Major challenges face the world of work. These include the impacts of AI and other digital technologies. In a new paper (Spencer, 2023), I address these challenges head-on but also offer some vision about how work might be lightened.
The focus on making work lighter is a key aspect of my broader research (Spencer, 2022). It shows how a better future of work can be created.
The stress on ‘vision’ is important because it offers hope for improvement and a desired set of goals to strive for. In the case of my own research, I argue for a future with less and better work – a world that gives people good work to do as well as ample free time.
For HR practitioners, I offer some broader context for the management of work including the possibilities for automation.
I also envision a brighter future: one that HR managers and leaders could help to promote and even help to bring about, provided they are willing to think beyond the present state of things.
There are five ‘big ideas’ that warrant attention in future of work debates.
1. Work matters
The first is that work matters to the lives we lead. Work can be a drudge and be pursued for its monetary rewards. But it can also uplift us and add to the quality of our lives.
The important point is to move beyond simple binary views of work as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. Ideas that eulogise work miss the costs associated with its performance, such as the costs of low pay, high work intensity, low autonomy and boredom.
Equally, work cannot be seen as just an instrumental activity. David Graeber (2018) famously argued that many jobs were ‘bullshit’. To read his book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, is to think that most people loathe their jobs and strive for lives without work.
In reality, many workers are drawn to work for positive reasons linked to factors such as sociality and creativity. This is not to deny the costs of work but rather to see these costs as determined by the environment and content of work.
Why does this idea matter? Because it shows how work can be improved in qualitative terms. Rather than resign ourselves to drudgery, we need to demonstrate how progress can be made in the quality of our working lives through changes in how work is organised.
Remembering how much work matters also shows how forces such as automation pose a threat to the quality of work.
Where technology harms the quality of work, it will impair workers’ lives even if they remain in work. Workers who face redundancy will also be impacted not just through the lack of income but also through the lack of access to work they value. Work, in short, shapes people directly, for good as well as ill.
2. Work/life balance
The second key idea is that time away from work is important. We know from research that long work hours can be harmful for health and wellbeing (Bannai and Tamakoshi, 2014).
We also know from recent experiments that shorter work hours can be beneficial, not just for businesses but also for workers (Autonomy, 2023).
Trials of a four-day work week with no reduction of pay have been shown to boost both workers’ productivity and wellbeing. In the latter case, workers have been able to pursue and develop their lives outside of work.
The pursuit of more free time can be viewed as a route to a more balanced way of living, one that respects people’s interests in pursuing work that means something to them but also gives consideration to their lives as non-workers. The case for work-time reduction, in essence, is based on giving people more time for themselves.
The third idea is about the goals to be achieved in society. These goals include enhancing the quality of work while reducing work hours.
"Work, in short, shapes people directly, for good as well as ill"
Historically, society has made progress in achieving these goals. Higher productivity has led to shorter working weeks and more rewarding work. But this progress has stalled in recent years.
Work hours have stagnated (the five-day working week has persisted, for example). Low-quality work has also endured: research shows how work intensity, for example, has increased in many modern jobs (Green et al, 2022).
The goal of lightening work, in quantitative and qualitative terms, needs to be renewed and promoted as part of a broader progressive agenda for reform.
A consideration of societal goals leads on to the fourth idea. This is the need to imagine a different future of work. It means rethinking ideas around automation and work organisation in ways that allow for improvement in the quality of people’s lives at work and beyond.
Automation is commonly viewed as a threat to jobs, yet jobs persist in society. This is because technology helps to create jobs, not just destroy them.
Arguably, the bigger threat from automation comes from declines in the quality of work, with work becoming more robot-like. Discrimination via forms of algorithmic management presents another cause for concern.
But automation should be about achieving other outcomes. It should be about minimising pain from work and increasing free time. The AI debate should be about ways to make work lighter for all.
So, how are we to create a better future? What is to be done by HR managers and others to make this future possible? This provides the basis of the fifth idea, namely the need for greater democracy in how work is organised.
Workplace democracy is an old idea. It predates modern HR management (HRM). It links to ideas of worker voice and the role of unions in the workplace. It speaks to broader goals of allowing those involved in work a say over how they work.
The relevance for automation is that democratic conditions could open the way for technology to be used to improve work quality and shorten work hours. Workers will have less to fear from automation if they have more of a stake in its use and the distribution of its rewards. Indeed, by widening democracy at work, workers could come up with new ideas that help to further automate work.
Democracy could extend to the creation of works councils, worker involvement on company boards and direct ownership of capital assets by workers.
"HR managers are well-placed to identify the risks and opportunities for AI"
By democratising work, the scope to make it lighter is extended to the benefit of workers and society as a whole. Though here there is a need for a vision of a future that challenges existing capital-owned forms of work organisation and capital-oriented forms of technology.
From research to reality
HR managers may baulk at the radicalism of the above ideas. They may dismiss these ideas as mere ‘blue-sky’ thinking as there is a clear gap between them and the realities of modern HRM. But this only confirms the need to challenge these realities and make room for alternative ideas.
Practical recommendations would be to embrace experiments such as a four-day work week. These experiments have proved successful, and their wider rollout could be supported by HR managers and leaders.
Similarly, they could use their power and influence to shape agendas around automation, pushing for technologies that add to work quality while reducing work time.
HR managers are well-placed to identify the risks and opportunities for AI and to ensure that the human-interest is maintained in the use of AI at work.
Of course, modern HRM is shaped by goals such as cost reduction that limit its reform. These limits cannot be underestimated; however, they are not inevitable or permanent. For those HR managers and leaders interested in shaping a better future of work, they can be (and must be) overcome.
David Spencer is professor of economics and political economy at Leeds University Business School.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.