July 21, 2017
Liquid workforce: Will flexibility bring us a better future?
By: Niamh McKenna

I was recently reading the auto-biography of Dame Stephanie Shirley, a true inspiration in so many ways. She started a software company in the 1960s, employing mostly female programmers, and set up a flexible working model which allowed for flexible contracts and part-time workers—a pioneer disrupting of traditional industrial workforce models. However, because it was such a disruptive approach, she ended up being investigated by the DSS and Inland Revenue (UK tax and welfare agencies), because they didn't really "understand" what she was doing. They did eventually confirm that she wasn't doing anything illegal of course, but the investigation cost her time, effort and a lot of angst.

It made me think about the ethics of flexible working, the so-called "gig economy" used by the likes of Uber etc. and how do governments respond to disruptive working practices, where we have not fully understood the implications?

I spent 3 years working in Japan where it's the norm for women to leave the workforce after having children and not return, even as part time working mums. The concept of a liquid, flexible workforce could offer these women the opportunity to dip their toe into the water of work again, on their own terms, allowing them to work when and where they want—be it 2 days a week or 2 months per year—without contractual obligations. At its best, this creates a talent pool of people to tap into, when needed, suiting employers and workers who prioritise flexibility and the ability to schedule their own lives.

However, on the flip side, this kind of working arrangement has downsides. What about those people who want to work full-time, want job security, but find themselves with limited opportunities to do so in this new economy? They are not trying to supplement a family income with casual work to suit a lifestyle, they are working to support a family, entirely dependent on this income to achieve a basic standard of living. What if they can only find enough work for a few days? Is there a social security safety system that can distinguish between those who are unable to find work but are willing and those who have opted to not work that month for personal reasons?

In addition, do we need checks and balances on companies, so that employers cannot take advantage of people negatively, indeed there has been much criticism of employers perceived to exploit workers in the "gig economy." But if we over-legislate, do we deny the flexibility being applied for the good, to those who want it.

In Europe, for the most part, we have the safety net of social security, and it's an important and valued feature of our societies. That safety net has been predicated, by and large, on a work contract based on traditional employer/employee relationships. As that relationship and social contract changes, we will need new models. There's been a lot of press about the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates talking about the need for a "universal basic income" in the context of Artificial Intelligence and robots replacing jobs. I think we need to expand this and explore it in the context of liquid workforces to ensure everyone in society has access to living wage. What do other people think about universal basic income? Unwelcome interference in market forces or necessary for the good of society?

This is my third blog on the Technology Vision 2017—looking at the core themes from a different angle. Read my other takes on the Technology Vision here:

AI is the new UI …. but where is the emotion?

Ecosystem Powerplays … but who is thinking about ethics?

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