By Sara Walton, Paula O’Kane & Diane Ruwhiu

How will New Zealanders ‘work’ in 2040 and beyond? How do we make sense in the present day of the societal, economic and environmental pressures that will impact work in the future?

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century the world of work is facing deep uncertainty, imbued with multi-faceted issues which are not easily defined or solved, termed ‘wicked problems.’

We (the Work Futures Otago team) have been asking these questions for the past decade. Right now, however, the questions seem more appropriate than ever. Our projects analyse and forecast the trends, future projections and potential disruptions in New Zealand using an extended time horizon. We utilise the power of a narrative approach to construct scenarios that draw together the drivers, differing voices and potential consequences of long-term change. By engaging people in narratives, we focus on perspectives and build sensitivities around future plausibilities. We develop scenarios using the Delphi technique to engage experts in conversations about what the future might look like, and how we can respond to this.

Being asked to contribute this blog about the future of work post-COVID caused us to reflect upon the collective experience of a global pandemic. The future, for many, feels like staring into a crystal ball and seeing a dark storm. When will it settle? What will the next “normal” look like? How will it be different? How might the “plausible scenarios” we previously developed change? What will be the influence of our experience of lockdowns within a global pandemic?

There is a lot of ‘talk’ about the new normal being more sustainable, regenerative, human-centric etc. Interesting though, when Aotearoa New Zealand went to level 1 after the 2020 lockdown, little seemed to change. We mainly picked up life where we had left off…but on steroids! We seemed busier than ever. Talking amongst ourselves and others we found that those resolutions we made during lockdown (i.e. continuing to bake bread, taking time to smell the roses etc.) went completely out the window… and we were back at work pretty much doing the same stuff, often with more pressure and urgency.

Yet we’ve all been through a profound radical experience…surely things should have changed as a result? But instead are we burying our heads in the sand to the disruptions that the future of work, and society, face? Burying our heads is not new, and was alluded to by a participant in our 2018 study (pre-COVID):

“Most New Zealanders have been born and raised in a time of safety and comfort.  It is easy and yet naïve to expect that this happy state will continue as the numbers of people feeling disaffected grows and the science around the state of this planet provides evidence of change. I would like to see some unfearful thinking around how NZ will address global political and environmental change that is totally disruptive to the social and economic ideals we currently strive for.”

Despite having a significant disruption to the way in which we work and operate through COVID, we still seem to be avoiding having “bold conversations” about the future of work aimed at addressing how global changes will impact the future of work in Aotearoa New Zealand radically. Our previous research identified key conversations that we need to be engaging in, and we suggest that all of these are even more pertinent in a post-COVID world.

First, we need to be cognisant of the significant disruptions due to environmental factors, for example resource scarcity and climate change. The speed and high level of disruption to economic, environmental and social systems is considered a certainty. While presently we see the ramifications of pandemic-related disruptions in the future it seems certain that climate change and resource scarcity will involve disruptions in ecological systems that will impact the future of work.

Second, an underlying assumption of the future of work is about moving to what is called the 4th Industrial Revolution. This revolution builds on the 3rd revolution, that of emerging digital technology, to having technology that blurs the lines between physical, digital and biological spheres. This technology can include AI, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, the internet of things, nanotechnology, energy storage, big data, the cloud and robotics as part of future working environments. Many of these already facilitate job tasks in workplaces and, for some of us, make working from home possible. But we must have robust conversations around how work and working life should be restructured to meet new business models and individual and societal needs. Adaptability will be crucial to building organisation resilience. In this COVID environment, we have seen the impact of technologies (good and bad) on the organisation of work, physically and mentally.

Third we need to increase discussion on the competencies and capabilities needed across the workforce. Workers will require a new skill set. With many tasks being replaced by robotics and machine learning we will need to reskill the workforce, to maximise the benefits from these technologies, and improve standards of living across NZ. Skills will be continually changing and so we must embrace life-long learning to build resilience in our workforce. COVID has shown us that our workers can, and did, learn new skills, particularly around technology and communication. Now we must address how we build resilience related to high levels of uncertainty and stress into our workforce?

Central to this is a conversation around how the education system needs to evolve to keep up with the pace of change. While there will be a need for STEM skills our research finds that soft skills and creative skills (particularly for collaboration) will also be important alongside these more technical skills. Increasing collaboration will be essential between employers and education institutions to be able to develop future skills for a future workforce.

Fourth, we are seeing a more diverse workforce. This diversity is evident not only in a changing demographic profile (for example an ageing population and a more ethnically diverse one) but also in the way in which people approach work. We need to have bold conversations about building equity into our operating systems. Work should no longer be operating under a one-size fits all perspective – even this system, based on white men, doesn’t really work for them, so why would we expect it to work for anyone else.

This latest lockdown has highlighted wellbeing issues that affect everyone. We need actions alongside our words to build inclusive environments in our workplaces – wherever they may be. Many hard and bold conversations are needed to make this happen.

The final conversation needed for meaningful and effective work in the future is around the best type of governance systems. Our current political systems are based on conditions that are stable and predictable – what happens when such systems are disrupted? Like we have done through this pandemic, we will need policy to keep up with the changes that will occur and these polices will need to have a sound justification – that is to be grounded in data and/or science. And we need these policies to have social licence for them to be accepted by society, communities and people. Conversations asking whether our current governance systems are fit for purpose are needed to ensure that we are positioned well as a country.

More than ever, there is a need for bold thinking. These challenges for the future of work have been talked about by some for some time but yet we’ve failed to see any substantive proactive preparation for this future. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand anymore perpetuating fearful thinking. Let’s have these bold conversations to build greater resilience in our business sector because if we don’t, then we are in danger of our responses to COVID being akin to giving the emperor new clothes! Let’s use COVID as the impetus for us to provide the emperor with some sound advice, that might not be always what people want to hear – but won’t leave us naked or unprepared for the future of work that we need to address. Then maybe we can create positives from this historically horrible, yet significant, COVID disruption.

The article was prepared by the Work Futures team at the University of Otago. 

They are: 

Sara Walton – Associate Professor in the Department of Management. She is an expert in sustainability and business. 

Paula O’Kane – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Management. She is an expert in the future of work. 

Diane Ruwhiu – Associate Professor in the Department of Management. She is an expert in indigenous business and organisation. 

For more information on COVID-19, head to the Ministry of Health website.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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