The current debate about the future of work mainly evolves around the role of globalization and technological innovation. The key question, however, should not be how many jobs could be lost to machines in the near future, but how firms should adapt their work environment to harness their workers’ full potential, argues Werner Eichhorst in a recent op-ed for the World Commerce Review.
While many routine-heavy occupations – from manufacturing jobs to financial services – will certainly be automated to an extent that is technically feasible, economically efficient and socially accepted, genuinely human traits will gain importance. These include social interaction, creativity, initiative, reasoning and learning, negotiating and coordination, complex problem-solving, analytical, critical thinking, and care. Humans will be able and required to “craft and interpret their jobs more substantially”, writes Eichhorst:
Technology does not change the fact that work is with humans, and humans have to cope with themselves and each other. The fundamentals of human relations, productivity, cooperation, struggles about boundaries remain. What can be seen as of today is the fact the future role of human work challenges the way work has been organized so far. The quality of the outcome, the service or the product, is intimately related to the quality of the work environment, the processes and structures.
Since traditional hierarchies undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment in a broader sense, Eichhorst envisions a concept that draws on the principle of a “workshop, with crafts in many fields but less managerial intervention”:
Craftsmen and craftswomen are attentive, stubborn, experienced, responsible, quality-driven, committed, they know what to do and to adjust incrementally based on intuition and experience. In a workshop, coordination and collaboration are developed in a flexible, less hierarchical way, both community-oriented and autonomy-friendly way at the same time. Of course, this requires independent, skilled individuals on the one hand, and a working climate based on trust.
In such a setting, strict monitoring of workers who can be seen as “mature professionals” should be avoided. At the same time, individual incentives such as bonus and reward systems would be increasingly counterproductive.
To some extent, the reward lies in work itself and co-ownership could become an important source of motivation and commitment. Firms of the future can be seen as collaborative workshops that combine expertise and talents, and share risks. This is better done on par.
According to Eichhorst, this craft-like type of work would be conceivable at different skill levels and in various sectors, beyond high-skilled professional work or traditional crafts. Although some elements of this principle can already be seen in emerging organizational models, many firms are yet reluctant to give up well-established managerial routines. Eichhorst’s bottom line: “Those who work know what to do. Just let them do their job.”