Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor at Acas, offers an insight into a recent Acas conference on what shapes the future of work, drawing on themes such as pay and productivity and automation.

The quick answer is ‘the past’. But the slightly longer answer was very eloquently articulated by a range of speakers at a recent Acas conference on what shapes the future of work.

Three strong themes emerged: pay and productivity, fear and fairness, and automation and algorithms.

The double disappointment of pay and productivity

It’s hardly surprising that any debate about the future starts with how much money people are likely to have in their pockets.

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, spoke of the ‘lost decade’ since the recession, characterised by low pay and low productivity. It’s a decade that’s seen the weakest growth in average earnings since the 1930s, with pay falling in real terms by 3.7%.

Many commentators believe that the UK productivity problem is caused by the number of companies that do not adapt the latest innovation or best practice, but Carolyn Fairbairn was more optimistic about the future. She remarked on how much better many jobs were now than in the past, thanks to enterprising businesses. However, she did recognise that “something has been lost” and many people found work “less dignified”.

Andy spoke cautiously of a “new dawn breaking for pay growth” but it might have been interesting to hear what he or any of the others speakers thought about the impact of climate change. Will our obsession with ever-increasing growth have to be tempered by more long-term ‘green’ business models?

Although none of the speakers mentioned the natural environment, there was plenty of talk of the working environment and the toxic cultures that have been exposed by #MeToo and other social media campaigns.

Doing the right thing

If the productivity problem can be solved by the worst performers learning from the best, as some suggest, then the ‘behavioural problem’ may be equally reliant on a few brave people making a stand.

Frances O’Grady called for “a new alliance for good work where the good employers call out the bad”. Iain Ross, from the Fair Work Commission in Australia, suggested a “sort of trip advisor for employers, so that workers know the kind of workplace they are going into.” This seems particularly telling in light of the shocking fact that, as Frances said, young women are more likely to walk out of a job due to sexual harassment than report it.

Anne Sharp spoke of the ‘fear and futility’ many women felt at trying to challenge gender stereotypes and outdated values. Overcoming this fear and improving equality for women, BAME workers and those with disabilities is clearly one of the big priorities for the future of work. 

Meet the robot: both friend and foe

If the ‘pay power’ of workers has declined due to falling levels of unionisation, as Andy Haldane believes, then is worker autonomy being eroded due to the growing use of new technology?

Thankfully many of the alarmist stories about robots taking over all our jobs were not aired at the event. As Brendan Barber said in a recent article for People Management, there can be a danger of predicting the future based upon the extremes of what might happen. The middle ground may not be as newsworthy, but it is where most of us are likely to tread our path. As many delegates said, the real challenge may well be learning to work alongside new technology.

The behind the scenes conversations at the conference reflected an understandable sense of uncertainty about what the future of work might hold.

Yes, Matthew Taylor sounded confident in predicting that changes to employment status would help deliver better work for many insecure workers.

Yes, Frances O’Grady sounded confident that a new generation would embrace new digital channels to create a strong collective voice.

Yes, Carolyn Fairbairn clearly places her trust in innovative entrepreneurs to solve some of the problems we have at work both in terms of profits and people.

But the past still casts a long shadow, particularly around issues to do with fairness and equality. It is tempting to suggest that we are expending a great deal of effort fighting yesterday’s battles.

There was a tangible frustration on the part of many delegates and speakers that the fabled Fourth Industrial Revolution was not happening fast enough, despite the soundbites claiming “the future is here”. One thing is very clear. The future of work does not just need a revolution in technology, but a revolution in values and behaviours as well.