Saturday 15 May 2021 10:00 am

Keir Starmer was right on one thing in his reshuffle - we need a Future of Work Secretary

Max von Thun is a political consultant and commentator

After a poor set of local election results and a botched reshuffle, Labour hasn’t had the best of weeks. But one thing it may have gotten right is the appointment of Angela Rayner as “shadow secretary for the future of work”. While it is easy to mock the elaborate titles bestowed on the deputy leader after she was sacked from as party chair and national campaign coordinator, her brief is nothing to scoff at. The Conservative party would do well to appoint their own equivalent to sit on the front benches. 

Until recently, concerns about the impact of technology on the workplace have largely focused on the so-called “gig economy”. This nebulous term refers to a whole range of jobs typically characterised by insecure and generally low-paid employment mediated by digital platforms – think ride-hailing, food delivery and courier services. 

While valued by many for the convenience and flexibility they offer, such platforms have been criticised for undermining employment protections and undercutting wages. Moreover, by widening the divide between those who can work comfortably from home and those who cannot, the pandemic has accentuated these concerns. As the recent Uber Supreme Court ruling demonstrates, the debate is far from over and the direction of travel increasingly appears to favour gig economy workers. 

Yet the world of work is changing in ways that go far beyond the gig economy, which ultimately employs just a small share of the population. The most obvious example of this is the shift to remote working and living during the pandemic. While many employers are understandably keen for their staff to return to offices as the crisis subsides, few expect a return to the pre-covid status quo, with a hybrid model combining remote and office working likely to be the new normal. 

While this will undoubtedly have significant benefits when it comes to work-life balance, mental health and the cost of living, we must not downplay the significant transitional costs that this will impose. Businesses in city centres starved of their commuter clientele will need to reinvent themselves or go bust, while a greater reliance on e-commerce will accelerate the transformation – if not demise – of our high streets. 

Companies deploying this hybrid model will need to come up with new means of facilitating collaboration, motivation and mentorship over the long-term, not to mention managing the panoply of health and safety, tax and cybersecurity risks posed by sustained remote working. 

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, artificial intelligence and automation will also have a significant impact on working life in the years to come. While the impact of automation on jobs has repeatedly been overstated by the prophets of doom, it is fair to say that many tasks – if not entire roles – currently carried out by humans will soon be replaced by machines. 

This trend is by no means restricted to the lower-skilled end of the labour market, as the growing role of algorithms in professions such as law and medicine – in trawling documents and detecting cancer for example – demonstrates. Both companies and governments will need to invest in retraining and redeploying workers displaced by technology in this way, either internally or in some cases in entirely new roles and sectors.  

Technology is also changing workplaces in other less dramatic ways. Employers are increasingly relying on AI-driven tools in a range of areas including recruitment, productivity enhancement and performance appraisal. While the most visible examples of this so far have been in the gig economy – where algorithms make decisions about task-allocation, ratings and in some cases even suspension – such tools are increasingly popular in offices too. While proponents extol their ability to neutralise human biases and provide a more objective basis for evaluating performance, critics worry about unfair algorithms and unappealable – perhaps even incomprehensible – automated decision-making.

The rapidly evolving nature of work will require an equally ambitious modernisation of our outdated laws and institutions when it comes to employment, education and even urban planning, not to mention areas where little regulation exists such as artificial intelligence. The absence of a promised Employment Bill in the government’s recent Queen’s Speech was a major let down in this regard, although planned legislation on skills and planning provides some encouragement. Labour’s appointment of a dedicated “future of work” tsar is promising, but will need to be backed up by serious policy thinking if it is to mean anything. 

Technology is changing the world of work beyond recognition. Our job is to ensure it works for us. 

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