eds), The Post-bureaucratic Organization, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; and Grey, C. and Garsten, C. (2001), "Trust, control and post-bureaucracy", Organisation Studies, 22(2), pp.229–50. [6] [7] [8]