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Future of work and harbingers of change

Most people are already rubbing shoulders with advanced technology at work. The future of work is enthralling, but it also brings some scares

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Aug 3, 2018 08:20:55 AM IST
Updated: Aug 23, 2018 12:10:14 PM IST

Future of work and harbingers of changeThe future is about surfing the technology wave or facing the swim-or-sink challenge

Image: Shutterstock
On a recent morning in Bengaluru, Amit Gupta, co-founder of the bicycle sharing startup Yulu, spoke on the future of mobility at a centre of German automotive supplier Robert Bosch. On a screen behind him was a presentation slide that showed a black-and-white photograph of a bus fitted with a rack upfront; two bicycles were stacked on it.

It was a big trend in Europe and in some cities in the US where they provided such buses, Gupta explained. People could bring their cycles to the nearest bus stop, stash their bikes on the racks, ride those buses over the longer commutes they needed to complete and then use the two-wheelers for the last-mile transport to their destinations.

“That [trend] to me was the beginning of connected mobility,” said Gupta. Even for the biggest cab aggregator in the world, the future is not just about cars, but also bikes, buses and flying taxis, said Gupta, referring to Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s vision for the ride-sharing network company.

Yulu, Gupta’s new venture—he already has the distinction of having co-founded InMobi, one of India’s unicorns—is an excellent example of what the future could look like in India. The startup allows people to use its smartphone app to find the nearest ‘Yulu Zone’, unlock a bicycle by scanning a QR code, ride it to another zone, and drop it there.

Riders are expected to manually lock the bicycle with the lock built in and walk to their destinations. One has to also tap ‘end ride’ on the app, at which point Yulu will deduct a small fee for using the bike. As of now, the bikes are available in a few locations in Bengaluru, but Gupta plans to grow his company across India.

The growth of mobile internet penetration combined with the rising demographic of India’s young urban professionals is creating pockets of futuristic work-life options.In the heart of Bengaluru, for instance, is a large centre operated by co-working space provider WeWork, where one can rent a desk and internet connection and other facilities, round the clock, for as little as about ₹7,000 a month.

These incipient shifts are harbingers of how our professional lives will change in the years to come. On the flip side, one has to only look at the increasing number of software bots that various industries have started to deploy.The rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence-based technologies is not only eliminating mundane, transaction-based jobs, but also creating positions that didn’t exist as recently as two years ago.

“It isn’t happening in India yet, but in the US, already, positions like a chief analytics officer or chief medical informatics officer are coming up,” Rizwan Koita, co-founder and CEO of Citius Tech, which provides both technology and services to hospitals and insurers in America and other advanced markets, told Forbes India in a recent interview. New jobs and roles are also emerging around robot management, controlling them, and interactions between bots and humans, as well as around digitising the entire interaction process, Milan Sheth, a partner with advisory services in India at consultancy EY, told Forbes India. Ironically, the worker who takes to a Yulu bike or wants to work out of a co-working space is more likely a full-time staffer at a startup rather than a freelancer or a true blue member of the so-called ‘gig economy’. This is because gigs—read one-off contracts or freelance work—are still not accepted as a valid alternative to full-time steady work in India. That, however, is changing in pockets.

The gig economy in India, in some form, has actually come up through Uber and Ola, in the blue-collar world rather than on the white-collar turf, says Sheth. In the services industry, it hasn’t come up in a big way yet.

That said, software robotics can do the same work faster, with fewer errors and better quality than humans where rule-based work is concerned. Therefore, bots are considered an economically viable alternative. Bots also offer the option of keeping the work going 24x7, boosting availability for customers, Ashish Gupta, chief technology officer and chief products officer at PolicyBazaar, India’s largest online insurance aggregator, said in an interview to Forbes India. There are also areas where there is a paucity of people in India to do the work needed. For example, a telecom company or a retailer generates large amounts of data, which needs to be analysed and constantly sifted through. A human worker could plod through this data for, say, six to eight hours a day, whereas the bot can just keep on going.

Another dimension, Sheth says, is about moving people from mundane tasks to more meaningful roles. Many multinational companies, too, hire people in India because the equivalent talent is not available in other parts of the world, or is much more expensive at home. They would want the recruits to be focussed on the cognitive function rather than just doing simple, mundane, task-based work.

In some of the older companies, they also need to embrace technology. Technology is changing for all of us, even as private citizens. Of course, our children will be far ahead compared to us, but older people, too, have begun to use smartphones, downloading apps and transacting digitally.
When it comes to the workplace, it is something that doesn’t happen at the same speed, Sheth says. This is where, with respect to data models and processes, the ability of the workforce to embrace technology becomes important.

Change initiatives are important when it comes to employees in their 30s to mid-40s, people in the mid- to senior-level roles. Many of them don’t have the willingness to change. There is an impulse to stick to what they know and their comfort zones. The oldest segment of the workforce will be worst hit, says Sheth, because “machines will overtake them”. Here role definition becomes critical. Whatever role one is in, the future holds both an opportunity to embrace technology and surf the coming waves or face the swim-or-sink challenge.

(This story appears in the 17 August, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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