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What is the value of work in the age of automation?

Source |  |  BY: David Smith, 

What’s your job really worth?

Is it how much money you make for you and your organization? Or is it the contribution you make to the world around you?

While traditionally our Western society has defined the value of work by the former (nurses, for example, are not highly paid, despite the critical nature of their job), I believe we’re moving towards a world where the latter is true.

I speak to people in financial services, for example. Previously the big banks had their pick of the Ivy League/Oxbridge grads, but now they tell me the most talented young people want to be part of organizations that contribute directly to social issues.

It’s a massive shift from the money-first attitudes of old I mentioned above. And if people care about the social impact of the companies they work for, it stands to reason those same principles will help determine where they spend their hard-earned money.

Brands like Uber have begun to learn this the hard way. Silicon Valley is usually held up as the pinnacle of enlightenment. Yet Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has now resigned in the wake of a month of scandals that has disenfranchised the company’s drivers, customers, employees and shareholders.

Customers have power, and if they don’t agree with the way your company is behaving you’re going to know about it.

So how can companies get the most out of the fourth industrial revolution without demeaning the value of their employees’ work?

Empowerment vs. exploitation

Automation has the power to completely transform the way we work. How we use that power will ultimately determine the type of society we live it.

Financial Times journalist Sarah O’Connor recently wrote about working for a company in which your boss is effectively an algorithm.

Referring to UberEats employees striking about a pay dispute in London last year, she described them as “workers without a workplace, striking against a company that does not employ them…managed not by people but by an algorithm that communicates with them via their smartphones…they are rebelling against an app update.”

The app update in question involved UberEats’ drivers – who have no set wages and are paid for each job they do – waking up one morning to see the reward-per-delivery had dropped.

No warning. No apology. No human input whatsoever.

And that’s the point here: we cannot let automation spell an end to the human touch.

The principle behind the gig economy that companies like Uber and Deliveroo provide is a noble one: empower people to be their own boss and work as much or as little as they choose.

But the automation technology that has enabled this new economy to thrive could also be its downfall.

Removing staff schedules and simply letting people log in when they want means more workers competing for business during peak times, resulting in fewer available jobs per user. Flexible working is supposed to have the opposite impact: enabling people to better plan and manage their workload around their personal lives. This seems like a step in the other direction.

Both Deliveroo and Uber have also come under fire for putting undue pressure on their ‘employees’ using automated updates. The former uses algorithms to closely monitor rider ‘performance’ and compare it to how fast it believes they should have been, while the latter has reportedly been sending its drivers ‘nudge’ messages encouraging them to work longer.


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