Business School

The Evolving Future of Work

May 5, 2021  • Ideas Worth Teaching

What makes for a decent job in the 21st century? In recent years, topics such as Artificial Intelligence, automation, and the Gig Economy frequently featured in discussions of the future of work, first as technological innovations, and then, increasingly, as potential disruptions to livelihoods and the social fabric writ large. And all of that was before the arrival of COVID-19. Do the further disruptions unleashed by the pandemic mean that the future of work is no longer what it once was?

Siddhartha Saxena

To answer that question, we spoke with Siddhartha Saxena, Assistant Professor at India’s Ahmedabad University. Saxena was recognized by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program with an Ideas Worth Teaching Award for his course, Future of Work. Saxena spoke about his course, and how the discussion of what makes a decent job has changed in response to the pandemic.

The Future of Work may be a much-discussed topic in business schools, but your course stands out for not only looking at the effects of emerging technology like AI and biomimicry on operations and productivity, but on the deeply human need to find meaning and purpose in work. What choices did you make when designing your curriculum to enable students to understand both?

This class is conducted through readings, case discussion, hands-on activities, movies, and lab sessions for data analysis. We focus on course content but also work to understand how the knowledge we are trying to impart is filtered through societal and other contexts. Such extensive usage of varied tools helps students learn and to reflect.

For instance, in one of the sessions I teach Network Analysis. Instead of simply explaining the theory of nodes, edges, intensity, reciprocity, etc., the class is conducted outside the classroom with each student acting as a node and understanding their edges. It is fun to identify stars, gatekeepers and other elements in the network. Through this simple experiential exercise, understanding becomes so easy and stays with the student.

In this way, the course not only helps the students grasp the topics but also creates experiences and thus, deeper learning.

Future of Work class exercises

Your course applies a global perspective to the literature and future of work. What do you think Americans and others should know about how these issues differ within the context of India and its economy?

I believe globalization has made all these themes (decent jobs, migration, AI, gamification, etc.) prevalent across the globe. The only difference lies in the degree of changes asserted by these phenomena.

For instance, Uber majorly operates across the globe. In some parts of the USA Uber drivers are considered as employees and in some as contractors, which brought up the issue of Prop 22 in California. Similarly, in India, the question of decent jobs can include how Uber drivers are treated and their pay. This reflects the similarity in themes across nations.

In discussing the differences, when we consider the service sector, it is observed that India acts as the provider of services to Western nations including the USA. When we discuss the theme of the gig economy, the USA will be discussed as the receiver and India as the provider of services. The USA is a developed country whereas India is growing, and such factors contribute to changes in perspectives. Every economy has its own share of challenges.

This course focuses on a lot of very futuristic mechanical innovations, like Artificial Intelligence and robots. Right now, however, the biggest economic and social disruption is a biological agent–COVID-19. How has the pandemic changed your perspective on the forces that will shape the future of work? What might you add when you teach this course in the future?

Agreed, the current biggest challenge is coronavirus. My course focuses on big data, AI, Network Analysis, Robotics, etc. The pandemic has shown that revolutionary innovations are indeed a part of the future to come. When we undertake contact tracing to find out the carrier/ transmitter of virus then it is simply Network Analysis. When simulating the predicted peak and range of the second wave of pandemic, we are utilizing Business Intelligence and analytics tools like R, Tableau, etc.

The use of robotics in providing basic hospital care to patients is an example of futuristic mechanical innovations as a part of our future. New themes include contemporary factors like the creation of bio-bubbles, testing and administration of vaccines across the globe, increased work from home, limited human interaction, increase in use of door-step services, use of sophisticated technology to facilitate WFH and minimizing cyber-attacks, which will be some of the new additions for the next term of this course.

The current themes are also to be examined through a new lens. For instance, we generally looked at Decent Jobs as per the ILO definition. During the pandemic, the idea of decent jobs applies heavily to healthcare providers/workers and medical professionals. Their extended working hours, ostracism from communities, and long hours in PPE suits make the idea of such jobs less appealing despite the needs of the hour.

As alumni from your course go into leadership positions across industries and sectors, what is the one lesson that you hope will stick with them throughout their careers?

The future of work is transient. From developing this course and teaching each new batch of students, the course content continues to evolve. One major constant in the course is that it focuses on reflection, a process which can be viewed from multiple perspectives. For example, the same set of data in People Analytics can be utilized to understand hiring, firing and retention. It’s up to the decision maker to decide how they want to process any given bit of information. Thus, one lesson I hope that my students will carry with them is the importance of reflection, which not only improves analysis but also suggests innovative solutions. The assignments in the course were designed so that students could reflect on what they learnt in class. There is no right or wrong answer, some solutions are just different. Therefore, reflection plays an important part in finding feasible yet effective solutions.

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