Workers’ take on change

www.nesta.org.uk/feature/workers-take-on-change/
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It has long been clear that automation is having a profound effect on jobs – creating new roles, making others obsolete, changing what workers do and how they do it.

In 2017, Nesta research found that most occupations in the UK will experience uncertainty in the next decade, and our recent manifesto set out the necessary action to protect the UK’s millions facing precarity. And then COVID-19 hit.

At the beginning of 2020 we set out to gather and share stories from people whose jobs are being rapidly changed by technology. We wanted to know how they felt about these changes, and whether they thought they could shape or influence the direction things are taking. Importantly, we wanted to hear their thoughts on what a positive future working alongside technology could look like.

The interviews took place as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the UK. We heard from workers whose jobs have been changing on a daily, or even hourly, basis, as companies rush to respond to the latest government policies while still trying to fulfil customer needs. No sector has been untouched by the crisis, which has dramatically changed the way all of us are working right now. But in many cases, the pandemic is simply fast-tracking changes already underway.

The experiences presented here are varied: we hear from a supermarket helpdesk operator, a courier, a translator, a farmer, a travel agent, a human resources professional and a pharmacist. But through their stories some common threads emerge, including the meteoric rise of remote working, the vulnerability of gig economy workers and the consolidation of power by a few huge corporations. They’re all thrown into sharp relief by an event which shows us just how much technology has changed our world, and how much change may still be coming.

Our storytellers reflect on the positive, negative and neutral impacts of automation and technology on their work. Allison, a travel agent, has seen her sector revolutionised by comparator sites and online booking systems. But she still thinks there’s a role for people: “The more automation there is, the less your average person pays attention to details. So in fact there’s more need for a human to point them out.” Meanwhile James, a bike courier, is actively trying to give workers more control of a heavily-automated industry – he and his fellow couriers have tried to crash the system by placing lots of small orders, and have started to unionise.

And although the pandemic has made work challenging for many of our interviewees, several believe that the crisis has opened up some opportunities to think differently. Sam, a farmer, believes that COVID-19 has made people more aware of where their food comes from, and led them to realise that farmers provide a valuable service. Pharmacist Michael predicts the pandemic will have a long-lasting effect by broadening the range of ways that people communicate with pharmacists and doctors – change that was coming anyway, but that has developed much more quickly as a result of the crisis. Yssine, who works in HR, points out that the pandemic has shown how many companies’ HR systems were “totally unprepared for crisis”.

But the future is still uncertain for most. Rob, a supermarket call centre operator, just hopes to hang onto his job until he’s been there long enough to get full employment rights. He thinks the pandemic could give employers more licence to exploit workers, such as by changing shifts at short notice. “Those sorts of things can happen, unless we have someone to stand up for our rights.” And Hannah, a translator who is competing with ever-more-sophisticated software – which learns from the translations she provides – thinks that eventually, jobs will play a weaker role in people’s identities. She thinks that COVID-19 might open up possibilities for changes that were previously hard to imagine, like the introduction of a universal basic wage for all citizens.

The stories shared in this collection are based on interviews with workers from different parts of the UK, and with different backgrounds and life experiences. As far as possible, they have been told in the storyteller’s own words, including audio clips and images to help bring these stories to life. They are not representative of every worker’s experience, and we do not use them to make specific recommendations about the future of work.

Instead, we present them to make the case for including a more diverse range of perspectives in our conversations and decisions about the technologies, policies and working practices of the future. Our understanding of what is plausible and desirable is shaped by the stories we hear and tell – at a time of such dramatic change, it is more important than ever to put the stories of those who are directly affected front and centre.

These interviews were conducted in March and April 2020 by Rebecca Lynch. Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.