For more than 25 years, tech evangelist Marc Saltzman has reported on what’s new and next in the tech industry, from gaming and gear to smart homes and drones. Here, we ask for his observations on the impact of technology on the future of work.
Tech expert, journalist, speaker, and host
Q: A key narrative in the headlines about the future of work is that millions of jobs are going to be lost to automation. It’s true that this will create efficiencies, but it’s also creating a lot of fearmongering that robots will take over. Is this really warranted?
Marc: It’s true that there's a lot of fearmongering when it comes to automation disrupting the workforce. In fact, depending on who you ask, automation is going to impact between 30% and 75% of all jobs in the next couple of decades.
Definitely in the workforce, there are companies that are looking to create efficiencies by automating some tasks, and technologies like AI and robotics will augment, and in some cases, replace human work. It’s part of the evolutionary track that we're on – but instead of fearing it, I think we should embrace it.
For every job that automation replaces – whether via AI, robotics, or self-driving vehicles – it's going to create, on average, four to five new jobs. They’re just going to be different jobs; that means different skill sets and education streams will be required, whether it’s in the gig economy or enterprise corporations.
Q: What are some current examples of technology and automation supporting and augmenting humans at work?
Marc: Chatbots are one example of AI at work. If you contact a company today, chances are the frontline of that conversation is a text chat over a website. It is handled by a bot that is looking for some keywords. The bot can handle, say, 10% or 15% of the tasks. Then, when it can't help you any longer, it directs you to a human.
That's already better than a few years ago, when you would have a human answer right off the top. From a cost and time perspective, companies and employees are saving on that work that the chatbot is now handling.
"For every job that automation replaces – whether via AI, robotics, or self-driving vehicles – it's going to create, on average, four to five new jobs."
In progressive factories, we’re already working alongside robotics, whether it’s in an assembly line, or lifting heavy crates.
Yes, technology can do things that we can’t, but we’re still going to need that human intervention. Technology will continue to integrate with us.
Q: Broadly, we’re already quite comfortable with technology augmenting what we do in our personal lives and as consumers. But there seems to be more of a disconnect when it comes to adopting technology in the context of the workplace. What would you say to leaders about changing their mindset in this regard?
Marc: As consumers, we have grown reliant on technology. It’s all around us.
We have an app for that. We have voice assistants and smart speakers in the home. We have technologies built into our vehicles that are keeping us safe on the road.
I would tell leaders they need to understand that when employees step into the door at the office, they expect the same kind of modern conveniences. They expect these tech tools to help them in their workplaces. There shouldn't be a disconnect between what they’re enjoying and relying upon in their personal lives when they delve into the professional space, especially in today's day and age where work and play are fused together.
Think of it from this perspective: Technology is a tool. It can help you get more done in less time. It's always with you, so you don't have to be in a specific place to get anything done. Technology can help you remain organized and productive wherever life takes you.
While we’re increasingly relying on tech, nothing replaces human interaction – but tech can help enhance it.
Q: From a leadership perspective, tech investment and adoption can be a big, and sometimes stressful undertaking. How can leaders make smarter choices?
Marc: For business leaders, adopting technology can be intimidating and overwhelming. There is no shortage of options out there. Technology evolves at such a rapid pace, and there’s always the concern about your investment remaining relevant for the long term, and evolving as the business evolves.
Business leaders want to focus on what they do best – running their business. They’re not always the tech experts, so they need to hire the right people – the CIO, the CHRO, operations roles – who can bring the vision to life supported by the right technology.
"While we’re increasingly relying on tech, nothing replaces human interaction – but tech can help enhance it."
It’s also great to test the waters with the help of experts. When you're looking for a technology partner, obviously you want to do your research. You want to look at their track record. What kind of support do they offer? Can they evolve at a rapid pace? How much do they involve you in the process, and what’s their level of communication?
Q: There are currently five generations in the workplace, each with its own expectations and desires. How does technology help, or hinder, the multi-generational workforce?
Marc: Technology plays a role across the board. I think the younger workers are, the more ingrained technology is, both personally and professionally.
I’m generalizing here, but older workers can leverage years of experience and human interaction, and provide valuable mentorship in that regard.
Technology can bridge the gap between multi-generational workers. How they use and rely on it varies from generation to generation, but it can be the common ground whereby they can exchange ideas and concepts, communicate and collaborate, and complement each other's skill sets as they work towards business goals.
And not to belabor the point, but the workforce is now making room for a sixth generation, if you will, and that’s automation. We will learn and adapt to this, as we always do.
Q: What are some of the technologies that you see as mainstays in this always-on world?
Marc: We've seen a lot more telecommuting and working from home because of tools like video chatting, cloud-based software, and soon 5G connectivity, where everything is going to be connected at super high speeds.
Your smartphone is a computer. I think it’s one of the most critical tools that someone has in their arsenal – along with the apps that complement it, whether they're within the organization or publicly available applications.
Also, there’s nothing more natural than using your voice. We’re starting to see smart speakers and voice-activated assistants move from being tools for personal use – like asking for weather updates and sports scores – to playing a bigger role at work.
Soon, we’ll look at self-driving vehicles as a way to get more done on the way to work, and on the way back.
It’s not a linear model anymore. Over time, people will communicate, collaborate, and work on whatever device they’re most comfortable with, regardless of the operating system, no matter where they are on the planet. This is where I think we’re going.
Hear more from Marc at INSIGHTS 2019. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.