March of the humans - The future of work

The future of work’s a big topic.  Open a newspaper, swipe through your news bulletins or switch on the TV and someone, somewhere will be predicting the Relentless March of the Robots, the End of the Human and of the world as we know it.


Whether you subscribe to the view that wearable technologies improve our wellbeing or invade our privacy; whether you think Blockchain is a force for democratisation or just a concentration of power in new or different hands; whether you’re excited or depressed by the idea that your grandchildren may only see books in museums (hologram museums of course); it seems to me that there are neglected areas to the discussion.

Published 22nd March 2017


By Laura Harrison, People and Strategy Director, CIPD


The first of these is the basis upon which we make these predictions.  Those with experience of big technology implementations will know that the business case made when we evaluate costs and benefits rarely delivers.  It’s usually founded on the basis that work x (done by a member of the workforce) will be replaced by work y (done by the new tech).  What the business case rarely accounts for is the additional work that’s required in order to realise the benefits of the new system.  It also rarely accounts for the fact that new tech systems are frequently not adopted to their full capabilities. 


Like magpies, we become distracted by the promise of the next possibility, pushing to render obsolete the new system we’ve just sweated blood and tears to implement.  And the list goes on: how often does the business case account for the ‘collateral’ capabilities required for the system to work?  Take the example of drones.  Drones are predicted to take over a huge variety of human intensive activity from postal services to private surveillance.  It might be a flight (get it?) of fancy, but one starts to wonder about the collateral capabilities required in this new world of micro flying saucers and the associated innovations they could spawn.  Drone accessories to manufacture, drone airspace to define and regulate, roads in the sky to police, drone safety to manage and enforce, anti-drone lobbies to staff.   So in this future, are the robots putting us out of work, or simply giving us new things to do, new problems to solve, stimulating the emergence of new visions?  And, are we accounting for these possibilities when we predict dystopian low work or no work futures?


Which brings me on to the second often neglected area of discussion; our role in shaping and creating the future we want to see.  As citizens, consumers and business leaders, we have a choice in the technologies we adopt and the work that we value.  In a world of rapidly diminishing natural resources but an apparently ever growing desire to consume, the differentiating advantage may well become one of experience.  Smart businesses are on to this.  Airbnb isn’t building hotels, gyms or cafes.  It’s coupling our desire for human connection and experience (to live like a Parisian for a weekend, for example) with latent or existing assets (our homes).  The technology’s the enabler, but the product’s the experience.  And experience is a deeply human thing. 


We might be delighted when our smart device congratulates us for outperforming that day, whether we’ve walked 10,000 steps, climbed 20 staircases or practised our Mandarin verbs.  And yet we probably all reflect most warmly on experiences when we’ve been running with a friend, been understood and encouraged by a personal trainer or been congratulated by a teacher for the progress we’ve made.  Recent political developments around the world have shown that the ’little guy’ is starting to fight back.  And he may not limit his battles to elections.  Maybe he’ll decide that being ‘enabled’ to bank digitally whilst the bank’s shareholders reap the returns of his additional effort and of workforce cost savings isn’t quite fair.  Particularly when his financial security is threatened by fraud and hackers.  And maybe he’ll decide that the massive retail banks aren’t for him.  And maybe we value the human interaction with the staff at the checkout in a store or in the mall.  And maybe we’ll choose to shop where the human connection’s part of the deal.  The question, as ever, is what we’re prepared to pay for human interaction, again, as consumers, citizens and leaders.


These are tough questions, and they don’t lend themselves to easy resolutions, only to further debate, to steps forward and steps backward. 


Finally, I’ll leave you with the words of Sigmund Freud “Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is…”  Debating the future of work is debating the future of society, in effect humanity’s future.  And we can’t sleepwalk into a future defined by what can be done, only by what should be done.


The CIPD believes that the future of work can be, and must be, human.  To find out more visit




Laura is the CIPD’s People and Strategy Director and leads the CIPD’s strategy, research and public policy teams, as well as its HR function. She has particular interest in the future of work and HR, organisation development and change. Laura passionately believes that the future of work is human and is interested in exploring how organisations can create value for all their stakeholders for long term societal advancement as well as economic growth. She holds a first degree in chemistry and postgraduate qualifications in law and tax. Laura has worked at the CIPD since February 2011. Her earlier career was spent at Aviva, where she was a HR Director in its European business and in various consulting roles with Ernst & Young and PwC. For more information visit