Looking into the future
In my last article I looked at the immediate future and the way in which Covid 19 (along with the fear of climate change) has had an impact on all of us and led to the acceleration of advances in medicine. The past year has not only affected medicine, it has made all of us realise that there are a lot more opportunities available to us, if only we are prepared to take off our blinkered spectacles and think laterally.
Over the next four articles I would like to take a stroll into the future in four areas that are likely to change dramatically: the future of work, tourism, agriculture and leisure. This is not crystal ball vision, but it is an insight into areas where people have started to develop new ideas in recent years and where those ideas have been accelerated in the past year.
Over the past year Zoom, Microsoft Teams and similar programmes have had a massive impact on the lives of anyone who would usually work in an office. Presenteeism (where managers are frightened that if they can’t see their workers they might not be working) had been a serious drag on the development of the workplace. In a few short months, all over the world, managers no longer had any choice. People were working from home and a new level of trust was accepted. For many it worked. Productivity in a lot of firms actually went up because, in our globalised world, people were working when they needed to, rather than in the artificial framework of nine to five office hours. There was give and take; if they needed to speak to someone in a time zone five hours behind then they might be working at eight o’clock at night, but might have time during the day to do some cooking or undertake a hobby. Files could be shared online and hundreds of people (literally) could share workplace meetings and briefings. One conference organiser I know even managed to organise online conferences, tape them and then sell them on to people who could not attend.
There were other advantages, such as reduced traffic making it easier for those who had no choice but to go into work and also less polluted air. There were problems as well, including where people had little space to work at home and a degree of boredom from lack of physical interaction. The latter is more a problem of Covid lockdowns which will disappear as the virus is beaten.
My prediction is that the future of the office will be much more flexible. Some very large companies have already committed to their workforce working from home in the future. Other are providing a mix and match offering where people will go into the office for key meetings, catch-ups or team-bonding sessions. Employees won’t need to live in the same town, city or even country as their office. Employers will be able to choose the best from around the world, rather than those who are physically able to attend an office. There will always be a need for social interaction in order to build teams, but these will be built around these new flexible working practices. That means smaller, better purposed offices, which in turn will save employers the costs of providing large office spaces.
For those that don’t work in offices there are likely to be massive changes too. Tourism and agriculture will be dealt with in later articles. The onset of artificial intelligence and robotics combined will revolutionise what can, or should I say needs, to be done by people and what can be done by robots. Cars (including taxis), buses and trains will no longer need drivers within, possibly, thirty years in the most advanced societies. Construction will change dramatically with the onset of 3D printed houses, providing affordable housing for many people who cannot currently afford their own home. New materials being developed might use recycled materials and/or techniques which make them stronger and better insulated. Manufacturing will be revolutionised as more and more people will have their own 3D printers at home.
Robots will be able to take over much of the work currently undertaken by construction workers. Technicians who carry out routine processes may well be replaced by robots. Plumbers and electricians may well find that the ‘internet of things’ will mean that diagnostics will be carried out before they arrive on site and they will simply download what needs to be done, hence shortening the length of time onsite. Call centres manned by people will disappear as robots and AI take over the workload much more efficiently (the thought of no more repetitive mindless music whilst waiting for an operator fills me with joy).
The list is almost endless. We have, of course, been here before. There were dire warnings that many of the new technologies developed after World War Two, such as computers and the internet, would destroy jobs whereas they have resulted in new jobs. That may continue to be partly true, but the fact is that there are a decreasing number of jobs that humans can do as the new technologies take over. One report suggests that 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide, although the World Economic Forum suggests that automation will displace 75 million jobs and generate 133 million new ones worldwide by 2022.
The problem is that it will be unskilled jobs that are most at risk, whilst highly skilled jobs will demand a premium wage. This in turn could create new tensions between the haves and the have nots. There is a further problem; as jobs are shed so the economy will be affected. How will governments pay for a larger non-working population? Will taxes move away from taxation of individual income to taxation of productivity or goods or robots?
In the space permitted I have given you a taste of the future. Think about your own workplace and think about the mundane tasks that could be done by robots or artificial intelligence and it won’t be the hot weather that is making you sweat!