The End of Work, or the Beginning of Radical Efficiency?

Originally posted in Enlighted blog 4/4/16

First predictions around the emergence of new technologies are strange – they can be way off base but mysteriously contain an impossibly prescient grain of truth. Often it’s simply a matter of our getting the timing wrong. Take the “paperless office” idea that surfaced when the internet first started. The initial impact of advanced electronic communication was that paper consumption increased, peaking at about 2008, then began to decline, reaching pre 1994 levels by 2014. Now paper based communications seem to be increasingly a relic of the past, and for good reason. So the prediction was mostly accurate, but off by a few decades.

Lately memes about the End of Work are firing in the synapses of the global brain, and not for the first time in history. For instance, electrification in the early 20th century unleashed a flood of new labor saving devices that promised sweet salvation from soul-crushing labor to one sector of society – housewives. What happened instead was simply that some labor was transferred to machines and domestic labor was rather more redefined than utterly transformed. The “science” of home economics was duly invented to help homemakers to gain efficiency in their efforts, but ultimately someone still had to organize the clothes and dishes and run the vacuum cleaner. Disillusionment with this state of affairs contributed greatly to women entering the workforce en masse and seeking equal rights and pay, a process that began in the first few decades of the 20th century and continues today.

So whether there is any truth or not to a vision of the future where we evolve to become like the obese helpless slug people in Pixar’s Wall-E remains to be seen, and one could fret about the long term effects of sitting in front of a laptop all day (like I’m doing now), especially when you consider that our bodies evolved over millions of years in the savannah to do physical work, hunting, gathering, and escaping predators. And we’re not the only species that requires physical work for psychic stability. Faced with widespread unemployment, elephants in Burma evidently suffer stress, loss of morale, and weight gain just like we do.

Those of us who think deeply about and create the built environment have a lot to contemplate these days as the fundamental nature of work changes. We’re tasked with understanding how the environment affects and is affected by things like productivity, health and wellness, creativity, collaboration, and the organization of corporate structures. As we transition into what Jeremy Rifkin calls the Third Industrial Revolution, we’re seeing a persistent slowdown in global GDP, and a flat curve on aggregate efficiency, or the ratio of actual work to useful work. From an economic perspective, part of the problem is in the metric of GDP itself, which was created to measure industrial and agricultural output, and not the useful product of communications technologies created and proliferated by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, most of which doesn’t cost the consumer anything. Despite many proposals, we haven’t yet come up with a suitable replacement for GDP.

One perspective is to examine the mental models of what type of person has an evolutionary advantage in the working world over the last 100 years or so. Louis Menand, in this piece in New Yorker, The Efficiency Trap, provides a brief history of the evolution of self-improvement literature, pointing out that we fool ourselves in equating personal growth with the acquisition of characteristics that assure our suitability for work alone rather than for life in general. In the first industrial revolution, where physical strength and agility were still important attributes, one’s output was easily measured by how much physical product got produced per unit of labor and the personality traits best suited for work were persistence, stamina, and the ability to habituate to highly repetitive tasks. In the second industrial revolution – the transition to the service economy – workers who were eminently likeable, could communicate with customers and clients and win lucrative contracts were highly valued. In the third industrial revolution – today’s information economy –customer relations are outsourced and employers want people who are “hybrid” animals, with equally high IQ and EQ. According to Australian entrepreneur Michael Priddis, “Computers are good at the jobs we find hard, and bad at the jobs we find easy.”

Today the ability to interpret data and make good use of it is a crucial capability, and many new job descriptions contain the word “data”– data scientist, data analyst, even Chief Data Officer. This also includes the ability to use data about the workplace and use it to constantly improve the work environment, an activity increasingly accruing to the HR function. And the HR function is being transformed dramatically as well, as in the information economy, corporations are increasingly focused on their “human” resources rather than their physical plants. They are also increasingly focused on physical plant as if affects the humans in it. The new role of Chief Performance Officer could rely on emotional data from employees, collected persistently and analyzed to measure the underlying drivers of efficiency and productivity.

With increased mobility and employee turnover, corporations have a considerable incentive to make employees feel that they can take ownership of the workplace, including control of comfort factors and health and wellbeing. A powerful way to do this is to give them increasing access to data about the workplace and the behavior and interactions of the people in it. This is not an easy task to be sure, especially considering privacy concerns, but as hierarchies flatten in business structures and decision making becomes increasingly decentralized, we’ll get used to sacrificing privacy for control and flexibility.

Mr. Rifkin points out that because much of the world has not yet transitioned out of second industrial revolution models, aggregate efficiency has stagnated at about 15% globally for many years. But he theorizes that as we evolve further into the third industrial revolution, we’ll reach levels approaching 40%. This of course includes radical automation of many current job functions, and many if not most of these will not immediately be replaced with new jobs. Robots will eat many jobs, partly because they can, and partly because they should. The platform for this efficiency increase will be IoT, which, true to historical patterns of connective innovation, brings together advances in communications, energy, and transport.

What will this kind of radical efficiency mean to how we work? It’s difficult to fully imagine, given the unprecedented levels of technology, economic and environmental transformation we’re dealing with now and will deal with in the near future, but it seems clear that we need to stay within our physiological limits, and that we need to continue to understand them better. Our bodies did not evolve optimally to operate punch presses, drive cars, or sit at desks in offices under bad lighting all day, so whatever paradigm of work we create for ourselves carries a cost in physical and emotional stress. New kinds of scientific inquiry are emerging and beginning to be applied to behavior as it relates to the built environment, including embodied cognition- the idea that our environment influences how we think and behave. We’ll need new ways of interpreting all the data we’re beginning to collect, and new theoretical models to help us understand it. It’s increasingly risky to plan and operate workspaces based on models that evolved under previous economic conditions. Fortunately we’re seeing tremendous opportunity to design smarter, more flexible, healthier workplaces with a vast array of new tools.