Digitalisation has given rise to monumental shifts in the future of work. With numerous predictions about the disruptive effects of technology, workers and the organisations they work for are inundated with negative messages of disruption. Furthermore, the future of work is not immune to further complications brought about by other global phenomena. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has further disrupted the way we work and will eventually entrench a new normal upon us. Indeed, in the Future of Jobs Report 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) stated that “the ongoing disruption to labour markets from the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been further complicated – and in some cases, accelerated – by the onset of the pandemic-related recession of 2020”1. The accumulation of all the disruptions, shifts and transformations have thus precipitated increasing uncertainty for workers. Nevertheless, amidst the portents of disruption, there are signs of optimism. A PwC study showed that 85 percent of Singaporeans surveyed felt that “technology will change their work for the better”2. Our challenge is to harness our optimism and brave the relentless uncertainties as we confront our future of work.
DIGITALISATION AND FUTURE OF WORK
Understanding how disruptions occur may lay the foundations for the way forward. Research by industry and academia has shown that technology transforms work not job-by-job but task-by-task. For example, a McKinsey Global Institute study showed that a majority of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent activities that can technically be automatable3. Brynjolfsson, Mitchell and Rock have also shown that “tasks within jobs typically show considerable variability in ‘suitability for machine learning’ while few – if any – jobs can be fully automated using machine learning. Machine learning technology can transform many jobs in the economy, but full automation will be less significant than the reengineering of processes and the reorganisation of tasks”4. The gradual and piecemeal nature of disruption suggests that to determine the impact technology has on work, jobs must first be decomposed into their constituent tasks. Only through analysing which individual tasks would be automated or augmented by technology can workers and organisations determine precisely how each job will be affected5. The divergent nature of technology’s impact on work thus presents a form of uncertainty for workers. Indeed, workers might ask – where will the balance between automated tasks and tasks that remain in workers’ hands shift after the transformation? What new tasks will they have to do? After digitalisation has transformed work, will workers have to transform too?
The discourse surrounding workers adapting to digital transformation often centres around what workers can do to ensure that they remain relevant to the job market of tomorrow. With a multitude of avenues for workers to upskill, including the Government’s SkillsFuture programme, workers are encouraged to pursue lifelong learning to “develop their fullest potential throughout life”6. This approach aligns with the conventional “plug-and-play” model where employers seek to recruit people who are already skilled or experienced7. However, the consensus is shifting towards a shared responsibility – one undertaken by both workers and their employers to ensure employees’ career resilience. In fact, both industry players and the Government are urging employers to play a key role in upskilling workers. McKinsey, for example, is advocating for employers to “lead the way”, arguing that “employers are best placed to be in the vanguard of change and make positive societal impact – for example, by upgrading the capabilities of their employees and equipping them with new skills”8. Similarly, the Ministry of Manpower is urging employers to “consider reviewing their approach”, highlighting the various government schemes available to help with training9. In return, employers get to expand their talent pool by upskilling workers already within the organisation or broadening the search to include job seekers from previously precluded occupations. This diversification of talent sources could therefore bolster the organisation’s resilience at a time when talent shortages could be widespread, particularly for new and emerging roles. As it stands, digitalisation will transform work. While the responsibility of adapting to the ever-changing circumstances ultimately falls on each individual worker, employers can play a role too, especially when ensuring workers’ career resilience means ensuring the overall resilience of the organisation.
STAYING RELEVANT: THE CASE FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE IN THE MICE SECTOR
The MICE10 sector in Singapore has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The conventional model of hosting physical events is no longer viable. In addition, trends in digitalisation and Industry 4.0 threaten to forestall a return to previous ways of doing business post-pandemic in what has been dubbed the new normal for the sector11. Here, digitalisation offers a solution. The MICE sector in Singapore has been recognised as having adapted quickly to changing circumstances brought about by the pandemic12. Their answer (among others) – a ‘hybrid event’ format that weaves physical and digital presence into one seamless experience for event attendees. Still, the question of emerging roles and the talent sources to cater to this newly innovated model remains. The transformation required has created a need for more talent with new skills where workers will be expected to fill emerging roles that combine technical expertise with their event management experience13. As succinctly put by an events industry director, “…(we) need skills from different industries and schools. (We) need to replace lost staff too.” Can organisations then train workers with cross-sector skills fast enough? In addition, more changes to work are needed as organisations further transform. In order to ensure resilience in an uncertain world, can organisations design new roles and chart pathways for workers continuously as the sector keeps on transforming?
Future of work research on the MICE sector done by LKYCIC14 in collaboration with U FSE15 and SACEOS16 hopes to point the way forward. Adopting the task approach, the research aims to provide a lens to the future of work that is as clear, granular, and detailed as it is flexible, creative, and humanistic. To do that, existing roles that could be affected by digitalisation or other forms of disruption are first identified. For the MICE sector, as the disruption to the sector is far-reaching, the impacted roles are also wide-ranging. Next, the roles are broken down into their constituent tasks, giving us a more granular view of their work. With a more detailed understanding of what workers do day-to-day, organisations (ideally in collaboration with workers) can recombine these tasks in interesting new ways, creating new roles in the process. Organisations must also consider how the new and emerging tasks created as part of the transformation can be introduced in these roles. For the MICE sector, innovation leads to new roles that fit the newly developed hybrid event format. By continually exposing workers to new and emerging tasks as the sector transforms, organisations help ensure both organisational and career resilience.
The clarity that tasks provide in understanding what workers do can also help them transition to the new roles. Tasks from current roles can be compared with tasks from new ones. This comparison allows workers to know exactly how similar they are to the new roles and what tasks they have to train for. In doing so, organisations can illuminate pathways that guide workers as they transition.
Organisations can leverage these pathways as well by using them to look for sources of talent. By repeating the process of matching new roles to existing ones organisation-wide or even further afield, organisations could potentially uncover unexpected matches that are a close fit for the new role across the whole economy. Furthermore, if organisations standardise how tasks are defined across jobs internally, organisations can take advantage of the powerful possibilities of using existing algorithms and standardised databases to rigorously and rapidly generate these pathways17. This advantage is especially useful in quickly scaling up the search for new talent sources. Organisations can automatically scan thousands of job descriptions, with the algorithm comparing each role task by task and generating task pathways for all. By utilising this process, organisations can significantly broaden their search and identify a wider variety of talent sources to recruit from, including ones not considered before.
Overlaying the lens of tasks on work thus allows organisations to peer through the uncertainties that shroud the question of their future. Using the language of tasks, what is hitherto ambiguous can now be made concrete. Moreover, the task approach can be the conduit through which resilience can be ensured in a mutually beneficial way. On the one hand, organisations forced to adapt can reap the benefits of a diversified talent supply to power the next wave of transformations. On the other, workers can keep themselves up to date with the latest developments in their sector and enrich their careers through exposure to new and emerging tasks.
BEYOND DIGITALISATION: RECOGNISING OUR WORKERS’ BROADER LIFE EXPERIENCES AND GOALS
We are more than just our jobs and careers. Throughout our lives, we have played numerous roles and have taken on many responsibilities beyond those at work. These experiences can include our previous careers, caregiver roles, gigs, hobbies, volunteer work and more. From these myriad experiences, we pick up a diverse set of skills that are potentially relevant for future transformations. Recognising and incorporating them into the new roles would not only provide organisations with an expanded source of talent and skills to tap on but also allow workers to benefit by building on what they already have familiarity with. Making workers’ ‘side hustles’ a more significant part of their primary work experience increases the breadth of their tasks that are career-relevant, thereby diversifying and building resilience in their careers.
Organisations can take it further by recognising workers’ personal life goals. Goals such as finding purpose or passion in our careers by helping others, seeking creative or engaging jobs that energise us, or looking for jobs that ensure we have time for family and friends are goals we would have in tandem with fulfilling our duties at work. Furthermore, these goals are not static, and they may c hange throughout our lives. By aligning the objectives of transformation with personal goals, organisations can ensure that the overall purpose of resilience is not an individual or organisational endeavour but one in which organisations and workers can progress together. Organisations can achieve this with the task approach. Through overlaying task pathways with humanistic considerations – for instance, whether grouping specific tasks together allows workers to take on a particular role part-time or whether adding a certain task will enable employers to increase a person’s salary – organisations can generate pathways to future roles that cater to organisational goals while keeping in consideration personal ones. The value that the task approach brings is in its ability to be put together and rebuilt in a multitude of ways, affording flexibility and diversity of choice to both workers and organisations. Roles can now be further individualised. In this way, the task approach helps to elevate the humanistic aspects of our work experience.
In an increasingly volatile and complex world filled with much uncertainty for the future, workers will naturally look ahead with much trepidation. However, our future of work is also brimming with opportunities. As organisations continuously navigate the never-ending changes and transformations brought about by new waves of digitalisation, they can steer workers to where the future is. With the help of guided task pathways, workers can make the transition with clarity and confidence. The future will always be uncertain, but with organisations playing an ever-increasing role in ensuring our shared resilience, workers will not be facing the future alone. ⬛
1 World Economic Forum. The Future of Jobs Report 2020. 2020, October 20. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020
2 PwC. New world. New skills. Accessed on 2021, June 7. Available at: https://www.pwc.com/sg/en/publications/new-world-new-skills.html
3 Manyika, J., Chui, M., Miremadi, M., Bughin, J., George, K., Willmott, P., and Dewhurst, M. A Future that Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity. McKinsey & Company. 2017, January 12. Retrieved from: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/digital-disruption/harnessing-automation-for-a-future-that-works
4 Brynjolfsson, E., Mitchell, T., and Rock, D. What Can Machines Learn and What Does It Mean for Occupations and the Economy? AEA Papers and Proceedings 108, 2018. pp. 43-47
5 Infocomm Media Development Authority and Personal Data Protection Commission. A Guide to Job Redesign in the Age of AI. 2020. Available at: https://file.go.gov.sg/ai-guide-to-jobredesign.pdf
6 SkillsFuture Singapore. About SkillsFuture. Accessed on 2021, June 7. Available at: https://www.skillsfuture.gov.sg/AboutSkillsFuture
7 Ministry of Manpower. Jobs Situation Report 19th Edition. 2021, March 12. Retrieved from: https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2021/0312-jobs-situation-report—19th-edition
8 Hancock, B., Lazaroff-Puck, K., and Rutherford, S. Getting practical about the future of work. McKinsey & Company. 2020, January 30. Retrieved from: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/getting-practical-about-the-future-of-work
9 Ministry of Manpower. Jobs Situation Report 19th Edition. 2021, March 12. Retrieved from: https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2021/0312-jobs-situation-report—19th-edition
10 Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions
11 Tan, S. Industrial Transformation Asia-Pacific event goes hybrid amid Covid-19 pandemic. The Straits Times. 2020, October 20. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/business/economy/industrial-transformation-asia-pacific-event-goes-hybrid-amid-covid-19-pandemic
12 Government of Singapore. Hybrid events, virtual demonstrations – how Singapore’s MICE sector is adapting quickly to COVID-19. 2020, September 14. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.sg/article/how-the-mice-sector-is-adapting-quickly-to-covid-19
14 Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
15 The Freelancers and Self-Employed Unit (U FSE), a National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) initiative
16 Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers (SACEOS)
17 Infocomm Media Development Authority and Personal Data Protection Commission. A Guide to Job Redesign in the Age of AI. 2020. Available at: https://file.go.gov.sg/ai-guide-to-jobredesign.pdf
Norakmal Hakim Norhashim is a Senior Research Assistant under the Future Digital Economy and Digital Societies initiative at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. His research combines data-driven and human-centred methodologies to studying and developing solutions for the Future of Work.
Poon King Wang is the Director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where he also leads the Future Digital Economies and Digital Societies initiative, and the Smart Cities Lab.
Including contributions by Radha Vinod and Darion Hotan
Radha Vinod is an Algorithm Engineer under the Future Digital Economy and Digital Societies initiative at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. Her emphasis is on Natural Language Processing and Automation. She is responsible for converting Future of Work research insights into applications.
Darion Hotan is a Senior Research Assistant under the Future Digital Economy and Digital Societies initiative at the Lee Kuan Yew C entre for Innovative Cities. He studies emerging paradigms of work and their attendant implications for the future workforce.