Dr Denise Wilkins is a Researcher in the Future of Work group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK. We talk to her about AI, decentralisation and creating worker-friendly workplaces.
The pandemic has impacted my research. For example, I have noticed changes when I’m talking to my participants about their work. On the one hand, there are differences in the way people work, such as the switch to remote work and video calls. At the same time, I have noticed changes in how work and life are intertwined, which doesn’t just include physical space. People have also talked about changes in how their time, attention, energy, and priorities are evaluated and reconciled. This impacts the content of my research through the stories that participants tell me about their current work and future aspirations. However, as a researcher I always try to be compassionate towards my participants’ real-life circumstances and try to find new ways for my work to have a positive impact on their lives. So, I have tried to refine the way I conduct my research also.
I expect that AI technologies will be increasingly incorporated into the workplace. For one thing, there is the potential for AI systems to make work more simple, efficient, and productive. Additionally, AI could help us to address many longstanding challenges at work, such as by helping workplaces become more inclusive, supporting data-driven learning, or increasing access to mental health services. In all these efforts, it is paramount that technology creators, and the businesses who are deploying AI tools, take steps to ensure that these technologies are beneficial for daily work and the future of work; for example, by taking steps to ensure that AI systems are transparent and treat workers fairly. One way that we can start to do this is by prioritising end users’ needs (i.e., the needs of workers themselves) and enabling them to participate throughout technology creation, design, and deployment processes.
This is a big question, so I will just tackle a small part. With the pandemic many more people are working from home, which is a type of decentralisation of location. The reduced need to commute and travel for work is helping workers imagine a future in which they have more flexibility in terms of where they live, and more time for family and friends. Decentralising work locations could also bring new work to different geographical regions. These things could be positive for many people.
I think we need both, but we also need to understand when digital technology is not the solution. For example, we also need to consider how the next steps for a worker-friendly workplace include the development of new policies, inclusive governance structures, and greater diversity in the C-suite.
The future of work needs to prioritise work that works for everyone and allows all people to thrive. There are many risks and challenges for the future of work: increased precarious work and zero-hour contracts, greater financial inequality, increased surveillance of workers, the need to work much later into life, the threat of automation and underemployment, an erosion of worker power and worker benefits, and pressure on work-life balance (to name a few). However, work serves many functions for many people. My vision is for an abundance of good work that enables all sections of society to have financial security and live the kind of lives they want to live. As a person who is involved in designing the future of work, I want to work towards this aim.