Five Ways To Design A Better Job For Yourself In The Age Of Automation

What’s easier for a robot: playing chess or gardening on a windy day? How about playing a video game or balancing on one foot?

Some tasks that are trivial for humans, yet immensely difficult for robots. This is encapsulated by Moravec’s paradox, named after Hans Moravec, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. 1 Complex, abstract tasks, such as chess or algebra, are tiring for us yet trivial for robots. Small movements and balancing, on the contrary, are easy for us yet taxingly difficult for artificially intelligent beings. These uniquely human benefits come in handy when thinking of what your post-automation job will look like.

What makes us human

The automation-resistant tasks that remain for us at work after automation further progresses will need our uniquely human abilities. Skills like creativity, empathy, and dexterity are much easier for people to exhibit than computers. 2 After all, we’ve practiced these skills since birth, with many opportunities to learn and adapt. Armed with insights about what tasks you’ll be doing after a wave of automation, you can look to the future and design a more automation-resistant role within your organization.

The process of designing a new role for yourself in your existing job is called job crafting. By crafting your job, you can increase your ability to deal with stress,3 find new motivation at work, and gain career flexibility by giving yourself more opportunities to master new skills.4

Going through this process might sound like overstepping your bounds as an employee, yet senior leadership would likely be quite receptive to the gesture. CEOs and other top-level leaders are worried about low levels of innovation leaving their companies behind. Specifically, 77% of CEOs surveyed were worried that their companies didn’t have the creativity to reinvent their business in a slowdown.5 Now that we’re in the middle of a slowdown, you’d be surprised at how valuable job crafting can be for helping yourself and your company thrive.

Say you want to use job crafting to build a more automation-resistant role in your company. How exactly should you do this?

You’ll want to use the principles of work design below to enrich your job.6 The acronym ‘FIVAS’ covers the five ways you can make your tasks more desirable, less routine, and more valuable, especially in service and knowledge industries.7 FIVAS stands for:

  • Feedback: When you see the results of your work sooner, your job is high in feedback.
  • Identity: When your work is more holistic than piecemeal, you have high task identity.
  • Variety: When you do many different tasks instead of one repetitive function, you have task variety.
  • Autonomy: When you can make independent decisions about your work, you have greater autonomy.
  • Significance: If your work is meaningful to you, it has significance.

These five job design elements can better match your skills to your work. The current skills-job mismatch affects many workers, keeping them underemployed and disengaged because their work isn’t challenging.

If leaders ignore these elements of work design, automation can make skilled jobs more externally controlled, giving workers less autonomy.8 Here’s what a data analyst’s job could look like before and after job crafting:

Job Design Elements Before Job Crafting After Job Crafting
Feedback The data analyst only gets feedback once a year in their annual review. The data analyst gets weekly feedback on smaller tasks and sees their impact after each project is done.
Identity The analyst’s role involves reviewing datasets. The analyst’s role involves data-driven projects from beginning to end.
Variety The data analyst spends all their time cleaning financial data in one computer program. The data analyst prepares, analyzes, and presents data from multiple sources, including financial and marketing information.
Autonomy The employee follows a script to review data quality that specifies every step in the process. The employee explores multiple ways to solve the company’s new challenges using data.
Significance The analyst plays a small role in the reporting function of the company. The analyst owns data-driven projects from start to finish, seeing the impact of their work on its recipients.

The benefits of mindless work

Yet, it is possible to go too far with a job redesign. When crafting your job to be more motivating, you’ll want a balance between challenging, unique tasks and mindless work.

“Why would I want some mindless work?”, you might ask.

Surprisingly, repetitive tasks can inspire creativity by letting your mind wander and make new connections.9 When your job has variety, you’ll be switching tasks more often. This takes a cognitive toll, so you’ll need some low-energy work to recover from all of these demands.

During those recovery periods, you might find yourself dreaming up new solutions to challenges in your role. This will motivate you to do more challenging, unique work. Balancing “brain breaks” and difficult work can create a virtuous cycle of tasks that spark — instead of drain — your energy.

We don’t need to be passive in the face of automation. By bringing our uniquely human skills to newly redesigned jobs, we can craft more motivating and impactful work even as our economy rapidly transforms.

Don’t Ask If Your Job Will Be Automated. Ask These Questions Instead.

The Jetsons dreamed of a futuristic utopia in which we would have flying cars and robots to take care of work and domestic tasks for us. And, as logically follows, we would have more free time than ever in this new, automated society.

But the future isn’t turning out anything similar to what we expected. Even before the pandemic hit, technology was supposed to free us from nonstop work. Instead, our devices became tools that kept us locked into work and spilled over into evenings and weekends. Looking into the future, we expect that automation will fill our workplaces, pushing out humans in favour of robots. How much of this is true? Is this idea of an automated world like The Jetsons — interesting to think about, but hopelessly outdated?

Most of us are worried about artificial intelligence (AI) making our jobs obsolete. I’m not immune to this kind of thinking — I actually think about it quite often, especially as a recession is nearing. After all, most of the buzz about AI focuses on the doom and gloom of a robot-driven future where humans have been pushed aside.1 But what if we’re asking the wrong questions about how AI will change our lives?

Asking if automation will make certain jobs obsolete implies that there is a possibility that these jobs will be completely taken over by AI and the rest will be left alone. This misrepresents both humans and AI technology: Automation will rarely get rid of entire jobs, but it will change nearly all of our careers in some way.

Let’s explore some new questions to find out about what automation may change and what will stay the same: 

Will AI eliminate my job?

Most likely, no. Entire jobs rarely get automated all at once. After all, jobs are a collection of tasks: A doctor’s job involves writing prescriptions, reviewing charts, talking to patients, and filling out paperwork, among many other things.2 Rarely, if ever, is a job only about completing one task. As we’ve seen throughout the last 200 years, some tasks (e.g., tilling soil) have been automated while others haven’t (e.g., raising children). Many of our daily tasks don’t exist in the same form as they did 40 or 50 years ago. Work as we know it is a continuous process of automation and adaptation, and so far very few entire jobs have been automated away with AI alone.3

Rather, AI will create new tasks and destroy existing ones, much like previous forms of automation, albeit at a rate that is potentially much faster than anything we’ve seen before.

So far, cycles of automation have changed the tasks we spend our time on, but we’ve always managed to bounce back and avoid mass unemployment. As it turns out, the economy can be quite resilient to structural change. Women are part of the workforce and people of colour have lower unemployment than in the 20th century, for example.4

Technology has automated some of the Western world’s most time-intensive tasks, like farming, manufacturing, bookkeeping, and data entry, as more workers found different jobs in the labour market. But the new jobs don’t look the same; and the tasks people work on have changed as well. Instead of replacing human workers, the automation process can lead us to discover more valuable, human-intensive tasks.5

Which of my tasks will be easier to automate, and which are more automation-resistant?

Controlled, repetitive tasks, like moving car parts and packaging food, are the kinds of tasks that can be easily taken over by robots. Tasks with complex human elements, like answering customer service calls or delivering a pitch to investors, will not be automated so quickly. Consider a two-by-two matrix of repetitiveness and human interaction: Tasks that are less repetitive and involve more human interaction won’t be taken over in the near future.

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To understand where your job is going, analyze where it is right now. Job analysis is the process of understanding the tasks that make up a job, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to succeed at it. You can use this process to determine which of your job’s tasks have the highest risk of being automated. By doing so, you might be surprised by the tasks that computers aren’t so good at.6

Consider the following to analyze your job and understand how your set of work tasks may change:

  • Which tasks take the most time?
  • What skills do I need for each task?
  • How easy is it to break down each task into a logical formula or a repetitive process that a computer could do?
  • Now that some of my old tasks are automated, will I have any new responsibilities to keep the automated work running smoothly?

What new tasks might I start doing now that some of my work is automated?

Once simple and repetitive task are gone, what will be work on instead? Technological advances have saved receptionists time filing documents, which can now be spent serving as office managers. Sharing documents over the internet means that researchers can now access a journal article in three seconds instead of three weeks. This frees up researchers’ time to make more breakthroughs and explore their respective field more thoroughly.

Taking automated tasks off of your plate can free up your time to do more valuable work. Instead of cleaning data and creating databases, data scientists could shift to communicating their insights to more people in their organization. If AI programs can read through thousands of legal cases, lawyers could spend more time crafting arguments and interviewing key people for their cases.

While more interesting and challenging tasks can get us into a flow state — where time flies and we find ourselves enjoying work8 — there’s a downside. Mind-wandering can actually help us be more creative.9 Stripping our work of the seemingly boring and less ‘useful’ tasks can lower our creativity. Instead, we should schedule occasional breaks from deep, intellectual work to give ourselves more time for creativity. 

Consider the following to analyze what new tasks you’ll fill your time with due to automation:

  • What high-value tasks am I not prioritizing right now because I spend so much time on repetitive yet necessary tasks?
  • If I need to brainstorm, will my job still have downtime to explore new ideas?
  • Where can I add times to let my mind wander and be more creative?

Takeaways

The way we talk about AI is steeped in fear. That’s because we’re facing a huge unknown that could change our work lives drastically. But we will get a much better, more personalized picture of our potential future if we go beyond the dichotomy of full automation or no automation. AI will impact each of us on a gradient — some of us will be less affected than others, based on the tasks our jobs are composed of. These changes are more likely to give us new work which requires our uniquely human skills, and will not simply leave us with less to do. Yet with this new set of responsibilities, we may lose the chance to turn boredom into creativity.

The good news is we can design our jobs so they motivate us and improve our well-being. As it turns out, we can design better jobs using principles from behavioral science.

Automation At Work Will Change Our Home Lives

We might think that location doesn’t matter in a hyper-connected, globalized world, but where you’re located matters more now than ever. We live in a clustered world where some areas, like the mega-regions encompassing the Boston-Washington Corridor of the American Northeast, are much more powerful and protected from large-scale workforce changes than others, like rural Ohio.¹ North American jobs are mostly knowledge-based, service-oriented, and done in teams. When working with and for others is in the job description, urban areas with more opportunities will win out over rural towns that rely on a single industry. As cities and mega-regions attract more people, technology hasn’t necessarily made the world as equal as we would expect.²

The number of service jobs in the USA has increased dramatically over the past 60 years, while manufacturing jobs have not grown.
The number of service jobs in the USA has increased dramatically over the past 60 years, while manufacturing jobs have not grown.³
The world’s population is concentrated in urban areas, and this trend is increasing in the coming decades
The world’s population is concentrated in urban areas, and this trend is increasing in the coming decades.⁴

Unfortunately, this means workers in rural areas may be left behind due to the kind of geographic, demographic, and workforce changes that automation brings.⁵ Of all the groups at risk of automation, older workers in rural areas have the darkest forecast. With few other job opportunities in the region and less flexible education, older, rural workers will face the difficult decision of uprooting their lives and reinventing themselves if rural industries like car manufacturing face automation. Indeed, we may all start rushing into already-packed cities and leaving rural zones even farther behind as AI deepens the divide between areas with and without opportunities.

Our housing needs could change as working from home becomes the norm

Yet, perhaps we don’t all need to move to big cities to bounce back from automation. Technology may not have given every location equal value, but it has given us many opportunities to work remotely and start businesses at home. From woodworking to welding to web design, there are many ways to take up a side hustle (or a new, more fulfilling career) from a distance.

As I’ve learned in the past two months, our homes aren’t set up for daily remote work. When you can pass through the front entrance, den, kitchen, and dining room in six steps without any doorways, there simply isn’t enough room to do everything from home — and if our work situation changes, our idea of acceptable living spaces will change too. Even though automation may drive us towards big cities, changing needs in our homes might make tiny apartments less attractive than they currently are. The size and layout of our houses will need a significant change if we spend all of our waking hours at home.

Facing educational inequality, we might flock to online learning to fill the gaps

Most of the conversation around automation focuses on the new, technical skills we can learn. Many of us could certainly use some of the benefits gained from learning to code; namely, increased creativity, better logic, and greater analytical ability. But asking everyone to learn how to code will not remedy the problems surrounding automation.

As it turns out, the level of education workers have seems to be more important for adapting to automation than their specific field of study or technical skills. Workers in lower-skilled jobs,⁶ who dropped out of high-school or university, are at a significant disadvantage in employment and salaries compared to their counterparts who completed their schooling.⁷ 

Wages per week for men and women in the USA with different education levels
Wages per week for men and women in the USA with different education levels.⁷

Above, you can see that men who dropped out of high school had the same inflation-adjusted wages in 2017 as they did in 1963. They were no better off three years ago than 57 years ago, despite considerable increases in the overall wealth of the United States. People with graduate degrees are now making 70% more than they did in the 1960s, widening the inequality between people with different education levels.

In a survey of the top US economists by the University of Chicago, 81% of respondents agreed that one of the leading reasons for increasing income inequality is technological change that affects low-skilled workers more than high-skilled workers.⁸ This is referred to as ‘skill-biased technological change’, where technological advancements increase demand for skilled workers, raising their wages faster than their low skilled counterparts. This skill-based change means our chances of avoiding automation can be increased by completing a half-finished high school diploma or college degree, either of which might have online options. This online flexibility can make going back to school more convenient and more common for those who might not have access to traditional in-person education.

Takeaways

Our careers partly shape our lifestyle decisions. Like dropping a stone into a calm pond, changes at work spill over into our home life. Automation is doing the same. A shift in our work, like the changes to our work environments brought on by automation, could mean the neighborhood we live in doesn’t fit us anymore. We may have changing preferences on where to live if we work from home or change jobs more often, mainly if we chose our homes based on a 30-minute commuting distance from the office like many others have in the past.⁹

We need to start planning for how automation will change our lives outside of work. When choosing where to live, what home to move into, and what degree to pursue, first check if your choices can help automation-proof your future. What’s the best location for your job and other opportunities, should your position get automated? What type of educational background will help you ride the wave of skill-biased change coming to the work world? These questions may come up sooner than you think. Because in many ways, the automated future has already arrived.