The Future of Work

Scott Latham, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Strategy – UMass Lowell Manning School of Business

The Future of Work

Our work defines who we are and propels the human race forward, but what’s coming next? Scott Latham, Ph.D. explores what work is becoming, how it’s shaping our identities, and how human contact, innovation, productivity, and remote working all shape how tomorrow’s work gets done. Companies are adapting, employees are working anywhere, manufacturers are using automation and augmented reality to stay competitive. Some things will change because of the pandemic, but some of these larger shifts were already in motion — they have just been accelerated.

I think people will recover, but it's going to take a while. That’s the other thing I was going to say, we are not, there is no light switch here. Vaccine, social distancing, no one on Labor Day is flipping a night switch and this is going back to March 11th 2020. No way. 

When this pandemic passes, people will rush back to offices. You could simultaneously make an argument that we have come to learn and adapt to what we do today, and that has come at such a cost that people won't give that back. They'll continue to work remotely, they’ll work anywhere, that the technology will catch up and enable folks to have that type of work situation. 

Standardized tasks, whether it be in a warehouse or a manufacturing site, you will see automation dominate, you just will. But the problem is with advanced manufacturing and the complexity of manufacturing, you'll see still human involvement. You'll see the term cobots, for example. You'll see humans working with robots, “cobots.” You'll see augmented reality where, real-time, the glasses are showing the human where to place a wire at one connection point to another, where there are hundreds of wires. You'll see automation at the component level, like you have to make a part and it's a steel cylinder that's been cut and then lathed and then stamped, then they'll box it up and send it to the final manufacturing site. So, I think you'll see in standardized and component manufacturing, automation, just for the same, for the simple reason it's cheaper. But once you get into complex and advanced manufacturing, humans are still going to be the primary basis for getting things done, and when technology does come in, I think at least in my lifetime at least it will be cobots it will be AR, virtual reality, that type of thing. 

We were seeing before COVID, a shift to work anywhere. We were seeing a shift to teams being the dominant organizing unit. We were seeing a shift of entirely flexible schedules. Right now, we're starting, you know, Industrial Revolution 4.0. Industry 4.0, you see the expression all the time. People use that interchangeably with the future of work, and for me that really was the impetus. So, I started just looking at the larger research and looking at how this industry 4.0 is going to roll out, and then COVID hit.

In the past year, we have lost so much human contact and so much that makes our relationship central to who we are. Do I think we can fully realize a work anywhere paradigm shift? Yes I do. It can't be on the back of Zoom alone. The technologies and the tools out there just aren't there for full remote collaboration yet. They're just not. No one expected this.

Innovation nationwide is down about ten percent. The larger argument there is the serendipity is gone, that if you are a lab scientist and I was someone who had an idea, if we bumped into the hallway at the water cooler, if we had lunch together, we would talk. Right now, that's not happening, and if you look at the productivity associated with that, aside from innovation, the productivity is down, and I knew this early this year. The reason for that is if you think about March, coming up to March and then boom — projects that were underway, projects that were hatched when people were in the office together? Those could be finished off in a remote workplace. Starting new products without making eye contact? That's a tough thing. 

I'm a big believer that work shapes our identity. It just does. When we talk about work as a sterile thing that we do from 8 to 5, 9 to 5, or an overnight shift, we potentially lose the role that it plays in creating identity. The big questions for me are in how we ensure that people continue to gain fulfillment and identity through their work. Even people that you would call essential, minimum-wage workers, if you look at the research, they get a tremendous amount of identity from what they do. 

The byproduct of this remote work experiment is it's ramped up the need to monitor the worker. We've lost trust in the worker. For all the talk about “Hey, work at home! Get your kid off to a playgroup, but just get the work done,” I don't buy it, and I'm a professor. I don't buy it. I think these technologies are going to increase the monitoring of folks working remotely, and so I can make that argument. Others would make the argument, “I pay you to work 40 hours a week. You should be working 40 hours a week, and I have to monitor your work.” So it's that Taylor-esque re-emergence of — the term is called Scientific Management— that makes me nervous.

Atomization & Creativity

Can one pandemic change how humans have evolved to brainstorm, compete, and understand visual cues? Scott Latham. Ph.D., discusses how working from home, COVID, and Zoom calls has affected the water cooler effect.

So, from my perspective, my office at Lowell is at a place called the iHub. It’s called the Innovation Hub. It’s in the Hamilton Innovation District. Prior to COVID, there were 30-40 companies in there. And, if you look at the life sciences and biotech, it’s a funny dynamic, in that, you're dealing with incredibly intelligent people, but they're incredibly intelligent people that respect each other. And it really is the watercooler effect. So, prior to COVID you would sit up at the iHub and you'd see people bump into each other. 

“What are you working on?” 

“Oh, I’m waiting for a patent.”

“Oh, I got my first customer.” 

And they learned from each other.

The other thing, relative to creativity, and if you see this in any study of innovation, smart people tend to be very competitive. And it's that whole notion of coopetition that happens at the company level, and a bunch of research just dropped there at the Harvard Business School around coopertition, in that, in certain markets it's better to compete and grow the pie, where in others we are just competing and fighting over a finite pie. So, in those types of environments where we are trying to grow the pie, it's better to be around smart, insightful, competitive people. That's where creativity happens. That's where you learn from others failures, you share failures with other people. And that happens in person, to a large degree, and not in a meeting, not in a Zoom call. It happens breaking bread; it happens having a beer after work. 

The reason it doesn't happen on a Zoom call, they have done substantial research that I pick up on visual cues. You pick up on my visual cues. Those visual cues stimulate neurons and they set up new pathways in the brain. And, so it’s tough for a Zoom call to overcome tens of thousands of years of evolution in the way that humans have learned how to interact and adapt to their environment. Will it happen at some point? Yeah. Not right now, and not in the manner in which it was done.

The Proximity & Creativity Link

Beatles on Zoom wouldn’t be the Beatles we know today. For creativity you have to be in the studio, the lab, the makerspace. There is an importance to proximity and creativity.

You know, can you imagine the Beatles being the Beatles on Zoom? You know, you’d have Ringo, Paul, John, and George on four Zoom screens,and their point was around creativity. For creativity to happen, you have to be in the studio. And that's where the expression says, “We got to get back to the studio.” 

In the studio, again, that's a description of creating music, but in the sciences it's getting back in the lab; for engineers it's getting back in the makerspace. 

There is a notion that the creativity to happen you have to be within physical proximity. And you know a lot of what I'm offering here isn’t opinion. This is my opinion based on the research and that importance of physical proximity as it relates to creativity.

Adapting to a New Environment

COVID-19 forced a lot of companies to adapt, quickly. But, what takes a business from putting stickers on the floor to actually setting plans for a future of remote/remote-optional work.

What those, the good companies, are doing, and I wrote a piece in the Conversation about a month ago, is they’re providing plans that go beyond Zoom, stickers on the floor, social distancing guidelines.They’re actually setting out plans for doing the work. They’re prioritizing what needs to be done. 

They're asking people that need to be in the office to come into the office in a very responsible fashion, and they aren’t drawing a dichotomous line around remote or in-person. They're being more flexible, and they're also operating from the perspective of it being February 2021 vs. March 2020. 

A good deal of most workforces are scared. I do think they have to do things, you know increase workspace distances. They had to make sure the ventilation was good. They had to do the things at the necessary level to have people feel comfortable coming back into work.

Not for Everyone

Work from home doesn’t mean work from home for everyone. This social experiment has shown there are groups, mostly marginalized people, who do not and cannot work from home. Scott Latham, Ph.D., explains the ramifications on marginalized groups like women and lower income populations.

This past week the data came out — participation in the workforce by women is the lowest it's been in 40 years. So, in effect, we've given up 40 years of progress because the structures weren't in place to support families with two earners, families with young children.

And then there's been I think another huge issue is an issue of class. It’s very easy for me as a professor to say, “Hey this is great. I'll stay at home forever.” Well, I'm sorry there people that don't have that option. These, what they're calling essential workers, they may be essential, but these are people that don't have the choice, and we're claiming they’re essential because of the economic value they provide to us. But, no one's looking out for them. And so there are a lot of different aspects of this. So when people do say, “the great work at home experiment,” I get a little “up in the back” when that happens. Because it's not working well for everyone. It's working very well for upper income brackets, folks living in the suburbs, largely white, and for a lot of other people it's not working well. And that's not what we should be trying to move towards.

Expert insights

The byproduct of this remote work experiment is it's ramped up the need to monitor the worker. We've lost trust in the worker.

Scott Latham, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Strategy – UMass Lowell Manning School of Business


How will remote work impact innovation?

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Research shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, innovation across the board has decreased by 10%. Why has this happened? Experts think this drop is the result of a lack of physical proximity due to remote working.

When we remove access to physical interactions between colleague\, we are simultaneously and drastically reducing serendipity. Humans aren’t built to collaborate, create, and invent in a silo or through a screen. Uncovering new opportunities or bridging the gaps between otherwise unrelated fields and findings requires chance encounter, or at the very least, a person-to-person interaction in the physical world. 

As we continue to progress through the work-from-home wave, we will continue to see a drop in innovation as we knew it prior to 2020. But remember, many of the great inventions throughout history were born out of necessity. Who knows what new products, ideas, or entire industries will be born tomorrow out of the restrictions we’re working through today.


How does automation affect the future of manufacturing?

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While we will see automation in standardized tasks, complex manufacturing will continue to require human involvement. Mainly, we will see a blend between machine and human work. In addition to the rise of augmented reality for training and safety protocols in manual tasks, there have been significant advancements in wearable technologies such as glasses and headsets. These combination man-machine pairings allow workers to simulate and learn about complex tasks without endangering themselves in the field. 

As opposed to replacing humans with  automation and artificial intelligence, the future of manufacturing is much more nuanced. For instance, we will see humans working alongside robots called “cobots.” Short for collaborative robot, a cobot is designed specifically to supplement human involvement within a shared space instead of in isolation from humans.


How does being in isolation shape our identity?

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There’s an incredibly strong connection between what we do for work and who we are as people. Work has a direct correlation to our identity. Experts are exploring how the future of remote work and shifting industries will affect humans psychologically. Just as medieval smiths and bakers passed down their job titles as surnames, today’s workforce continues to associate who they are with what they do. 

Being in isolation, working remotely, communicating virtually and adapting to the new style of work will take its toll on people. As work becomes less and less about collaboration, community, and fostering a healthy personal connection with one another, we’re in danger of losing the benefits of that relationship between work and identity. When work is viewed strictly as a requirement for sustaining life, workers may lose fulfillment and identity through their work.


Are we monitoring our workers too much?

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The by-product of this work-from-home experiment is a loss of trust in the worker. Although there are many companies who encourage employees to reap the benefits of a remote work lifestyle, there is also evidence to suggest that many employers see this lack of control as an issue that affects productivity. The more virtual autonomy given to workers, the more variables employers will feel the need to measure.

Like Frederick Taylor’s scientific management movement of the 1700s, modern managers will ramp up performance monitoring, including time spent “active” online, response times, and more. Despite preaching that it’s irrelevant when or where employees work as long as they “get the job done”, we will continue to see employers ensure they get their 40 hours out of each worker.

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