Nearly every country is grappling with high levels of unemployment. While COVID-19 ignited this crisis, it is part of a larger shift in the workforce that has been happening for some time. Specifically, over the last two decades the world has been transitioning into a digital society. Even before the pandemic, technological unemployment and digital transformation were hot topics.
In the past, this transition was happening slowly, making us think we had more time to plan and prepare. Today, because digital work is more resilient to a pandemic-stricken world, as well as more cost-effective overall, we are forced to make this transition all at once.
First, it is essential to provide emergency help to workers as well as employers. We should do all that we can to prevent loss of life as well as irreversible financial damages to individuals, businesses and the wider economy. But we can’t stop there – we must also help people make the leap into a digital society for the long term.
When we think about integrating technology into the workplace, we often think of automating products and services: digital marketplaces that support customers, robots and machines that manufacture goods, data and sensors to manage supply chains, self-driving cars that bring products to customer’s doors. And while all of this is valid, we can also use technology to make workplaces better for people. For example, we can use data and sensors to monitor the health and safety of workplaces: Is the air clean? Is the temperature comfortable? Are workers taking adequate breaks? Are break rooms, bathrooms and common spaces regularly cleaned? Do outdoor workers have access to water, shade and sunscreen? Workplaces today can easily be monitored with low-cost sensors, wearable sensors, cameras and smartphones. Of course, these systems must be designed to protect workers’ rights and privacy, rather than surveil or exploit workers. These technologies can help workers return to the workplace during the pandemic, in a way that is both safer today as well as post-pandemic.
If workers cannot physically come into the workplace, employers can still use this time to provide valuable training for workers (ideally while paying them). This can also support a company’s efforts in reinventing itself for a digital age. For example, as more and more companies turn to robots and machines to make clothing, workers with knitting and weaving experience can shift into jobs creating hi-tech medical devices; in Bolivia, indigenous workers are now knitting medical devices that help children born with holes in their hearts. NewHarvest, a nonprofit that works to accelerate breakthroughs in cellular agriculture – a new industry that will revolutionize meat and agriculture – offered a series of open access online courses in June. For companies hoping to teach their employees about innovation, they might join up with Global Startup Ecosystem, a company founded by Christine Souffrant Ntim and Einstein Kofi Ntim, two Singularity University alumni. They launched the world’s first digital accelerator and now work with hundreds of thousands of innovators across the Caribbean, Middle East and Africa. There has been no better time in history for both workers and employers to find free or affordable access to training.
Just as companies can support their workers with access to job training, they can also support workers’ families by providing access to digital healthcare and digital education. Both are rapidly growing sectors in every corner of the world. I follow the work of 360ed, an edtech startup created at Singularity University led by Hla Hla Win, now providing education to millions of children in Myanmar, as well as Disrupt Africa which covers, among other industries, the rapid growth of the e-health industry across the continent. As both education and healthcare become digitized, they are increasingly affordable and accessible, becoming benefits that companies or labour unions can offer workers.
While we can support workers by using technology to upskill them and create healthy workplaces, we also need to prepare for a world where many workers will still simply lose their jobs to automation – something that will be accelerated by the pandemic. The solution here is to embrace the corporate ownership models from the digital industries. For several decades, the tech industry worked off a model of paying workers wages as well as offering stock. While stock was an incentive to encourage workers to take risks with startups, it also aligned with the way digital technologies and companies behave – due to exponential growth they scale very fast, creating large financial returns for stock owners. As we go through this pandemic, and many companies begin digitizing themselves, it is essential that leaders provide stock to all workers, and workers and labour unions strongly advocate for it. If a robot takes your job, it will be able to work 24 hours a day and be much more efficient than you. Furthermore, that efficiency will only increase over time. Additionally, many workers, such as those working for car delivery services, are actually creating the data through their everyday actions training the robots that will take their jobs. All workers, not just a handful, should benefit for their contributions. Starbucks and Chobani Yogurt began issuing stock to all employees a few years ago and there is a lot of new thinking and innovation around this topic in blockchain and decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) communities.
Looking ahead, policymakers should incentivize this adoption of technology to create healthy workplaces and also create opportunities for upskilling of workers and their families. They should research specific industries and solutions relevant to their regions, spread awareness of these solutions and create match-making opportunities through virtual events, as well as create financial incentives. Policymakers should also research new economic structures and business models for companies in a digital world, and create policies that allow companies and workers to equally benefit from the tremendous gains created through digitization. If we do this work today, it will greatly pay off in the future.
This article was originally published on the OECD’s Forum Network.