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Technology has a critical role in the future workplace but we must not forget people on the journey 

“The world of work is at a crossroads. We have the possibility to re-shape it in a very positive and human-centric way.”

Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights at the European Commission began his address to the European SDG Summit 2021 on an optimistic note.

But addressing a session entitled Creating Future-Proof and Inclusive Work, he was quick to warn that lurking behind the huge potential of digital workplace transformation, there were dangers that must be managed carefully to ensure we build a future of work in which nobody is left behind.

“The technology is out there, the potential is out there” he said, before adding, “there is also a risk that we go away from this human-centred orientation.”

The Commissioner stressed that one way to guard against a poor outcome for workers was, “to assign a purpose to companies...that goes beyond profits alone.”

Balancing technology and the human workforce

Nicolas Schmit’s comments followed an opening address to the session by Anthony Gooch, Director of Public Affairs at the OECD.

Mr Gooch told delegates that, “rapid technological advances are amplifying our capacity to perform a wide range of tasks...allowing innovative ways of working to emerge and reshaping our very human nature.”

He went on to showcase details from OECD research, which, he said, showed, “nearly 14% of jobs in OECD countries are likely to be automated in the coming years, whilst another 32% are at the risk of being partially automated.”

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Mr Gooch explained that the risk was higher for people in routine and manual jobs while demand for cognitive and digital skills continues to rise.

Referencing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Gooch said the crisis had highlighted that not everyone has access to the technology to work remotely and that this risked a divisive rather inclusive future of work.

He also challenged business leaders to ask themselves “pointed questions” about the effects of digitalization on the wellbeing of workers, urging companies to take into account the mental health of employees who might find it more difficult to disconnect in an age of remote working.

Reskilling the workforce for the jobs of the future

To remain relevant in the digital workforce, constantly updating skills will be crucial for billions of workers around the world. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 2020 found that half of all workers would need to update their skills by 2025.




Creating inclusive future of work for all

In her comments to the session, Justina Nixon-Saintil, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility at IBM said that digital skills are “more than ever a passport to opportunity.” She explained the unequal impact of the digital skills gap. “We know that around nine out of 10 jobs across all sectors require digital skills, and that 44% of US citizens lack basic digital skills. The skills gap significantly affects low income populations, and specifically diverse populations.”

To tackle the disproportionate skills gap, IBM is taking an innovative approach to recruitment, dropping traditional barriers to entry that can leave talented people excluded. “You know at least 50% of the jobs we post,” says Ms Nixon-Saintil, “we're not going to require a four year degree, we will look at credentials, we will look at people who have the right skill sets for the right jobs, and this has opened up a lot more opportunity for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”

A voice for workers in a distributed workforce

Responding to concerns about the challenges faced by remote workers, Liina Carr, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation said many companies recognised there were problems but failed to act.

She advocated for a time-served trade union approach to ensuring the rights of remote workers.  “A lot can be done through collective bargaining,” she said, “very basic work organisation, like working time. There are big challenges for work-life balance and whether we need to have a right to disconnect. And there’s a question of whether this can be agreed at the company level, or whether it needs to be legislated.”

Laying down a challenge to leaders

The concluding words of Anthony Gooch’s address to the session encapsulate the challenge faced by business leaders, policy makers and governments, as they grapple with shaping the future of work.

“It will be the nature of our policies, our ability to harness the possibilities of today’s unprecedented digital and technological changes, while coping with the challenges they pose, that will determine whether we succeed or fail in creating better workplaces and more inclusive economies and societies.

“It is incumbent on us,” he said, “to build a future of work that works for all.”