When I was in graduate school, I came across a poster showing a factory worker laboring under a massive, bone-crushing machine. The face of the worker had been replaced by a clock, and the bottom of the poster read “Work: A prison of measured time.” That poster had a lasting impact on my career: It made me realize I never want a job where I’m paid primarily based on my time instead of what I contribute — it shouldn’t matter where I sit, but rather what I get done. And it made me sensitive to how technology can be used to create inhuman work environments where people feel more trapped than enabled.
The time clock is a great example. Companies need some way to measure the contributions of their employees. In an agrarian economy this was based on what people produced: Workers were paid based on the fruits of their labor, often literally. But in the industrial age the development of technology resulted in work becoming divided into specific tasks. Workers became separated from the end products of their labor, so companies developed technology to track time as a proxy for contributions. The result was that work became more about “punching the clock” than about making a difference.
I thought of this poster during a recent conversation about technology and the future of work. Some people suggest that technology is creating a more productive and engaged workplace focused on learning, flexibility and growth. These people discuss the benefits of things such as “global labor markets,” “the gig economy,” “machine learning” and how technology is giving employees more control over their careers and freeing them from repetitive or overly complex tasks. Others take a more dismal view, viewing technology as a tool for maximizing profits by reducing employee costs. Global labor markets are a way to avoid high local labor costs by employing people in economies with lower standards of living. People are forced into contract work because companies don’t want to provide health care benefits or to commit to long-term employment. For these employees it isn’t a “gig economy,” it’s a “disposable worker economy.” And machine learning and related technologies are just a way to eliminate the costs of employing skilled workers.
But technology is neither good nor bad for workers. What matters is how we choose to use it. There are three basic reasons why companies invest in work technology:
I believe we’re at a crossroads in our use of technology and its impact on work. Which path we take depends on how much we invest in technology focused on maximizing human potential. Consider these two visions of the future:
Our technology is creating both utopian and dystopian worlds. On the utopian side, companies can now use technology to match people to work opportunities regardless of where they live or who they know, replace annual reviews and compensation reviews with ongoing coaching and real-time flexible rewards, allow people to structure jobs to fit their interests and lifestyles, and proactively identify and train people on future skills they’ll need before they need them. But we’re also seeing the dystopian world emerge, as evidenced by growing wage gaps and a rise in chronically unemployed workers. What we don’t know is which world is going to dominate our future.
The path we take will depend on choices companies make about how to invest in technology and decisions governments and societies make that affect the use of technology. To create a more utopian future, companies must actively invest in technology to maximize human potential. This doesn’t mean companies should not use technology to reduce costs; it’s economically inevitable that technology will eliminate certain types of jobs while creating others. But technology must also be used to help workers transition to new types of work. Governments must update work regulations to reflect the changing nature of work. Companies can’t effectively compete in the 21st-century global economy if they’re hampered by employment regulations rooted in localized 20th-century labor practices. We can’t effectively transition to the future without also letting go of the past.
Technology has the potential to create a future where people no longer worry about “having to work for a living” and instead focus on “living a fulfilling, purposeful life.” But as history shows, technology can also create horrific working conditions and punishing labor markets. Technology is going to change the world of work, that’s certain. But whether technology leads to a future of work that’s more utopian than dystopian entirely depends on how we choose to use it.