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The future of work

Increased use of intelligent technology will pose fundamental questions about our future ways of working.

Ascent asks three experts about the challenges and opportunities arising from greater collaboration.

Dr Rikke Duus, Research Associate & Senior Teaching Fellow, University College London’s School of Management
Mike Cooray, Professor of Practice, Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School
Frédéric Oblé, Head of R&D High Processing & Volume division at Worldline by Atos
With reports predicting that many jobs will soon be performed by robots, how can workers be reassured about their future?
Rikke Duus

We have all read about how intelligent technology will take over some people’s jobs. There is a threat that mass automation of jobs will compound the inequality we see in many countries already and further centralize power to a small number of companies. On the flip side, the jobs that disappear and become replaced by technology will free up workers’ time from these more basic and mundane tasks in order to fulfill more humancentric purposes. I believe we should focus on how intelligent technology will support collaboration with humans, helping organizations be more efficient as industry becomes more competitive. In manufacturing, technology has supported workers for some time, not entirely replaced them.

Human-machine collaboration is a challenge for many organizations because it requires a different set of tools and competencies. It asks fundamental questions about operational infrastructure and decision making processes. Without systems in place to facilitate collaboration, or to reward people, there is an increased risk of failure.

Mike Cooray
Frédéric Oblé

It’s not just about robotics or AI. How can I live in a progressive world with more technology? Could I work with a cobot? I believe we are in an intermediate era between human-to-machine and machine-to-human. The robot, the cobot, AI will move us into the era of machine-to- human. This is a new paradigm. Our children will have to learn how to program machines to work with humans.

Will this new paradigm require a fundamental rethink of approaches to learning?
Mike Cooray

Technology will require us to collaborate with systems producing greater amounts of data. That will mean more experiential learning, working in teams and taking on real world challenges. Entrepreneurship is an output of optimized technology, enabling businesses to generate ideas and bring products to market more quickly, so the key to this will be how we function in an entrepreneurial and networked environment.

What if my child wants to be a farmer? They will have to learn to cultivate their land sustainably, efficiently and profitably – will they also have to learn about big data?

Frédéric Oblé
Mike Cooray

It is unlikely that we will require farmers to become technologists; their expertise will remain in farming. However, they will have access to a wider community of technologists and experts who will be partners in a wider farming ecosystem. What we will promote are dynamic, collaborative environments giving access to new knowledge, and where entrepreneurial skills can be connected to each other. Innovation hubs will change how people learn, and how they access expertise.

Technology will also democratize learning, which will benefit many. However, it won’t entirely replace traditional learning – even in a digital world, people will still want to learn from people. And it’s questionable whether AI will be able to understand – as opposed to just recognizing – emotions and empathy, which are fundamental to effective learning and how we engage as humans.

Rikke Duus
What are the challenges of greater human-machine collaboration?
Rikke Duus

Wearable technology can of course have a positive impact on the way we lead our lives. However, if we invite technology onto our bodies, we will have to be willing to share everyday decision-making and, to some extent, be told what to do. It’s the same in the workplace: we want technology to provide insight so we can function optimally. But workers will still want to retain free will to make decisions.

The main question here is trust. Workers have to demonstrate their efficiency, increasingly through machine monitoring. But who is controlling the machine? Is it human, or a meta-machine? Can we trust a machine if we don’t know who is behind it?

Frédéric Oblé
Rikke Duus

Wearable technology, such as smart badges and bands, is already used in some organizations to monitor and record how employees interact, work together – even where in the organization they spend their time. The argument is that those who have more interactions are more collaborative and creative and therefore contribute more to the progress of the organization. This kind of technology will create a culture where workers can never be unseen: how will I please the system? And some will, of course, manipulate their behavior to suit the system. Organizations and machine monitoring systems will have to learn how each other works.

Will increased collaboration make for happier workers?
Rikke Duus

Technology has already washed away the line between our working life and personal life. It’s not about being a good employee; it is not natural for us to be ‘always on’. For many workers this is a source of stress. As technology becomes embedded into all sorts of jobs, there will need to be clearer guidelines about how we manage a life where work and personal merge together. We have already seen French companies being required to define their employees’ ‘right to disconnect’ from technology.

We have digital cheetahs and digital penguins. Cheetahs define happiness in terms of their comfort and capability with technology. That’s a form of empowerment that technology has provided. But businesses will always have penguins, who will be unhappy within a fully digitized industry. However, these two groups will co-habit in order to develop new knowledge structures that drive innovation. Collective tacit knowledge from both digital cheetahs and digital penguins will be key to the creation of new world organizations. With it comes new types of dynamic skills, networked partnerships and collective outputs that will contribute to the redefinition of work in the future.

Mike Cooray

The skills your kids will need

The speed of technological change means fewer workers will be hired for a specific skillset.
Marianne Hewlett of the Atos Scientific Community explores what businesses of the future will be looking for.
Marianne Hewlett
Atos Scientific Community

Over the next decade, workers will no longer be hired for a defined set of skills. Advances in big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation mean that hard skills are becoming obsolete at a rate of four per cent per year. In little over a decade, even a highly qualified employee may find that half their initial skillset has become irrelevant.

“There will always be a place for technical expertise,” says Marianne Hewlett, a member of the Atos Scientific Community focusing on the future of work and the impact of technology on individuals, organizations and society. “But in a business environment that increasingly values innovation, flexibility and leanness, there will be a greater emphasis on soft skills.”

AI and automation will go hand in hand with the development of soft skills. “A virtual assistant can be trained to analyze data,” says Hewlett, “but soft skills are essential to determine the context and be creative with the output.

That requires critical thinking – the ability to assess, persuade and plan. Judgment is often thought of as a skill that requires life experience, but young people can be great judges because they don’t suffer from the biases that develop with age.”

The most in-demand employees of the future will be self-starters and self-managers: “It will no longer be a company’s responsibility, for example, to make sure you update your skills,” Hewlett explains. “A commitment to lifetime learning will become an integral part of a worker’s self-development, accompanied by a growth mindset which values adaptability and teamwork.”

For the Millennial generation that has grown up in a connected world, a key skill will be to recognize the need for a balance between ‘always on’ and switching off. “The employee of the future will of course be technologically literate and comfortable in a technologically sophisticated world,” says Hewlett. “But they will also appreciate what being human is all about and have the social skills to interact meaningfully with other people.”

Key skills needed Beyond 2020

Complex problem solving

In the digital age, a problem can rarely be solved by one discipline on its own. Incisive, multidisciplinary thinking is needed.

Critical thinking

The soft skills of assessment, persuasion and judgment will not be rendered obsolete by technological change.


Teamwork will play an even greater role as business is conducted on a global scale, using virtual platforms, and across languages and cultures.

Information and media literacy

Which sources of information can be trusted? Is a media outlet reliable? Advanced analytical skills will be critical.

Social skills

Skilled and sophisticated communication, both face to face and through remote channels, will build trusted relationships and enable effective dispute resolution.


Recruiters will hire less on a candidate’s academic record and experience and more on an assessment of adaptability. In three to five years’ time, that person will probably need to learn new skills.

Creative Thinking

The ability to identify and assess a problem then find a solution, sometimes from an unrelated field, will be highly valued.

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