Why the Future of Work is Virtual, Gig Based, and Cognitive and its implications for HR

The Changing Nature of Work and the Transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Work, as we know it, is changing before our eyes. While historically, the nature of work evolved from informal to formal exchanges between employers and employees, ever since the Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth Centuries, work has come to mean and denote an arrangement where the employee works in a physical location, is employed on a full time basis and does mechanical and hard labor work.

Indeed, the Industrial Revolution ushered in the modern corporation where employees were expected to be onsite, perform tasks, and carry out duties and responsibilities in exchange for a salary, and were usually wedded to the company or the firm for longer periods of time.

However, with the advent of the services sector, the first significant change happened where physical work began to be supplanted by mental and cognitive work. This shift started around the 1970s and accelerated throughout the 1980s and the 1990s to a point where now we have work that is virtual, remote, and part time or gig based, and entirely cognitive.

No wonder this shift is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution wherein work is no longer the same as it was used to be earlier.

From Physical to Virtual and Remote Work

First, let us take what is meant by virtual remote work. As mentioned earlier, our parents and their parents’ generations were used to working in the offices of their employers and were often located close to the factories and firms in townships and industrial estates where their housing was located.

Moreover, their communications with their coworkers and bosses was on paper and telephone with mostly face to face communication being the norm.

However, this is certainly not the case now with remote and flexi working arrangements wherein employees can work from home and be located anywhere provided there is a medium through which they can participate in team meetings and official calls.

This medium is usually teleconferencing tools such as Skype, Second Life, and other proprietary software such as the ones used by global behemoths such as IBM. Indeed, among all firms worldwide, IBM can be said to the pioneer as far as virtual and remote work is concerned.

Thus, work is no longer confined to a specific location and that too with the advent of the Gig Economy, there is even no requirement that the employers and the employees ever meet in person.

Full Time Lifelong Employment Now Becoming Part Time and Temporary

Talking about the Gig Economy, the other change in the nature of work is in the increasingly part time and freelancing arrangements that characterize the nature of work.

As mentioned earlier, our parents were used to lifelong employment with a single employer that soon changed to job shifts and career moves to other firms as the Generation Xers were experimenting in their careers.

The Gen Xers who are taken as being born between 1965 and 1980 began to witness the changing nature of work and the Millennials who came after them were exposed to the concept of the part time work which the generation now entering the workforce would soon experience it as the norm rather than the exception.

In other words, work is something that is no longer full time governed by elaborate contractual agreements and instead, is something that is temporary and fleeting to the point of changing on a day by day basis.

Indeed, in the absence of social security and pensions as well as medical benefits, the workers and the professionals of tomorrow would soon find themselves on their own as far as depending on such benefits is concerned.

Shift from Physical to Cognitive Work

The third shift or the change in the nature of work is the emergence of purely cognitive work where employees and workers now have to do more mental and intellectual work rather than physical or hard labor.

While one can contest this claim by stating that except for the West, the rest of the world is still physical and manual work, there is increasing evidence that cognitive work done by workers and professionals would increase with the advent of AI or Artificial Intelligence and automation.

Thus, this means that professionals of the future would have to compete with machines rather than fellow humans and this has implications for the way in which the HR Profession is structured and run.

Impact on HR Profession

Talking about the impact on the HR Professionals, it is easy to see how they now have to deal with a radical change in the nature of work to the extent that even their positions might be replaced by machines or virtual professionals who can then interact with remote teams.

Moreover, HR professionals would now have to design employment contracts that are based on part time and gig work as well as based on other changes such as lack of medical and pension benefits.

In addition, HR managers would now have to adapt to AI powered recruitment tools as well as software driven payroll, appraisal, and training robots.

Thus, as can be seen from the discussion so far, what we are now living through is an epochal shift in the way the employer employee relationship is structured and hence, our suggestion to those graduating or in their early years of careers is to be mindful of the changes and adapt and orient themselves accordingly.

To conclude, the changes in the nature of work would include much disruption, dislocation, and disorientation and hence, forewarned is forearmed.

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Human Resource Management