The ‘new normal’ that still seems so foreign and what the fourth industrial revolution has to do with it

Picture it

Mom kisses Dad on the cheek as she tells him ‘see you after work this afternoon and remember, it is your turn to cook’. She crosses the room, sits down at her desk, kicks off her bunny slippers, puts her over-ear headset on and adjusts the microphone. She connects with her virtual assistant in Bombay who fills her in on the tasks for the day. She reminds her that she has a virtual appointment at 7 pm with little Johnny’s paediatrician to discuss progress made on his growth milestones. She sighs. 8 virtual meetings spread over four platforms before lunch.

In the meantime, Dad sets up the children’s online classroom. Today they will be doing Physical Education first. He has downloaded the exercise videos the school sent and cast it to the smart TV in the lounge where there is more space for moving around. The augmented reality headsets are ready. Next, he checks in with his virtual personal trainer as he resets his wearable fitness tracker and checks his heart rate monitor. He calls the kids and walks over to his exercise bike, mounted in front of the separate big screen he bought from Takelot.

Isn’t it great to be spending quality time with the kids whilst doing something physical? He stretches lazily. It is true – initially, he lost 50% of his income but enjoys the flexibility of his new schedule and is adjusting to working across time zones. Today he only has three appointments with directors from the three software companies he works for. These will only start after supper. Oh yes! Supper! There’s that new ‘ghost restaurant’ his wife mentioned. Brilliant Thai curries delivered right to your door. It seems doubtful they will ever have a sit-down facility. It would be so nice to go out for a change, he sighs. However, with the novel viruses out there …   

Not so long ago, this would have sounded quite futuristic. Today it is a reality. Less than 6 months ago many of us might have started toying with the idea of working from home once, maybe twice a week. Would our bosses ever fall for that? We all have been aware of people who home school their kids. Weird people. They probably belong to a cult…

But here we are

The future has been lurking in the shadows for a while, waiting for its opportunity to jump. The Coronavirus crisis created the perfect circumstances. It crept up leapt and pounced with the speed, agility and power of a Cheetah.

Let us look at the beast

The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres across all sectors. It brings about boundary-busting disruptions that will change the world of work as we know it:

  1. Whole industries will rise and fall faster than ever before. Things will be invented and become obsolete faster than you can get used to them. The speed at which organisations and regulatory frameworks need to change will be mindboggling.
  1. Geography will become largely inconsequential. Through globalisation, distance has shrunk. Many of us can work from anywhere.
  1. Opportunities for offering tailor-made or on-demand services will proliferate. The urgency to differentiate what you make, offer or sell and your strategy to prove how environmentally responsibly you do so will become intense.
  1. Work culture will change as hierarchies flatten, work teams become more autonomous and specialised, whilst interdisciplinary and industry collaboration is encouraged. The ability to learn, to be innovative and flexible will become ever more important, rivalling subject-specific knowledge.
  1.  The service industries will expand to deal with the greater life expectancy of people and the relative availability of disposable cash.
  1.  Novel treatments and remedies for quality of life issues will be developed through artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, synthetic biology and robotics.

Politics and polarisation

It is a fact that the future will bring an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers are fast declining worldwide. Pay gaps between unskilled or semi-skilled labour and highly trained staff are widening exponentially. Many manufacturers are moving production to countries where labour is cheaper and less regulated. Many of these countries offer tax incentives as long as jobs are guaranteed. Many have shown greater adaptability to new technologies.

In South Africa, there is a historical distrust between workers and management, particularly in certain sectors that employ the vast majority of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. This includes sectors such as mining, energy production, agriculture and infrastructure development. The greatest perceived threat is automation. Labour may want to preserve a finite number of jobs, despite the loss of opportunities for growth and employment that new technological enhancements may bring. Management may prioritise innovation and profit over job security and staff needs. In South Africa, this has often led to disabling, costly strikes and disruptions in production. These stand-offs have affected business confidence and investment.

Technological change that is not planned for properly is often perceived as revolutionary. This can affect workers since they may not have the ability and education to adjust to new technologies quickly enough. In some sectors, many positions may become redundant. This could cause job insecurity and resistance to change, especially if lifelong learning for all staffing levels is not part of the company ethos.  

What companies need to do to survive

  • Companies will have to rethink how they operate in terms of location, operational systems, adaptability, diversification and specialisation.
  • New technology and innovations that cannot even be imagined yet, both in terms of their own business, as well as supportive or complementary sectors, need to be planned and budgeted for.
  • Management structures will need to change to accommodate flatter hierarchies and more agile teams. A rethink of the traditional top-down approach to management processes will be necessary.
  • Companies will have to reconceptualise the role and importance of their staff. Remote working options, part-time or flexible contracts and outsourcing will be the order of the day.
  • Education, training and reskilling of existing staff will become critical, as will how companies retain, retrain and incentivise staff.
  • Creativity, allowing for debate, freedom to problem-solve in a group and individual contexts, appreciation of diversity and the development of social skills and cultural competence will become increasingly important.

Demographics and innovation

South Africa has been bestowed with the dubious honour of being one of the most unequal countries and economies in the world.   This leaves South Africa in a state of extremes – on the one hand, we have stretches of great infrastructure, learning and opportunity. In other areas, people are still fighting for indoor plumbing and electricity. Some areas have multiple speed options for fibre. In other areas none is available and service providers do not even want to make deliveries, because of fears for their safety.

On the one hand, the development of basic infrastructure and services will need to continue, as it did in earlier times. On the other, some South Africans will find their worlds of work rapidly changing alongside that of the rest of the developed world.

So what does this mean for you and me?

  1. Life, as we’ve known it, has come to an end

Technology will continue to change societal values, cultures and traditions. Increasingly people are choosing or having to embrace working as freelancers or independent contractors. Consider how this might work for you – consider the advantages in terms of autonomy, flexibility and extra income. Think about the challenges – possible isolation, struggles with distractions and maintaining a routine or having to do more of your own admin or technical problem-solving. Find out about possible remedies, such as productivity apps, virtual assistants and co-working spaces.

  1. Learn to dance on a shifting carpet

Come to terms with the fact that you may need to change careers midway through your working life. You may even have to do so more than once. With innovations in health care and volatile economic and social climate, you may find yourself retiring, rejoining the workforce, and retiring again. Take the long view in terms of employment. Keep an eye out for innovations and new opportunities, not only in your current field, but also in other areas that may interest you.

  1. Grow a civil duty conscience when thinking of opportunities

Think about the impact your business and way of engaging in economic activity have on broader society and the environment. Make deliberate choices. If you are looking for new ideas, inform yourself about international thinking and trends. Consider the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations.

How do we address poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice? Maybe your future engagements with the world of work could include thinking about reducing food waste, using technology in large-scale farming, urban agriculture, electric and hybrid vehicles and technologies, cultural tourism, durable and modular buildings, non-energy intensive industries, green chemicals, grid interconnection, tele-health, tele-education, low-cost surgery, weight management programmes, and electronic medical innovations.  

  1. There is no box left to think outside of

An alarming percentage of students are currently studying for professions or positions that will become obsolete within five to ten years of their graduation. Those professions that do survive will become unrecognisable and current qualifications may have little or no bearing on what will be required in the world of work.  

Think strategically about education – for yourself and your staff. Think hard about the best combination of traditional education and short, skill-based courses, even if these pairings are not ‘traditional’. Research new jobs requiring unique skills combinations, explore your (and your staff’s) diverse talents and interests.

Last words

My father used to say, look to science fiction if you want to see the future. After all, Tablets were first used in Star Trek in the late 70s, early 80s. It is true – the future is uncertain. The speed at which we are hurtling toward it is bewildering. Do not operate from a place of fear and doubt in your own abilities and talents. Do not operate from a default setting, based solely on what has worked for you in the past. Be strategic and forward-looking. Invest in your future. At NFS we offer a tailor-made coaching service for entrepreneurs. Call us. The first consultation is always free.      

One thought on “The ‘new normal’ that still seems so foreign and what the fourth industrial revolution has to do with it

  1. Well-presented and a seemingly excellent grasp of the vast changes flowing from the 4IR.
    May our ‘shifting carpet ride’ be one of going with the flow of the vast changes happening as we read this reality check.

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