The Technology Revolution’s Continuing Threat To the Workplace, By Uddin Ifeanyi


…if our experience with the politics of it is anything to go by, chances are that the downsides will weigh heavily on man as a social animal. Those left behind by this process will seek answers for their plight. And they will find online conspiracies aplenty to plight their troth to.

One unintended consequence of remote work is its aggravation of the divide between white collar and blue collar work. As the rise of demagogues in the West attest, the unequal apportioning of the productivity and efficiency gains from the changing context and content of work over the last two decades ― the process of “globalisation”, if any one word could encapsulate this ― had done a good job already of endangering blue collar work. Each new iteration of existing technologies promising to make unskilled work extinct, even. But, in one way, at least, those “left behind” by the rapid economic gains advertised under the rubric of “globalisation”, have managed to put in their response. Their political champions threaten both the economic circumstances that have left them stranded economically and the political integuments within which this is taking place. The emergence of the notion of “illiberal democracy” underscores how unhealthy this pushback could be.

Expectedly, therefore, concern with the precariat resulting from both these processes have hugged headlines of late. Much of the conversation has centred on how communities, markets and governments interact to the collective benefit of all. With the consensus appearing to favour a rebalancing of the tensions between these in favour of the community. While globalisation may have strengthened the markets vis-à-vis the other two legs of the tripod, public policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic has swayed the pendulum back in favour of governments. How to strengthen the community, then? Better governance ― especially of consumer data. Stronger anti-thrust regulation. And more devolved political management structures. These have been put forward as possible solutions. However, even as different communities struggle to give flesh to this barebones prescriptions, and to lend them meaning within their specific contexts, new threats are emerging.

The automation of processes was as much the augury of the redundancy of unskilled work as it became, last year, a precondition for moving much work away from centralised head offices. Almost inevitably…this would mean the death of so many functions that were considered essential to the social organisation of the workplace…

And none of these emerging downside risks is likelier to be more serious than that posed by remote work to white collar jobs. The automation of processes was as much the augury of the redundancy of unskilled work as it became, last year, a precondition for moving much work away from centralised head offices. Almost inevitably (and irrespective of how workspaces change in response ― remote-only, in-person-only, or different hybrid forms), this would mean the death of so many functions that were considered essential to the social organisation of the workplace before the pandemic struck. Although, some continue to argue that these functions (the lunchcoffee room, the casual encounters by the stairwell, etc.), disposable though they may now seem, were key to the serendipitous insights that once drove both change and innovation in many organisations.

Nonetheless, the jobs that may not be easily substituted with bits and bytes and the algorithms that give them life ought to be open, as a result of the lessons learnt from having large pools of workers working from home in the past 12 months, to the design of new employment contracts. If an employee may continue to work from home, and only puts in scheduled appearances at a designated hub, why pay a full salary when piecework pay would do? The industrial revolution may have brought pieceworkers together in factories in search of scale and efficiency. But the technology revolution looks prepared to send them back home. Thankfully, digitisation makes it possible to break work down into byte-sized pieces that may be delivered to a schedule and paid for accordingly.

Doubtless, the new revolution promises to bring these costs down ― including through selling off head office complexes ― by sending workers back home. This raises the question of whether the gains in efficiency from digitisation and digitalisation will compensate for the loss from large numbers of workers…

Except that the office, as with the factory and the layers of redundancy that they have built up over the years, were not without their uses. The industrial revolution showed that collaborating in close quarters, men (and later women) produced more and faster. Even though it often meant additional costs to capital ― subsidised lunch, welfare payments, etc. Doubtless, the new revolution promises to bring these costs down ― including through selling off head office complexes ― by sending workers back home. This raises the question of whether the gains in efficiency from digitisation and digitalisation will compensate for the loss from large numbers of workers collaborating in one place at the same time.

The jury may be out on this question. But if our experience with the politics of it is anything to go by, chances are that the downsides will weigh heavily on man as a social animal. Those left behind by this process will seek answers for their plight. And they will find online conspiracies aplenty to plight their troth to.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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