In-person work – is it on the way out?

In 1992 The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism was published. In it author Robert Reich says that 'Essentially, three broad categories of work are emerging, corresponding to the three different competitive positions in which Americans find themselves. The same three categories are taking shape in other nations. Call them production services, in person services, and symbolic-analytic services'. (p 205)

In person services have been top of my mind this week: I'm increasingly noticing that what were in-person services are not now. What did Reich mean by in-person services? Twenty years ago he says that 'In-person servers are in direct contact with the ultimate beneficiaries of their work. … included in this category are retail sales workers, waiters and waitresses, hotel workers, janitors, cashiers, hospital attendants and orderlies, nursing-home aides, child-care workers, house cleaners, home health-care aides, taxi drivers, secretaries, hairdressers, auto mechanics, sellers of residential real estate, flight attendants, physical therapists, and – amongst the fastest growing of all – security guards'.

Look at the list above. How many are still 'in-person services' in your experience? Last week I did the following:

  • Checked in and checked out of two hotels
  • Checked into flights
  • Bought railway tickets
  • Entered a country
  • Got money from more than one bank
  • Bought goods from supermarkets

Not that many years ago these were 'in-person' transactions. In those activities listed above there was no person in 'direct contact with [me] the ultimate beneficiary'. I was interacting with technology in each one.

One hotel experience was fascinating: CitizenM in Amsterdam bills itself as 'a hotel driven by one desire: to create affordable luxury for the people. By "the people," we mean a smart new breed of international traveler, the type who crosses continents the way others cross streets.' This hotel is almost totally technology enabled. The entire guest room is controlled by a single touch screen that 'lets you control the hotel room, including television, window blinds, temperature, coloured lighting, wake-up alarm themes and more for an ambient room experience.' The check-in/check out are touch screen activities as is the fresh food vending. There are some real human 'ambassadors' about and just for fun I took the test to see if I would be a suitable 'ambassador' for Citizen M. I got a score of 89% and an invitation to apply for a job!

I'm not sure who exactly comprise 'the people' targeted by CitizenM but clearly they are not in the 'in-person' types of jobs because these are rapidly being digitized: handing formerly in-person work to technology of various types is an accelerating trend. I've just read about The Briggo Coffee Haus 'Don't call it a vending machine. Designed by Yves Behar, the Briggo Coffe Haus is intended to be a destination'. So that's ok then. Knowing Yves Behar had a hand in it I can rest easy in the knowledge that my 'automated caffeine fix might become as precisely crafted as the cups from your favorite barista. The new Briggo Coffee Haus is an industrial robot that will memorize orders, autonomously prepare a cafe au lait, and never misspell your name.' Even better than a human then? So look-out for a huge drop in the numbers of baristas employed by Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Peets, Caribou, etc. as a machine improves the coffee experience.

In a different area of in-person work I'm aiming to find an in-home carer for my mother (97 this November). No worries – I just look for those in the vanguard of social robotics because 'Assisted living is going to be a big industry, and whoever cracks the technology first will be able to export it to everyone else," says Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), going on to say "If we don't invest in social robotics there's a risk we will be left behind." And 25% of people surveyed think that by 2030 robots will be taking care of the elderly. Take a look at the MOBISERV (An Integrated Intelligent Home Environment for the Provision of Health, Nutrition and Mobility Services to Older Adults) site for more on this work.

So what's left that might be in person – not large swathes of medical care. In an article Do We Need Doctors or Algorithms Vinod Khosla writes: "Eventually, we won't need the average doctor and will have much better and cheaper care for 90-99% of our medical needs. We will still need to leverage the top 10 or 20% of doctors (at least for the next two decades) to help that bionic software get better at diagnosis. So a world mostly without doctors (at least average ones) is not only not reasonable, but also more likely than not. There will be exceptions, and plenty of stories around these exceptions, but what I am talking about will most likely be the rule and doctors may be the exception rather than the other way around.'

You get the picture? It's one that is increasingly imminent – and in some instances here already. You can speculate just from general knowledge and early clues that driverless cars might replace taxis and thus taxi drivers or that museum tour guides could be robots or that teachers could be replaced with robots.

Leaving aside the colossal social, moral, and ethical challenges that replacing human in-person work with technology enabled substitutions will create, what does it mean for organizational designers? This was a question that we were debating in one of the workshops I facilitated during the week.

Clearly it could mean fewer human workers or at least differently skilled ones – robots and other technologies need engineers and skilled operators. And for those humans left in the workforce it means learning to work alongside robots something BMW has started to do. This company is 'revolutionizing the role of robots in automotive manufacturing by having a handful of robots work side-by-side with human workers at its plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.' It announces that: 'As a new generation of safer, more user-friendly robots emerges, BMW's man-machine collaboration could be the first of many examples of robots taking on new human tasks, and working more closely alongside humans.'

In our old paradigm we might think that learning to work alongside a robot may take training. (In our experiment with the Anybots we noticed the reluctance of people to engage with it). And that robots in the workforce may require different management skills, for example learning to manage a team comprising real humans and robot humanoids. And that in-person job replacement will engender new organization designs and cultural patterns and norms. And that relationships between management and trades unions/works councils are likely to be stretched. And so on.

But in a new paradigm where technology and human are symbiotic and in-person work no longer has a human to human connotation we may have a completely different approach – perhaps one where current concepts of organization design are no longer applicable. I was on a phone call today where we were wondering how to be alert to this possibility and ride with it. If you have any ideas let me know.

In any event think about the possibility that the job you are currently in could well be done and perhaps better done by a humanoid robot or other technology. What are you doing to prepare for this? Let me know on this too.