Digital technologies have already transformed our personal lives. Now they’re changing how we work.
Chatbots with artificial intelligence capabilities have taken over many traditional duties of customer service agents. Security personnel use digital “playbooks” powered by machine learning to triage their threat detection efforts. Corporate accounting teams are regaining a third of their time as digital workflows replace manual processes. Developers may soon start tasking deep-learning algorithms to write code.
As many as 375 million workers will need to switch jobs by 2030 as a result of the mass digitization of work, according to McKinsey research. These changes are only accelerating, says Erik Brown, a senior director at West Monroe Partners, a Chicago-based tech consulting firm.
Companies investing in digital transformation need to think harder about job transformation.
“In a few years it will be hard to find a job that’s not augmented by AI,” says Brown. “Think about financial services and fraud detection or risk exposure in investments. AI will be used by utility companies to predict how weather will impact energy demand, and by insurance companies to process claims. And there will be a lot of jobs in education, teaching people how to use their business knowledge to train algorithms.”
Companies investing in digital transformation need to think harder about job transformation. As automation and digitization free more workers from busywork, organizations have an important opportunity to improve the employee experience by rethinking the meaning and context of their work.
“We need to shift our thinking to how we work alongside AI moving forward,” says Brown. “That’s how these jobs are going to evolve.”
Reaching the disengaged
AI and machine learning aren’t the only catalysts, of course. Rapid adoption of cloud services, mobile and IoT technologies, and business automation tools are also shifting business workflows from people to machines, leaving organizations to sort out which human roles need to be reconfigured or replaced, and which new ones will arise to meet different needs and skills.
Corporate upskilling and reskilling programs represent one step in that direction. Sixty-two percent of U.S. executives say they will need to retrain or replace at least 25% of their current workers by 2023 because of the impact of digital technologies. AT&T has committed $1 billion to retrain half of its 280,000-person workforce in digital skills. PwC launched a similar initiative in 2018 to upskill all 50,000 of its U.S. employees.
However, closing digital skills gaps and posting new job openings doesn’t address the main challenge: Companies need to design better jobs if they wish to attract and retain great people. A recent MIT study on the future of work, for example, notes that “the persistent growth in the quantity of jobs has not correlated to an equivalent growth in the quality of jobs for the majority of workers.”
The reasons are mostly systemic. Employment levels are near historic highs today, but job satisfaction lags far behind. Two-thirds of U.S. workers say they’re not engaged by their work, according to Gallup. Disengaged workers, in turn, cost employers an estimated $483 billion to $605 billion per year in lost productivity.
While the quality of work experience matters for all employees, it’s crucial for attracting younger workers, says William Tincup, president of RecruitingDaily.com. Millennials and Gen Z will comprise the bulk of the workforce in the age of AI, but they have very different job expectations than their more senior colleagues.
“Everything has always been personalized for them,” says Tincup. “It’s a generation where a custom fit is the norm. The transformation with jobs that needs to happen is hyper-personalization to a specific work team.”
Many organizations talk a good game when it comes to redesigning job roles, Tincup says, but few are committing the personnel and resources to make it happen. “Most organizations pay it lip service and say it’s working,” he adds.
When managers are given an opportunity to make a job more engaging, they often do the opposite by adding more repetitive tasks.
New research reveals another problem with job design. Even when managers are given an opportunity to make a job more engaging, they often do the opposite by adding more repetitive tasks, according to a study by Australia’s Centre for Transformative Work Design (CTWD). Similarly, when problems arise with work performance, managers typically focus on changing the employee instead of considering the structure of the job itself, says Daniela Andrei, a CTWD research fellow.
Give them autonomy
The most critical element of an engaging, well-designed job is autonomy. “In organizations that are good at creating enriched jobs, people have autonomy in how they organize their tasks,” Andrei says. “Decision-making is relegated to the team level, and teams have the opportunity to self-organize and decide how they’re going to fulfill responsibilities to customers.”
Academic research offers a related proof point about job autonomy. A 2019 Journal of Applied Psychology study of HR personnel who drafted job descriptions found that 67% of those with high levels of job autonomy designed the most “enriching” jobs. Only HR professionals who had specific expertise in job design crafted more enriching roles. HR staffers with low levels of job autonomy, meanwhile, wrote the “most boring” job descriptions.
Cultural elements factor significantly—but less directly—into successful work design. Workplaces that prioritize job engagement tend to have eight common characteristics, according to Joost Minnaar, co-founder of the job design consultancy Corporate Rebels. They include:
- Designing roles based on individual talents and strengths, not descriptions and titles
- Creating an “ask anything” culture of openness and transparency
- Decentralizing decision-making through a minimal bureaucracy
- Embracing continual experimentation and adaptation
Minaar cites Atlassian, Basecamp, Netflix, and Patagonia as exemplars of this trend, but notes that they are still very much the exception, not the rule.
Lessons from a tomato packer
While innovative job design may be a new priority in the age of AI, it’s not a new concept. Some of the most successful examples of job design and worker autonomy come from old-school businesses.
The Morning Star Company, the world’s largest tomato processor, was founded nearly 30 years ago on the principle of employee self-management. Employees defined their goals, made their own decisions, and held themselves accountable in many ways. What started as a one-person tomato-hauling operation now boasts more than 600 full-time employees and $700 million in annual sales.
“Morning Star still operates according to the same principles,” says Doug Kirkpatrick, a member of the startup team when Morning Star launched its tomato-packing operations in 1990. Kirkpatrick is now a partner at the management consultancy NuFocus Strategic Group. “The company grew from zero to become the dominant player in our industry. It measures employee trust and happiness, and scores quite high on both metrics.”
While redesigning work can require major organizational and cultural change, it doesn’t need to happen all at once, says Minnaar. Job transformation projects can be initiated by small teams who have the ability to experiment with different ways of working that fit their organization.
“They can figure out which digital technologies and new ways of working can help to make their work more fun,” he says. “Then they can scale the change in a more organic fashion across the organization—kind of like a movement in society.”