Where we do work will continue to be a major consideration in workforce planning, according to Dr Carl Benedict Frey, economist and director of the Future of Work programme at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Martin School.
Rather than the switch to remote working meaning the location of work becomes irrelevant, there is “nothing to suggest place will become less important in terms of where we do work”, he told delegates the CIPD’s Festival of Work conference.
Dr Frey is one of the authors of Oxford’s 2013 often-quoted research into the impact of artificial intelligence, which estimated that 47% of jobs are at risk of automation. He said the question for organisations now was what type of work should be done remotely and when.
“Remote working is not something that can be done in every job, or every industry. Our research suggests that on balance, onsite teams can produce more foundational, more disruptive innovations and discoveries than distributed teams.”
Rather than adopting a blunt hybrid working model that divides employees into coming into the office on certain days of the week, he advised organisations to consider location through the lens of their product lifecycles.
“In the early stages of idea generation, knowledge spillover matters a lot, so place matters a lot. This is when you want people in the office,” he explained.
“But once you’re moving into production and things are more standardised and routinised, then you can move to home.”
This could however mean that we see a resurgence in offshoring aspects of the production process, he added: “Technology will make this model increasingly feasible, even for non English-speaking countries. We have seen staggering improvements in machine translation in recent years.”
Organisations would increasingly need to consider their work location strategies alongside developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence, he told the conference.
Expanding on research from 2017, he explained that the types of roles susceptible to automation had expanded beyond simple manufacturing or clerical tasks. Logistics roles could become more susceptible to automation through advances in autonomous vehicles, while consumers are becoming more accepting of automated service in restaurants. Government support during this disruption through an “effective welfare state” would minimise the destabilising effect of these changes, he said.
Some designers have even begun using automated fashion models, made up from thousands of pictures, despite this being a job we associate with creativity.
— Festival of Work (@FestivalofWork) June 16, 2021
“Despite these advances, there are a number of areas where humans hold a competitive advantage and where their skills are more valuable as we move to greater automation and more hybrid work,”he added.
“But these are also the types of skills that benefit from in-person interaction, so these reinforce the importance of place.
“Most workplaces are geared towards productivity rather than innovation. We reproduce activities because these make us look productive, but this leads to diminishing returns. To get to the next level, we need to explore, to think, to randomly collide with other people – – these things don’t happen virtually.”
Dr Frey added that there was a case for employers to introduce mandatory office days to ensure that hybrid working did not discriminate against those who were less able to come to an office.
“People build up managerial capital by being in the office, and research shows that those that don’t have lower promotion rates. Organisations could end up with a significant diversity problem down the line if they don’t address this, and will want to be proactive about this,” he concluded.