Last week, McKinsey & Company published the results of a global survey polling 800 executives from a wide variety of industries, soliciting their projections for the future of work. Four hundred respondents reside in the U.S., with the remaining 400 from Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The responses suggest that a “disruptive period of workplace changes lies ahead due to acceleration of automation, digitization, and other trends” in the post-pandemic world.
Remote Work Implications
Remote work has significant benefits for the average employee, such as eliminating the daily commute (thereby saving time and money), and providing multitasking opportunities like throwing in a laundry load during a mid-morning walk to the kitchen for a coffee refill. For some families, childcare costs are reduced since a parent is home to provide the necessary supervision. However, remote work drawbacks cannot be overlooked. As parents attempt to play the dual role of remote employee and childcare provider, including academic coach with school campuses remaining closed, work productivity and focus suffer. The employer gets the short end of the stick.
Conversely, there are advantages for the employer. With employee proximity to the office no longer a key factor, employers can expand their recruitment and selection of quality candidates not limited by geographical location. As a result, job competition increases. Additional benefits for employers include cost savings through a reduction or even elimination of office space and associated furnishings, utilities, security, and receptionist staffing expenses. Facing the need to reconfigure work areas to allow for social distancing or reduce the number of staff on-site, companies see remote work as a simple solution — whether full-time or in a hybrid rotation format.
However, according to the McKinsey & Company study, the U.S. job market currently demands at least 60% of workers report on-site to effectively complete their jobs. This percentage was much higher before the historic COVID-19 shutdown. It will likely continue to decrease at unprecedented rates in the coming years due to technological advances that make remote work increasingly possible.
Automation and Digitization Acceleration
For many employees, remote work, the most prevalent COVID-19 workforce adaption, has become the new norm. However, this is not the only revolutionary relandscape taking place in the work environment. According to the pool of international executives, acceleration of automation and digitization are the leading disruptors. A remarkable 85% of respondents have accelerated digitization within their company, while 67% have accelerated automation and artificial intelligence due to the pandemic’s impact on their businesses.
What impact will this automation and artificial intelligence have on human capital? Consider the reality that robots don’t get sick, need breaks, aren’t capped at a 40-hour workweek, don’t take paid vacations, and are not distracted by office politics. From the 400 polled U.S. executives, 83% acknowledged a rapid implementation of automation adoption due to COVID-19. For example, FedEx has increased robot use to sort packages to address the spike in their business, while also complying with social distancing guidelines for their employees. The financial sector and information technology segment, which led the field in adopting these innovations before the pandemic, have picked up even more speed over the past several months.
The reality of increased online shopping and digital banking, as well as limited in-person entertainment avenues such as movie theaters, ball games, and concerts, equates to a shift in demand from entry-level, service-oriented jobs to high-skilled workers with programming, coding, and other technical expertise. Some fear that digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs. However, as Dr. Jay W. Richards argues, in The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines, although automation can cause short-term disruptions for workers, the net effect of technological revolutions has always been more jobs, not fewer. Furthermore, automation lowers the costs of goods for everyone. It allows human workers to be more fruitful by freeing them up to pursue increasingly meaningful work that emphasizes their unique creativity and innovation capacity.
Role and Responsibility of U.S. Education
But this begs the question: Will the U.S. education system adequately prepare graduates with the skills and knowledge necessary for the future of work? If the U.S. education system’s role and responsibility are to prepare students for success in the workforce, radical adjustments are warranted to what and how students are taught. Imagine the implications for the duration of our upcoming generation’s adult life if not provided with an education that prepares them for the jobs of the future — which are now coming sooner than anticipated. Imagine the implications for decades and even centuries for our country if U.S. education fails to equip students for future challenges. With the rapid transformation in the workplace due to technological advancements, significantly accelerated by the worldwide pandemic, the U.S. must respond urgently by reinventing education. U.S. students must not be left behind.