Designing how we will work with artificial intelligence

Professor Sharon Parker, keynote speaker at Prescott Family lecture series

The concept of effective ‘work design’ – the content and organisation of work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities – will become even more vital as we ponder a workplace future with artificial intelligence and an automated workforce.

This was the message from Professor Sharon Parker, who delivered the keynote speech ‘From Smart Workers to Smart Work: Creating a positive future in the digital era’, at the fourth annual Prescott Family lecture, hosted by Monash Business School on Wednesday 24 July.

Professor Parker is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Curtin University’s Future of Work Institute, and the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design.

A globally recognised expert on the nature of work and job design, Professor Parker has developed the SMART work model, arguing that what is needed is work that “is Stimulating, enables Mastery, supports human Agency, is Relational, and has Tolerable demands.”

“The future of work has been dominated by a focus on the need to achieve smarter workers via formal training and education, with insufficient attention being given to the proactive design of smart work that, amongst other outcomes, maintains and develops human skill and knowledge,” she says.

With an estimated 30 per cent of tasks in about 60 per cent of jobs likely to become automated, the challenge will be designing work so that people collaborate effectively with AI, she argues.

“This means that people’s work design – their tasks and responsibilities – will change. We need to understand what these changes might be, and how we can influence them,” she said.

In the future, we must actively design meaningful, ‘smart’ jobs in which technology empowers and augments human workers rather than solely seeks to replace or control them, she argues.

Current trends in some workplaces reflect a tendency towards using technology in a way that increases workloads, tethers us to our jobs, or excessively monitors behaviour.

Professor Parker warned that there was a risk that technology such as electronic performance monitoring systems could cause loss of trust, burnout and other serious mental health issues. Organisations in general were failing to grapple with this issue.

The most optimal outcome was one where technology and human were a team, she said.

“If we really want to robot-proof our jobs, we, as leaders, need to get out of the mindset of telling people what to do and instead start creating jobs where people are inspired to solve problems in creative ways and use their talents,” Professor Parker said.

“SMART work fosters flexibility, agility, and self-management, which is not only good for people’s health and well-being, it also creates the conditions for fully exploiting the opportunities of digital technologies.”

Supported by the Prescott Family Foundation, the Prescott Family Lecture Series focuses on the areas of human resources, industrial relations and related areas, with international experts presenting on important topics and issues.

Monash Business School gratefully acknowledges the Prescott Family Foundation and John B. Prescott AC in making this series of public lectures possible.

Previous speakers have included Professor Emeritus David Lewin, UCLA Anderson School of Management, US; Professor Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University, US; and Professor Peter Wilson AM Chairman Australian Human Resources Institute Limited and the Australian Network on Disability Limited.