In recent months, the world has seen extreme disruption in every aspect of life. As countries try to control the spread of COVID -19, travel restrictions, closure of borders, lockdowns, government support packages for organisations and citizens are now the norm. The abrupt stop in economic activities has brought world economies to their knees and there is a need for quick recovery to avoid severe job losses post COVID -19. Emerging economies like Nigeria, already struggling with the burden of foreign debts, underdeveloped infrastructure, poor healthcare and education systems, high unemployment, terrorism and significant social disparity, will see greater disruptions as they struggle to contain the economic and social ramifications of this pandemic.
Over the last five years, a significant number of organisations, in mostly developed economies, have embraced advanced technology for cost efficiency and precision by implementing Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, digitisation and automation. It is estimated that 37 percent of organisations have deployed AI solutions, up 270 percent from four years ago. This figure will continue to grow as organisations seek out ways to manage and eliminate risks to business processes.
The COVID -19 crisis has inevitably fast-tracked the advent of the Fourth Industrial revolution (4IR). As organisations reassess business continuity plans and improve their risk management systems to mitigate the fall-out from future crises, the acceleration of the implementation of advanced technology in business will become a priority. This acceleration will have a ripple effect across all aspects of business and work.
The restrictions in movement and in some countries, total lockdowns, have caused the closure of many brick-and-mortar businesses. Consequently, consumers, faced with movement restrictions, have migrated to e-commerce platforms to meet their daily demands, a reaction that has driven up the market value of e-commerce businesses. Organisations like Amazon, Alibaba, eBay, Zappos and Deliveroo have seen a considerable spike in customer traffic and have bolstered their workforce by employing temporary staff to meet the increase in demand, which may not abate at the end of the crisis. It is anticipated that the recent migration of customers to e-commerce will continue post COVID -19. This is fantastic news for e-commerce and technology driven organisations and signals a change in strategy for many brick -and-mortar businesses.
The global impact of the pandemic affects all aspects of life and business, including the workforce and the workplace. As organisations grapple with the concept of operating remotely, the white-collar workforce is expected to work from home. Navigating the complexity of tasks in the white-collar workforce during and after COVID -19 has thrown up new challenges for organisations. The migration of the white-collar workforce to the remote working environment is successful only when employees have the requisite skills to adapt to an environment driven by advanced technology and can be effectively supervised remotely. For the white-collar workforce, technology now plays a very important role when meeting work commitments and delivering on targets.
As businesses and employees seek technology software to maintain continuity, organisations like Zoom have experienced spectacular increase in market value. There is no doubt that the current disruption in the workplace will change the concept of work post COVID -19.
The blue-collar workforce, like the white-collar has experienced considerable change in trends. The migration of blue-collar workers from brick-and-mortar businesses to e-commerce tasks has been easier because of the lower-skill and lower expertise required for these positions. This migration has reduced the anticipated increase in unemployment and the loss of earnings expected during this pandemic.
The overall impact of this pandemic in the workplace cannot be ignored and we expect to see radical changes in business continuity plans and working requirements. The radical changes will include reviewing risk management controls, implementing advanced technology in business processes, increasing remote working opportunities and as a result reviewing the Key Performance Index for employees and inevitably job losses and lower wages.
During and after COVID -19, organisations are called to act across five stages – Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, Reform. Although many organisations have successfully safeguarded their businesses by enforcing remote working solutions and in more advanced businesses – automated processes – the real measure of how successful they have managed this crisis will become clearer when businesses return to the new normal. Thereafter, the stages of reimagination and reform will commence. Reimagination will involve assessing the new normal and understanding what it portends for organisations. This throws up the challenges of reinventing the workplace and creating new strategies for the business. The implementation of new business strategies and impending regulatory changes will drive the reform stage.
Since reimagination and reform will most likely involve decisions to incorporate technology, AI, automation and digitisation in business strategies and processes, discussions around extensive job losses in organisations will persist.
Before COVID -19, organisations with AI and automation in their business processes reported greater efficiency, faster resolution of problems, improved productivity and improvement in decision making. However, they are faced with new challenges which include finding highly-skilled talent to drive and implement these strategies and manage the vast amount of data collected. As organisations increase the role of advanced technology in business, they create substantial demand for highly-skilled talent like researchers, software engineers, data scientists, project managers and user experience designers. The current demand for higher-skilled professionals outstrips supply and has, in certain circumstances, delayed full deployment of advanced technology in organisations.
As advanced technology becomes important for business continuity plans and processes, the gap between organisations that are prepared for 4IR and those that are not, will continue to widen. The significant changes in the workplace will drive higher requirements for acquiring and retaining work. For the employees, these requirements will require upskilling or reskilling. To avoid job losses in an automated work environment, employees are expected to improve existing skills, discover new skills and identify opportunities that allow them to add value in their places of work as creativity becomes a highly desired talent.
It is anticipated that the deployment of advanced technology in the workplace will provide greater work life balance as employees are offered more opportunities to work from home. However, remote working opportunities may also come with reduction in salaries and wages.
While we expect that a fuller embrace of advanced technology will vary across economies, industries and enterprises, the disparities will become clearer over time. James Manyika, of McKinsey Global Institute, says ‘the mass deployment of automation in the workplace will occur occupation by occupation, technology by technology and activity by activity’. Highly innovative and manufacturing businesses are expected to move faster in deploying automation and AI in the workplace. In highly innovative businesses, lower-skilled positions are lost as higher-skilled positions, requiring higher educational requirements, are created. There is no doubt, the future of global education will also change to meet growing demand for a higher-skilled workforce.
The implementation of automation and robotics in the workplace will occur faster in developed economies than emerging economies for various reasons such as infrastructure, labour cost, R&D funding and recognition of intellectual property rights which drives creativity and invention. In emerging economies where labour costs are typically lower, the drive to automation and robotics will be determined not by labour cost considerations but the need to align with global efficiency and high specification production.
The challenges for emerging economies, particularly in Africa, are complex. Poor infrastructure, the high cost of existing technology which are protected by patents and other intellectual property rights, poor education policies and poor funding of education sectors, rapid growth in illiterate youth population in some countries and non-existent regulation of data collection and management inevitably means emerging economies will be slow in participating in the 4IR, a situation that will lead to higher unemployment rates, civil unrest, economic and social disruptions. As globalisation continues to dictate quality specifications, work delivery, uniformity in standards and processes, organisations in emerging economies will have to scale up, invest in R&D and implement advanced technology in their business processes. There is no doubt advanced technology will revolutionise the workspace and organisations in emerging economies are not isolated from the revolution in business and the workplace. To participate in this new era, the emerging economies will have to strategise, revaluate and reposition in ways that will be discussed later in this paper.
Will advanced technology make human beings completely redundant? Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, seems to disagree. In his view, ‘you can always make machines to learn knowledge, but it is difficult for machines to have a human heart’. Although machines are smarter than human beings, the chances they will overtake the importance of human beings in the future workspace are very slim. Data science is important in the new technology era and human beings possess the wisdom required for data management. The dawn of advanced technology in the workplace is not all doom and gloom for the workforce. AI and humans can co-exist in the workplace. Considering the critical role of data in AI, new jobs will evolve and people who quickly adapt to this new wave will be extremely successful, an outcome Deloitte’s researchers seem to accept by proposing ‘the reimaging of work as a collaborative effort in which humans define the problems, machines find the solutions and humans verify the acceptability of those solutions’.
As the workplace is continuously revolutionised by technological disruption, countries like Nigeria will have to resolve the challenges advanced technology portends. It is estimated that Nigeria’s population will increase by nearly 30 percent in 2030 and according to data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 42 percent of Nigeria’s 200 million population are within the ages of 0-14 years old and 10.5 million children out of school. In the event, Nigeria fails to strategise, reform and reposition itself to join the new era, a significant percentage of Nigeria’s labour force will be unskilled and unprepared to participate and compete in the global economy. In a current system where the employed population face the challenges of very poor education, poor skills acquisition and limited resources to reskill and upskill in a rapidly changing global economy, government, policy makers and the business community’s reform of current policies, training/retraining and investment in the education sector and refining the school curriculum to one that has technology at its core becomes even more critical. Government must reform the curriculum to ensure it drives creativity, curiosity and imagination. The Federal Government of Nigeria must also consider investment in infrastructure, regulatory reform and the recognition and protection of intellectual property rights which in turn stimulates creativity, invention and value.
Gender based policies are also important in reducing the impact of technology in the workplace. More than half of Nigeria’s population are female. Policies that drive girl child education, STEM and employment of women in the workforce are important for Nigeria’s success in the 4IR. These policies will also drive foreign donors, agencies and private investors to invest in Nigeria’s technology revolution.
The impact of COVID – 19 is not limited to technology in the workplace, it also opens more investment and job opportunities in specific sectors. In this crisis, we have seen developed economies experiencing failures in healthcare systems. In emerging economies, this has been a persisting problem. We foresee an increase in investment in healthcare infrastructure information systems, sustainable healthcare infrastructure, manufacturing of medical equipment and supplies, training of medical personnel, pharmaceuticals and R&D. Investors will also seek out these investment opportunities in emerging economies like Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. The flow of investments in this sector will create job opportunities in higher-skilled and lower-skilled areas increasing the demand for doctors, nurses, managers, researchers and other medical personnel.
To transition successfully in the dawn of AI, digitisation, automation and robotics, governments, business communities and the workforce all have roles to play. While it is expected that governments, policy makers and the business communities create the enabling environment for the co-existence of advanced technology and human beings in the workplace, the workforce must continue to adapt to the new job opportunities, improve skills and create opportunities to add value in the workplace. Job security in the future workplace will inevitably be determined by economic and social policies, industry sectors, gender, culture and the workforce’s unique and advanced skills.