Research

Lessons from the greats: What some of the great philosophers can tell us about The Future of Work

Posted on Updated on

MHThe Danish existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once proclaimed that “we live forward, but we understand backward. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward”. Such thought-provoking aphorisms are just one example of how a discipline which has its origins dating back to over 2000 years ago can still offer foresight into the future. However, despite laying claim to be the oldest discipline in the world and providing the epistemological framework for academia – the influence of philosophy in society has waned in recent times. In 2010, for example, the late Professor Hawking declared that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”[i]. The decline in philosophy’s significance as a method of inquiry is reflected in the statistics too, with figures from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing the number of people obtaining philosophy degrees has fallen by 8.7% since 2012[ii].

Despite diminishing interest in the discipline, the increased importance of human skills in the age of automation and technological advancements means there is a strong argument to be made for the recrudescence of philosophy within all spheres of society, and none more so than within the corporate sphere. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore what the wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers in history can tell us about some of the main themes that are shaping the future of work.

 

The Stoics and remaining calm in times of accelerated change

It is widely acknowledged within the future of work community that two of the main characteristics that define modern work are volatility and uncertainty. The notion of a lifelong career is seemingly redundant; while there seems to be little consensus on the extent to which technological advancements will threaten the existence of jobs. Thus, to begin this voyage into the relationship between philosophy and the world of work, it seems appropriate to start by exploring the ideas of a group of Athenian scholars who became known as ‘The Stoics’. Widely regarded as the founding fathers of practical philosophy, central to their belief system is the idea that regardless of how unpredictable the world can be, by using our minds correctly we can always be in control of our emotions and impulses, no matter how overwhelming they might be. This mindset is commonly referred to as ‘stoic calm’.

Embracing the virtues of ‘stoicism’ in the modern corporate world unlocks tremendous benefits for organisations experiencing profound change. For instance, a ‘stoic’ individual would show greater resilience to any changes brought about by macro forces such as technological disruption, as they would in theory express a greater willingness to acquiring the skills needed to overcome the challenges such forces present. Similarly, they would be accepting of the fact that the traditional three-stage model of education, work and retirement was obsolescent. Indeed, the stoic individual is one who acknowledges that the only constant in life is change and is therefore also equipped with the emotional skills required to effectively cope with acute forms of disruption.

To this end, stoicism differs from most existing branches of philosophy in one important sense: its purpose is a practical application that can harness the cognitive skills needed for modern work, and as such, it is not a purely intellectual enterprise. Instead, it’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, establish more meaningful relationships with colleagues and business partners also allowing us to pragmatically navigate any fundamental disruptions in the labour market. Thus, despite being over 2,000 years old, it is a mindset that, if adopted correctly, could equip modern workers with the mental clarity and resilience required to thrive and prosper in this period of uncertain and accelerated change.

 

Aristotle, being virtuous and organisational ethics

Keeping with the theme of Athenian scholars, Aristotle, a man regarded as one of the most influential of all philosophers, and his concept of ‘virtuous ethics’, can help provide clarity on the ethical decisions organisations need to make in the future. In essence, Aristotle believed that the framework for being a virtuous person simply consisted of being a good person, and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses. With recent revelations such as the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ Facebook data scandal, the moral fibre of organisations is under great scrutiny and an adoption of virtuous ethics as a framework can help provide organisations with the necessary moral guidance to make ethically sound decisions.

The concept of ‘virtuous ethics’ not only provides a strong moral framework for organisations to abide by, but it also enables people to fulfil their potential and improve their overall well-being. With recent data indicating that 58% do not trust their colleagues[iii], and 7 out of 10 people not trusting their HR department[iv]; living more virtuously offers a set of ideals that can help galvanise people while simultaneously healing fractured relationships and lead to greater cohesion within organisations.

 

Nietzsche the Übermensch and high-performance

At first glance, the often misanthropic and pessimistic rhetoric of another great philosopher – Nietzsche has no place in the context of optimising performance. But dig deeper into his philosophy and it becomes clear that the ‘future of high performance’ can learn a lot from his musings. Notably, the concept of the ‘Übermensch’ – translated into English as the ‘Superman’ offers a unique philosophy for how to optimise performance and unlock potential.

For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory; a vision whereby one is emboldened to find the necessary inner strength to overcome any personal insecurities and embrace fear and uncertainty, rather than run away from it. With research demonstrating that creating a space of psychological safety is pivotal for organisations looking to unleash their creative potential; following the principles of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and believing that failure is a necessary stage in the path to fulfilment, can help lay the foundations for people to experiment without fear and come back stronger if they fail.

Perhaps in these increasingly uncertain times when disruptive technology raises profound questions about the skills humans will need to prosper in the future, revisiting the most ancient of disciplines can, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, offer a strong foundation for the cultivation of the uniquely human skills needed to effectively navigate accelerated periods of change. Indeed, to quote Steve Jobs – “technology alone is not enough, it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities that yield the results that make our hearts sing.”

If you would like to discuss further how teaching philosophy can prepare you for the future of work, then please contact Marvin at marvin@hotspotsmovement.com.


[i] https://www.richardcarrier.info/philosophy.html

[ii] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/03/14/study-shows-87-decline-humanities-bachelors-degrees-2-years

[iii] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/britains-workers-are-passive-aggressive-sarcastic-sulking-backstabbers-anger-management-expert-a3897616.html?fbclid=IwAR02dgnYX1XESwOxPE6ZWiYBfFm5d1jLGFhdfPDTCgzjEzgQXwwcaUigvN8

[iv]  https://www.peoplematters.in/article/hr-industry/7-out-of-10-tech-workers-dont-trust-hr-poll-19051?utm_source=peoplematters&utm_medium=interstitial&utm_campaign=learnings-of-the-day

Hackathons and Innovative Thought

Posted on

HM

Innovation is a strategic priority for the majority of my clients. However, while organisations are focussed on innovation agendas and projects, many fail to prioritise enabling the people in their organisation to think innovatively. This is an error. Innovative thought is energy intensive, time-consuming and requires us to use a different part of our brains than operational work.

I explored this challenge recently, when invited to judge the ideas coming out of a Hackathon[1] on a Leadership Programme at Chubb, the Insurance Company, run by their decidedly innovative VP of Talent & Development, Terry Jones. Watching the participants come together to innovate around pressing challenges at the organisation and the insurance sector more broadly, it was fascinating to see their journey from the usual corporate stance of operational short-term thinking, to arriving at out-of-the-box, truly creative solutions.

This led me think more deeply about why it is that Hackathons are so effective at generating innovative thought:

1. Hackathons generate lots of ideas: Researcher Dean Keith Simonton of UC-Davis provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from generating lots of ideas. In every occupation Simonton studied, from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of ideas produced.

2. Hackathons make time for the work that matters: Research by Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurialism at London Business School indicates that knowledge workers spend an average of 41% on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction. In a similar vein, the well-established Pareto Principle dictates that 80% of production comes from 20% of efforts. In this context, how can organisations make time for the work that matters, freeing up a significant portion of the day for incubation? At Chubb, the Leadership Programme Hackathon appeared to successfully achieve this.

3. The Chubb Hackathon encouraged curiosity in their leaders: Research indicates that successful leadership is less about having all the answers, and more about wondering and questioning. A curious, inquisitive leader also sets an example that inspires creative thinking throughout the company. According to research by Hal Gregerson, Jeffrey Dyer and Clayton Christensen, there are five ‘discovery skills’ that enable curiosity in leaders: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Their research found that innovative leaders spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation.[i]

What are you doing to encourage the vital capability of innovative thought at your organisation? I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to learn more about stimulating innovative thought at your organisation, get in contact with me at harriet@hotspotsmovement.com.


[1] For those of you not in the know, Hackathons are creative problem-solving events. They can involve technology and code, or simply be a group of people in a room together trying to solve a challenge

[i] Dyer, J., Gregerson, H., & Christensen, C. (2013). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Press. Chicago

3 unexpected insights on the future of work

Posted on

HS

I have been exploring and researching the future of work for over 6 years now. It has been a fascinating journey as the pace of change driven by accelerating connectivity, new talent models, and cognitive tools is astonishing. In this blog, I would like to share 3 unexpected insights on the future of work that I have come across from my research and advisory work with companies around the world. They are:

  1. Hierarchies are here to stay

Experiments to do away with hierarchical power structures in most organisations have not been smooth. An indicator of these challenges is that when given the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of Zappos 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their titles and status. Indeed, getting organisations to do away with hierarchical power structures is proving to be next to impossible. For all its enemies – and the millions of copies of employee empowerment handbooks – hierarchy is amazingly resilient. An indicator of this is that since 1983, the number of managers employed in the U.S. economy has nearly doubled, while employment in other occupations has grown by less than 40%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.[i]

Why do hierarchies persist? Countless social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of social organisation were more advantageous, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii] Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and systems serve a purpose. On the most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and simplifies interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity.[iii]

  1. The importance of solitude

Creativity requires solitude. Today’s world is fixated with association. We live in hyper-social times where the random association of things is not just routine; it is endemic. However, in recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that we tend to get our best ideas when our attention is not fully engaged in our immediate environment. When we are not focusing on anything in particular and letting the mind wander, the brain’s default mode network is activated. Many of our most creative insights arise from the activity of this network. Using many regions across the brain, the default mode network enables us to remember the past, think about the future, understand ourselves, and create meaning from our experiences. Activating this network requires deep internal reflection facilitated by solitude.[iv]

  1. Engagement is not a purely beneficial experience

A recent study conducted by Yale University study examined the levels of engagement and burnout in over 1,000 U.S. employees. “For some people, engagement is indeed a purely beneficial experience; 2 out of 5 employees in the survey reported high engagement and low burnout. These are the optimally engaged group. However, the data also showed that 1 out of 5 employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. This group is the engaged-exhausted group. These engaged-exhausted workers were passionate about their work, but also had intensely mixed feelings about it — reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. While they showed desirable behaviours such as high skill acquisition, these apparent model employees also reported the highest turnover intentions in our sample — even higher than the unengaged group.”[v] That means that organisations may be at risk of losing some of their high performers not for a lack of engagement, but because of their concurrent experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.[vi]

 


[i] Hamel, G. & Zanini, M. 2016. Top-down solutions like Holacracy won’t fix bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review

[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.

[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.

[iv] https://hbr.org/2015/12/executives-protect-your-alone-time

[v] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

[vi] https://hbr.org/2018/02/1-in-5-highly-engaged-employees-is-at-risk-of-burnout

Three insights on the future of work from our Sydney Workshop

Posted on Updated on

 

AG

I recently returned from running our annual Workshop in Sydney. Alongside trying to find the best flat white in the city and dealing with jetlag, I was able to hear more about what is on the minds of our Australia based clients. At our workshop we discussed why companies need to build a narrative on the future of work, and how to build a future-proofed culture amongst other topics. There were three major takeaways for organisations that came out for me around the workshop.

  1. Think about your narrative

 Despite increasing digital disruption and the rise of AI and analytics, organisations need to ensure they don’t forget the social aspects of change, and the power of stories over straight facts or data. Research has shown that stories impact people’s brains differently to facts, causing more connections in the brain and leading to closer relationships between the storyteller and the listener. People use stories as a way of understanding the world and this is particularly true when it comes to the future of work. Employees are looking to employers to provide a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. Organisations therefore need to reflect on their own narrative on the future, thinking about what it will mean to work in their company and how work will be done in the future. Where are your non-negotiables? Where are you going to take a bet and what will stay the same? In considering questions such as these, companies can provide their workers with a story about where they are going, and how they will be supported along this journey.

  1. Abandon assumptions around aging

 The importance of not relying on stereotypes and assumptions around aging also came out strongly in the Workshop. Longer working lives mean that organisations cannot make assumptions around the needs and desires of their workforce, particularly older workers.  No longer is it always the case that a worker in their 60s is looking to retire, for example. Organisations need to make sure that their practices and processes are not based on erroneous expectations. They need to rethink the way they approach retirement, or what it means to progress in the organisation, so that people are not penalised if they want to downgrade their working hours without losing status in the organisation.

  1. Identify your influencers

 Finally, the need to think about the cultural influencers in organisations was another important point. Rather than relying on hierarchical leaders, companies need to uncover the real influencers and work with them to drive cultural change. These influencers can be discovered through network analysis or crowdsourced conversations but should be brought in early on in the process to ensure the behavioural change so crucial so a successful culture shift.


It was great to hear from our members in Sydney, and we look forward to our next trip Down Under!

Mindfulness in the workplace: another health fad?

Posted on Updated on

During my final year at University, students were approached by counsellors about taking lessons in mindfulness in order to help us cope with the stress of final year. Initially, I dismissed it as another one of those health fads claiming to be a panacea for all modern ills, but after hearing about the benefits from other friends, I decided to do some research. Mindfulness can be described as a way to focus one’s awareness on the present, so that you are more conscious of what you are doing in that moment. Essentially, it is a way to re-programme one’s mind to think in less stressful ways. Admittedly, as quite an anxious person, this resonated with me, and so now I try to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life, and since starting here at Hot Spots Movement, I have been interested in how mindfulness could be transferred into my working life, and how it can help workers to be less stressed and ultimately more productive.

Over the past decade, research into mindfulness has exploded, with thousands of studies being conducted into its possible potential. The latest neuroscience studies are predominantly what transformed this practice from an ancient Buddhist concept into an exercise adopted by celebrities, businesses, politicians and the NHS. In 2007, scientists discovered that there are two different networks in our brain, two different ways we interact with the world: the default network and the direct experience network[1]. The direct experience network is activated when you are being mindful; not thinking about the past, the future or about other people. It is argued that this way of thinking allows you to get closer to the reality of an event, making you more flexible and relaxed in the decisions you make.

Business woman meditating

Some of the world’s biggest companies such as Google, Facebook and interestingly, our Future of Work Consortium member KPMG are paying attention to these studies and are now offering mindfulness or meditation programmes as a way to make their employees happier and less stressed. For example, Chade-Meng Tan, a Google pioneer completely revolutionised Google through introducing the ground-breaking ‘Search Inside Yourself’ mindfulness programme to all employees[2]. Perhaps this approach to wellbeing is one of the reasons why Google is consistently rated as the world’s best employer[3]. Similarly, CEO Mark Bertolini completely reshaped the culture of Aetna when he joined in 2010, drawing on his experience of mindfulness, which helped him through a time of intense depression after a life-threatening skiing incident[4]. He introduced free yoga and meditation classes to all employees, with those participating reporting on average a 28% reduction in their stress levels and a 20% improvement in sleep quality. Since Bertolini took over as CEO, Aetna’s stock increased threefold. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this case study, finding that Aetna’s employees each gained an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year[5].

Another motivation behind introducing mindfulness into the workplace has been the immense pressure that workers are under today. According to the City Mental Health Alliance, 50% of long-term absences are accounted for by such stress, accumulating to 70 million sick days[6]. More poignantly for employers, stress causes losses of £26 billion a year for the UK alone, and so it is no surprise that the leading innovative businesses have embraced mindfulness, in the hope that it will reflect in not only employees’ wellbeing, but also in productivity levels, and ultimately in profits.

I believe that introducing mindfulness into an organisation is a step in the right direction. Research may still not be able to unequivocally say that practicing mindfulness increases productivity, however the results of neuroscience studies are impressive and the case studies such as those of Google and Aetna show it is definitely worth investing in.

If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of mindfulness at work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at charlotte@hotspotsmovement.com

 

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/your-brain-work/200910/the-neuroscience-mindfulness

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/google-meditation-mindfulness-technology

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinstoller/2017/10/10/worlds-best-employers-2017/#7eb2ad252a01

[4] https://qz.com/work/1294914/the-ceo-of-aetna-was-considering-suicide-before-he-found-meditation/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/business/at-aetna-a-ceos-management-by-mantra.html?_r=0

[6] http://citymha.org.uk/about-us/

 

Why aren’t women applying to your job advertisement?

Posted on Updated on

CH

Applying for jobs can be a nerve-wracking experience, as competition is high and a step toward to your career goals hangs in the balance.  My assumption was that all candidates shared this same trepidation, but research from 2014 has revealed that men are far less cautious than women in this regard and will tend to apply for a role if they meet around 60% of the job requirements, whereas women will only apply if they meet 100% of them.[i]  Why does this disparity exist, and why aren’t more women applying for roles within their reach?

One argument is that the language used within job adverts themselves dissuades certain genders from applying.  For example, women are more likely to be deterred by adverts requesting individuals able to ‘manage’ rather than ‘develop’ teams, whereas men tend to prefer jobs requesting ‘competitive’ rather than ‘supportive’ candidates.  Words such as these, imbued with gender connotations, are surprisingly prevalent.  The technology company, Textio carried out research in 2016 to flag gendered language and found that the average job advert contains twice as many ‘masculine’ phrases as ‘feminine’ ones.[ii]  A similar study by recruitment services company, Total Jobs discovered that, within the 77,000 job adverts included in their study, 478,175 words carried gender bias; an average of six male-coded or female-coded words per advert.[iii]  The use of gendered language can pose a significant problem, as it can signal to potential candidates that they don’t – and won’t – belong.

Simple alterations can make a huge difference.  Atlassian, an Australian software company, hired 80% more women into technical roles within two years by changing the wording of its job adverts, demonstrating the extensive effect of language.[iv]  Paying close attention to the language used will be critical for companies wanting to grow the size of their talent pool, as ZipRecruiter proved when it discovered that gender neutral adverts receive up to 42% more applications than more biased ones.[v]

Picture1.png

And yet, there are some points of contention that arise when asking organisations to change their wording.  Firstly, in some cases, specific words are necessary.   For example, positions in investment banking demand a level of competition and fearlessness, and failing to include these elements in a job description may mean that a new employee is unprepared for the realities of the role.  Secondly, changing the language in adverts does not attempt to address the underlying social issues concerning why certain characteristics are perceived as either masculine or feminine in the first place.  Removing gendered words from job descriptions does not necessarily remove the biases associated with them.  However, despite these concerns, crafting gender neutral job adverts is an expression of a firm’s commitment to inclusion; and this must be seen as a step in the right direction.

Some state that the 60%/100% disparity is not evidence of a language problem but of a “confidence gap” between men and women.[vi]  They argue that women are less confident in their own abilities, whereas men are more self-assured and tend to take a more “cavalier” approach to applications.[vii]  This may be true of certain individuals but it seems both unfair and unlikely to assume that all men and women fit this stereotype.  In fact, researchers at the Harvard Business Review have dubbed the confidence gap a “myth”, suggesting that women are not deterred from job applications because they lack confidence but because they do not want to waste time and energy applying to a role they are not adequately equipped to perform.[viii]  Which instead raises the question: why are men applying for jobs that they aren’t qualified for?  And, do the men that start in these roles find themselves out of their depth?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Perhaps what this disparity actually shows is that more men have simply seen these job adverts for what they really are: wish lists.

A lack of female applicants signals the need for a wider change in how job adverts are understood.

Lengthy bullet-pointed lists of job requirements can trick applicants into thinking that each point is vital when, in reality, recruiters write lists of ideal attributes rather than strict, unyielding lists of absolute necessities.  Limiting the number of words in your job adverts will make it far easier for candidates to realise that they meet the requirements, while also reducing the risk of including gendered language.  As more people feel both able and inspired to apply, recruiters may find that individuals with transferrable skills can bring something unexpected to the organisation and take the role in a new and exciting direction.  Furthermore, recent research on job descriptions has shown that providing people with a rigid list of tasks does not encourage them to push boundaries and innovate.  Looser listings encourage opportunities for creativity and demonstrate that your organisation has space for people to be ambitious and to craft their own work and career path.[ix]  Let all of your applicants feel 100% ready to take on a role they can help to shape.


To talk more about inclusion at work, drop me an email at callandra@hotspotsmovement.com.

 

[i]  https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified

[ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/job-adverts-language-deter-women-applications-men-gender-employment-a8395106.html

[iii] https://blog.totaljobs.com/gender-bias

[iv] https://www.refinery29.uk/2018/06/201593/job-adverts-gender-bias

[v] https://www.ziprecruiter.com/blog/removing-gendered-keywords-gets-you-more-applicants/

[vi] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/

[vii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackzenger/2018/04/08/the-confidence-gap-in-men-and-women-why-it-matters-and-how-to-overcome-it/#57ebe9cb3bfa

[viii] https://hbr.org/2018/03/is-the-confidence-gap-between-men-and-women-a-myth

[ix] https://qz.com/336805/the-rise-of-the-name-your-own-job-posting/

Solving the productivity puzzle: The new ethical dilemma

Posted on Updated on

MHIn his 1994 book, ‘The Age of Diminishing Expectations’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, perspicaciously argued that ‘productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’.[i] When one considers that productivity is perhaps the main driver in an economy’s ability to grow and therefore also the greatest predictor of the standard of living for a given person or group of people, it is difficult to disagree with Krugman’s contention.

In essence, productivity is defined as output per hour worked. In recent years, however, within the developed world productivity levels have been lagging. To elaborate, the recent ‘Skills and Employment Survey’ highlighted that in the UK, labour productivity has historically grown by around 2% per year since the 1970s, but since the 2008-2009 recession it has stagnated and has failed to climb back to its prerecession growth rate.[ii] This unprecedented and unexplained slump has become known as the ‘productivity puzzle’ and is an issue that has caused widespread concern amongst economists, business leaders and governments within the developed world.

As productivity levels continue to stagnate, organisations are implementing AI solutions which are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s superb dystopian TV show ‘Black Mirror’ to help boost productivity levels. Amazon, for example has recently patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more productive. Veriato, a software firm, is able to track and log every keystroke employees make on their computers in order to measure how dedicated they are to their role and the company.[iii] In Helsinki, a digital innovation consultancy named ‘Futurice’ has installed sensors that can track an employee’s every move in the office, even in the toilet.[iv] Such technologies fall under the remit of what experts call the internet of things (IoT). Employees report mixed feelings about these new technologies, with a Harvard Business Review study revealing an approximate 50/50 split between those who believe AI technology enhances productivity and those who either disagree or feel its impact is neutral.[v]

marvin blog.jpg

The appeal of using advanced AI from the organisation’s perspective is clear and, although surveillance at work is not a new concept (factory workers have long clocked in and out), the scale to which certain AI technologies can now be used to monitor the productivity of the workforce is leading some commentators to suggest they are bordering on Orwellian. This inevitably raises acute philosophical questions about the ethical underpinnings of applied AI in the workplace. Indeed, just how far are organisations willing to go in the pursuit of productivity? Finding the balance between safeguarding basic privacy, workers’ rights and enhanced productivity will raise some moral dilemmas for organisations, and will no doubt become central to AI discourse in the coming years.

Finding this equilibrium will not be an easy task for organisations. A recent RSA report on the ethics of AI suggests there is a public perception that we may be surrendering too much power to AI technology.[vi] One thorny issue is that existing ethical frameworks are often incompatible with the world of technology. Science has attempted to develop ethical frameworks before – from Asimov’s Three Laws for Robots to Nick Bostrom’s work on ethics. Adhering to these frameworks can be problematic, as humans often find it difficult to develop virtues for their own conduct, let alone build relevant virtues into new technologies.[vii] The debate around ethical AI must also consider how certain workers are better equipped than others to prevent employers going too far. For example, those with a specialist, in demand skill-set stand a greater chance of resisting any unethical implementation of AI, whereas those in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hours contract workers in low-wage industries, have considerably less leverage.

In the current economic climate, solving the productivity puzzle is an alluring prize for organisations. However, if organisations wish to solve it using certain AI, it must be conscientiously executed with a strong injection of humanity to help ensure workers can retain a sense of dignity in their work during this period of accelerated and uncertain change.


[i] Krugman, P. (1994) The Age of Diminishing Expectations. Cambridge, MIT Press

[ii] Retrieved from https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1229833/1_Productivity_at_Work_Minireport_Final_edit_2.pdf

[iii]  The Economist (2018) AI in the Workplace

[iv]  Burke, C (2016) In offices of the future, sensors may track your every move – even in the bathroom (The Guardian)

[v] Retrieved from https://hbr.org/resources/pdfs/comm/verizon/18980_HBR_Verizon_IoT_Nov_14.pdf

[vi] Balaram, B (2018) The Ethics of Ceding More Power To Machines (RSA)

[vii] Dalmia, V. Sharma, K. (2018) The Moral Dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum)