Are boring jobs a thing of the past thanks to technology?

Technology has the ability to rid employees of repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, but it will be up to organisations to ensure workers’ adapted roles are challenging and rewarding enough to keep them engaged

Will it soon be impossible to have a wholly boring job, given the gallop of automation and artificial intelligence? Already, technological capabilities enable workers, across the gamut of business sectors, to relinquish repetitive, menial tasks and use that clawed-back time to focus on more exciting and engaging endeavours.

Perhaps it was a surprise when, in June, a French court ruled that Frédéric Desnard’s former employer, a perfume business, should pay him €40,000 after his mental health deteriorated due to “boreout”, the antithesis of burnout. Under closer inspection, though, Desnard’s unfortunate mismanagement was the result of strict legislation that complicates the redundancy process in France. French employment law needs updating, evidently.

Consider that by 2030 up to one fifth of the global workforce, or 800 million people, will see their jobs replaced by robotic automation, according to an oft-quoted McKinsey & Company report from November 2017.

This headline figure fails to account for all the new, and more exciting, roles that technology will create in the coming decade. The key takeaway for business leaders, though, should be that it is crucial to invest in employees or risk paying a higher price for not evolving boring jobs. Employers that narrow the digital skills gap and help human and machine work side by side will gain a competitive advantage.

Autonomy is critical to interesting jobs 

Psychologist Portia Hickey, co-creator of the Smart Collaboration Accelerator, posits the model presented in the mid-1970s by organisational psychologists Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman still remains the blueprint for job design today. “They identified the significance of the job, being able to see the outcome of their work, variety, autonomy and feedback were all key,” she says.

“Jobs are generally becoming more interesting, partly because organisations are more aware of job design, but also because technology can take over highly repetitive, lower-skilled work. However, what makes a job more enjoyable is autonomy.”

The gathering of knowledge allied with autonomy is the perfect combination to motivate workers, according to Karthik Krishnan, chief executive of Britannica Group. “Learning happens when one is stretched outside one’s comfort zone,” he says. “Dopamine is the brain’s reward system and is secreted when accomplishing a challenging task. If the task is too challenging or not challenging enough, negative emotions set in, such as stress, apathy and boredom.”

Krishnan, who lists TikTok content creator, drone operator and driverless car engineer among the most exciting jobs spawned by tech recently, also notes that people’s boredom threshold has never been lower. “The ‘always-on’ mode, the 24/7 information flow and stimulation lead to constant distraction and craving for newness,” he says.

Employers should “design jobs and identify the right talent to be successful”, says Krishnan, adding that it is vital to understand a worker’s ikigai – a Japanese expression that translates loosely as “reason for being” – to keep them engaged and happy.

How tech is improving employee happiness

He says the ultimate goal is to create a culture where employees feel inspired, challenged and empowered. “The good news is that today, technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs. From taxi drivers to shop workers to soldiers, the range of traditional jobs that will decline or disappear is huge,” says Krishnan.

Research published in September by multinational software company Pegasystems suggests intelligent automation has a critical role to play in crafting a new, tech-enabled, post-pandemic future of work. The global study surveyed more than 3,000 global senior managers and frontline IT staff, and 76 per cent agreed that increased use of tech is improving employee satisfaction, says Pegasystems’ chief technology officer Don Schuerman.

Technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs

Further, more than half of the surveyed UK businesses (51 per cent) say intelligent automation currently saves them over ten working hours per person a week, freeing up roughly a quarter of their time. And with that available time, the top-three activities are working alongside machines, engaging more with customers and innovating. “What this study makes clear is that technology is one of the top trends shaping the future of work,” says author and futurist Jacob Morgan.

Research presented by robotic process automation (RPA) leader UiPath supports this insight. “Some 35 per cent of UK workers believed that automation would deliver more interesting and creative jobs for future generations,” says Chris Duddridge, UiPath area vice president and managing director in the UK and Ireland. He offers UiPath’s work with Brent Council’s housing benefits departments as an example to highlight how RPA “cuts out the dull parts”.

Making ‘mind-numbing’ tasks history

Before embracing RPA, all rent adjustments had to be uploaded manually on to the system. “It was described as ‘mind numbing’,” says Duddridge. “A single rent change that could take a staff member over four minutes manually now takes fewer than 40 seconds. The council estimates that this automation alone has saved it over £32,000 in the overtime costs needed to ensure deadlines were hit.”

Having the right tech is paramount for workers’ happiness. In a new Freshworks study, some 82 per cent of business leaders around the world acknowledge that how their workplace tech performs is imperative to engage employees. “This is especially true now in the time of home working,” says Arun Mani, president of Freshworks Europe. “Not having the necessary IT services on hand in the same building means businesses need to ensure their technology works and provides a flawless experience for users.”

Alarmingly, the Freshworks research also found 77 per cent of employees will look for a new employer if their current job does not provide the tools, technology or information they need to perform.

Workplace tech

It’s not all about tech, though. A balance must be struck and leaders have to understand what motivates individuals. “You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want,” says Nabila Salem, president at Revolent Group, who recommends holding regular one-to-one meetings.

Organisations unprepared for mass remote working when lockdown was enforced in March are playing catch up in terms of engaging staff, particularly new hires, says Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm. “A lack of contact time or on-the-fly coaching has left a few joiners feeling lost, unable to ask simple questions,” he says.

Creating the best environment for employee success

Janine Chamberlin, director at LinkedIn, agrees and points to her company’s research that shows 75 per cent of UK C-level executives say workers now expect greater availability and transparency from leaders. “This closer connection is a great way to engage employees, motivate them to achieve their potential and keep them focused on business goals,” she says.

You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want

“Great employers recognise the importance of change and present opportunities for internal mobility and skills development so employees can benefit from a new experience and progress in their career.”

This chimes with Erica Brescia, chief operating officer of leading software development platform GitHub. “Forward-thinking companies have found new ways to drive employee engagement beyond activities and modes of working that are tied to physical offices,” she says. “They adapt how they operate to support a distributed team, from changing how they communicate to how they track, manage and report on projects.

“They move from highly synchronous ways of working to more asynchronous and collaborative work. And they encourage team camaraderie through virtual activities, such as quizzes, scavenger hunts, cooking classes and happy hours.”

Looking ahead, Brescia concludes: “The new future of work is not dependent on office locations or physical workspaces, but rather on adapting to new ways of getting work done to provide employees with the best environment for their success.”

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work and Collaboration report in September 2020

Flex space: the office isn’t dead, it’s different

As business leaders cautiously unbolt their doors after lockdown, blinking to adjust to a new reality, it’s becoming clear that office spaces offering safety, agility and value are highly desirable in these uncertain times. In the raging debate about the coronavirus-era office, there is a strong argument for embracing flexible workspaces. So let’s talk about flex space.

While home working has benefits, numerous studies show it affects both physical and mental health. Little wonder a recent survey published by Office Space in Town (OSiT), providers of serviced offices in London, Cardiff, Northampton and Edinburgh, discovered that just 5 per cent of employees want to work remotely on a full-time basis.

“Respondents cited the inability to unplug, loneliness and distractions as major pitfalls of home working,” says OSiT chief executive Giles Fuchs.

Indeed, statistics released exclusively for this Future of Work report, reveal that 97 per cent of 14,000 members of leading flex-space provider The Office Group (TOG) believe they will require an office as the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Furthermore, the new research, carried out in partnership with Leesman, indicates almost half the respondents (46 per cent) feel disconnected from colleagues during home working, while 38 per cent feel disconnected from their organisation.

“Despite many hailing the pandemic as the death of the office, I believe we’re seeing its evolution from a rigid concept to one of fluidity,” says Olly Olsen, co-founder and co-chief executive of TOG. “More than 40 per cent of our inquiries during lockdown have come from companies that are currently in traditional offices, which just aren’t set up to offer the space density or layout required to meet safety measures and create a comfortable work setting in this new era.”

Embracing new health measures

Enrico Sanna, co-founder and chief executive of Fora, which has 11 flex-space venues in London, is equally bullish. “We are going to continue to see flexible workspaces take market share from traditional offices, probably at a faster rate than we have been doing to date,” he says. “To reopen an entire headquarters for just 10 per cent of the workforce is completely uneconomical.”

To reopen an entire headquarters for just 10 per cent of the workforce is completely uneconomical

Also, having employees stationed across three or four different sites, as flex-space providers often offer, helps from a health and safety perspective. Sanna explains: “There are fewer people to spread infection and, if someone is taken ill, it doesn’t risk the entire workforce.”

Richard Hyams, founder and director of architects astudio, points to findings by Bisnow, published in April, as evidence of the global trend for flex space. Almost three quarters of those surveyed (71 per cent) want their employers to provide some form of flexible workspace following the lockdown. However, he warns that flex space providers must invest in technology and better ventilation systems to take advantage of the predicted uptick in demand.

“Even before we were worried about airborne pathogens, air quality was a growing concern,” he says. “The Lancet reported, in 2018, that 800,000 people in the UK die annually as a result of poor building air quality. At astudio, we have designed displacement air systems that ensure the air we breathe is as clean as possible. Already these systems are helping to future-proof flex spaces against health risks.”

Tech solutions for health challenges

Happily, most flex-space providers are moving with the times. “Fora has installed thermal imaging cameras that test the temperature of people entering the building, signage and one-way-systems, as well as best-in-class ventilation, and increased levels of sanitation and hygiene,” says Sanna.

Similarly, The Argyll Club, which has 38 luxury workspaces across London, has listened to customers’ concerns about public transport and increased bike storage and built more showers. Beth Hampson, commercial director, is unsurprised that flex space is increasingly appealing to business leaders. For one, they need not be tied into long-term office leases for buildings that, due to social-distancing measures and home working, are likely to be woefully under-utilised.

“It’s clear remote working isn’t going away completely, but it’s also evident that getting teams back into offices is needed for the UK’s morale and economic recovery,” she says. “The most successful businesses in this new age will be those that can effectively find an equilibrium between the two.

“For employees, this means a hub they can use as needed to create a working week that best suits them. For employers, it means a safe home for your business, which is run with stringent health and safety policies, but with a shorter lease, so you can adapt to the changing economic cycle and expand or contract as needed.”

Flex space is critical for survival

OSiT’s Fuchs agrees. “Flexible workspace offers businesses the ability to be nimbler as they recover from the financial strains of the pandemic and gradually bring back furloughed staff, as well as the capability to flex space up and down to cater to social-distancing requirements,” he says. “And having flexible access to ‘burst space’ outside their current real-estate commitments is invaluable.”

In addition to helping rehouse teams and assisting with overflow, flex spaces can attract and retain both talent and clients. “The shared services provided by flexible workspaces offer businesses the ability to access HQ-standard facilities,” says Fuchs. “At OSiT, all our tenants can typically access gyms, salons, doctors, restaurants, cafés and even hotel rooms.”

Aside from the promise of exclusive access to dumbbells and haircuts, Hampson from The Argyll Club summarises the primary reason this industry is on course to grow in the coming weeks, months and years. “Flex space has always been about helping businesses remain agile,” she concludes. “Now that agility is no longer just a ‘nice to have’, it’s critical for survival.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Work report in July 2020