Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Does technology really reduce work?

This week, I came across an interesting news article that quoted Frances O'Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an organization in the United Kingdom representing labor unions.

"I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone," O'Grady said during a speech at the TUC's annual gathering in Manchester, England on Monday.

My personal experience over more than two decades of working life in India has been a mixed bag. There are primarily two ways in which technology impacts a worker's life. First, the efficiency increases. This translates to more work in lesser time but then mostly, the work itself increases to occupy the time gained. This is typical of situations where technology intervenes to perform the same task in mostly similar manner but in a "faster" way. Imagine a cashier in the 70s doing calculations manually and then using a calculator in the 80s and then on an Excel spreadsheet in the 90s. However, I am sure the cashier wouldn't have seen herself free of work due to this change over the decades. That's probably because technology was trying to make it quicker for the cashier to do the enormous amount of work that was piling up. As a result of this speed, her desk started clearing up faster and the manager piled on more work. In some cases, another cashier might have been thrown out of job to give the extra work load to this "computerized" counter.

The second way in which technology impacts a worker's life is, ironically, extended working hours. There was a time when our parents came home from office and just relaxed. I never saw my parents carry work to home because that would have involved carrying bulky files. Even if they could have managed to carry some file home, the "connected" work dependency on other colleagues and files would have rendered the activity useless. Look at the situation today... Work itself is now on cloud and the mobiles (that are more powerful than the entire computing devices of an erstwhile office put together) have made it "light-weight" to carry work home. Moreover, the connectivity through virtually free-of-cost calling and whatsapp messaging has made it easy to get help from colleagues and other work files. This has meant that the poor worker is never off-work. In fact, it is increasingly becoming very hard to go on a vacation without feeling guilty about not being connected to work, while wanting to stay connected with your friends and family through social media.

In an interesting study about working hours per week conducted for the young millennials in 2015, it is quite evident that technology was not really helping matters.
Infographic: Where Do Millennials Work The Longest Hours? | Statista (You will find more infographics at Statista)
 
There are fundamental questions that we need to address before we begin to think of how technology can free up man-days from our work week. The first relates to the context of availability of resources. For instance, when I saw a fully automated self-payment enabled counter at a Retail Store in Melbourne, I was taken aback by the "impersonal" treatment while marveling at the technology and trust. In India, it would seem foolish to remove people who smile and interact with you at the checkout counter of a superstore. Foolish, also because you wouldn't trust customers to pay without trying to cheat. This is also the reason why your Boarding Pass gets checked by at least 4 humans before you board the plane in India while not a single human looks at it in Singapore today! The logical argument to this phenomenon is to provide employment to people when the government is always looking worriedly into the unemployment statistics.

The next context is about commercial feasibility. A few months back, I was astonished on seeing a group of 4 people using a earth-boring contraption to drill for water. The sight that confounded me was that of the sheer manual force being used instead of the usual electric power. From my vantage point of the pre-conditioned notion of seeing boring done in cities, this was a complete reversal. But then it made definite sense in that rural area set 50 kms away from the Lucknow city. It would have cost a fortune to get the boring machine to the site. Moreover, the electric power may not even be available at the site. Some times, especially, in the developing world, the notion of using technology seems like an unnecessary and overstretched piece of imagination.

Lastly, as a wise man had commented, "work stretches to occupy the available time". This also holds true for the time left unoccupied by technology. I have often seen people overstaying in the office beyond the office hours and completing work that could have been done in regular hours. That's probably because the deadline is for end-of-day and this is literally taken as midnight by a lot of "hard-working" people. Besides, you run the risk of getting more work (probably from a less-efficient colleague's desk) if you finish yours faster!

I am quite certainly sure that technology will have the desired impact only if it is implemented with a clear objective of freeing up human time. That will involve rethinking the complete process rather than a mere replacement of human task with tech-enabled task. And then the humans will, hopefully, get over the idea of working in office at the cost of family or social time.

Till then, let's keep burning the midnight oil...

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