2020 and beyond: The future of work is human

by Mark Mader

As someone for whom looking ahead comes more naturally than looking back, the start of a new decade is an opportunity to imagine how things may evolve over the next 10 years. In addition to taking this opportunity to wish everyone a healthy, happy, effective, and equitable 2020, I want to offer thoughts on some longer-term topics on which I’ve been reflecting and speaking about quite a bit of late.

We’re at a time where the future of work is being reimagined. There’s no question that automation — and the technologies that power it — are playing an increasingly larger role in the workplace. What’s yet to be decided, though, is the degree to which technology will replace people (robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning (ML), or artificial intelligence (AI), anyone?), enhance their work, or achieve an equitable balance.

A silhouette of a person's head appears in the forefront, with a circuit board image appearing in the background inside the smallest of three peach-hued rings

Despite a lot of dire predictions to the contrary, I believe deeply in the power and the resiliency and the extraordinary capacity of human beings to innovate, collaborate, and achieve. Tech companies — like Smartsheet — play a key role in creatively bringing people into the new, ever-more global, digitally enabled economy and equipping them for success.

I believe that the future of work is uniquely and powerfully human. But for that to be true, people must take the initiative to prepare themselves for this new world where they coexist with technology in an ever more integrated fashion. Things they should do include:

  • Upskill in a self-directed way — learn SaaS software used by businesses today (yes — many don’t require you to be a coder!) and seek to understand concepts like ML and AI. Don’t just wait for company-sponsored training.
  • Deepen expertise in and understanding of how to utilize distinctly human attributes to your advantage: Creativity, critical thinking, judgment, experience design, and innovation.
  • Identify ways to reduce the mundane, time robbing work through automation. Then invest the cycles gained into work that incorporates those distinctly human attributes.

Of course, technology will replace some jobs, but I see no reason why people won’t adapt, just as they have for centuries. I may be overly optimistic, but I believe that even if 12% of a person’s job depends on distinctly human attributes, that person will be very hard to replace, as the loss of that 12% could offset gains realized from automating the other 88%.

One thing that tests my patience is when I hear certain pundits claim that in the future “everyone will need to be a coder.” Why? If your children exhibit little interest in or knack for coding, will there really be no place for them in the workplace of the future? The truth is that even most *tech* companies hire more non-coders than engineers in a given year. There’s significant room for salespeople, marketers, operations specialists, consultants, and customer success managers at Smartsheet — and at most other leading tech companies. If it’s true for tech companies, I’m betting it’s true for most industries.

Instead of trying to turn everyone into a coder, I believe companies should focus on giving people the tools to make the best use of the skills and interests they already possess. The tech sector can help by creating more low or no-code, easily-customizable software that helps people work hand-in-hand with automation. Our focus should be on automating repetitive tasks so that people can focus on higher-level thinking that makes use of the learnings and insights they get from technology. This combination of AI and human ingenuity will allow people to innovate in ways they never could before. (As a side note, I believe that employees have been poorly served by the myth that only “a select few” can develop game-changing ideas — in reality, innovation can come from anyone — but that’s a conversation for another time.)

As we enter this new decade, we are presented with nothing short of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink the way that work is done, and how best to prepare people to succeed in our rapidly-changing, global economy. Will we shrink from the challenges that change presents, or will we rise to the occasion? Will the tech leaders who created the disruptive technologies in question refine them for the good of all, or simply move on to the next monetization opportunity?

I, for one, am energized by the chance to reimagine the workplace and cannot wait to see what up-skilled people, enabled by leading-edge technologies, can accomplish — for themselves, their businesses, and for the world.