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The Future of Work: Questions that need answers

Anthony BoccanfusoBy Anthony Boccanfuso

On Wednesday morning, I’ll meet with colleagues in Framingham, MA, at the Bose Corporation for our sixth Future of Work at the Human Technology Frontier session in as many weeks. Our goal for this week’s National Science Foundation-sponsored event, and the events leading up to it, is to convene academic, corporate and government decisionmakers to identify how academic-corporate partnerships can address the challenges and opportunities created by the changing face of work.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in these workshops, examining research opportunities in four key areas:

  • building the human-technology partnership;
  • augmenting human performance;
  • illuminating the socio-technological landscape; and
  • fostering lifelong learning.

The Future of Work(ers)

Despite the ink devoted to automation and how it will affect (and perhaps replace) the daily tasks of many employees, the future of work is still very much about the future of workers. To prepare that workforce, academia and industry will need to develop and provide effective training (and, in some cases, re-training) for workers of all ages and education levels.

One takeaway I’ve have from these discussions is how often the four themes above overlap one another. For example, workers need the intellectual and technical tools to contribute to the innovation economy, so ensuring we have a workforce that continually learns and develops its potential relies on developing new ways to train an increasingly diverse population. Does that happen best in a traditional classroom setting—face to face? Or do we harness technology to deliver training in cooperative spaces, or across distances? What lessons can we learn from the rapid adoption of telemedicine, for instance, about the value consumers place on convenience over a long-term, relationship-based experience? What are the factors that make learning more effective for the older worker, the differently-abled worker, or the worker new to the job market? Those are some of the questions that need further exploration.

We talk a lot about the gig economy and its relevance to the past decade of tech innovation. But remote location and secure technology logistics—key elements that make the gig economy work—pose challenges for the next decade and beyond. Companies want to retain valuable employees in times of expansion and change, but the desire to create a unique corporate culture that elevates teamwork, diversity, acceptance, and inclusion conflicts with the need to give creative space and flexibility for innovation to blossom. Is there a balance to be struck? If so, we need research to tease out the success elements and identify best practices.

In these Future of Work events, we’ve showcased a variety of case examples in workforce training, navigating the socio-technological landscape, and using technology to enhance how we work. They’ve spurred fertile conversations while raising new questions. The questions aren’t always comfortable, but they’re precisely why we’re convening these Future of Work events with NSF support—to inform research priorities that will solve societal problems while building a rich, trans-disciplinary portfolio over the next decade.