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October 13, 2020

The View from IFOW | September 2020 Monthly Update

Welcome to our September Future of Work round-up, where we reflect on what we’ve been doing, thinking about, and planning.

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It’s been an odd start to the autumn. The gloomy progression of the coronavirus pandemic has once again contrasted starkly with sunshine and generally warm September days. And as many people begin their daily commutes once again, the “Rule of Six” and wave of local lockdowns invite some reflection about how far we’ve come since the spring.

What we’ve been doing...

Luckily, we’ve had some help from Professor Michael Sandel, the public philosopher, who talked to us about why and how the pandemic has exposed the true value of essential work. Here, the rockstar philosopher initiates a new conversation about what work matters most to us and how we are changing our attitudes to ‘success’ and ‘failure’. The ‘key’ question of our time is how we can build on this insight and afford key work the reward, dignity and social esteem that it should have.

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You can read more in Michael's new book and in this Op-Ed from our Director Anna Thomas in the Independent, arguing that a focus on good work as a cross-cutting policy objective can help break down social, economic and cultural barriers, and heal the disconnect between government departments in their response to the pandemic.

As we head towards a possible second lockdown, ‘What is work and what is personal’, with IFOW Research Fellow Nyasha Weinberg, looks at how remote work can cushion the impact of the crisis, and transform the work landscape in positive ways. However, its risks and benefits are not spread evenly. A look at the numbers reveals that some variation in homeworking is due to regional differences in economic activity and occupations.

This raises questions about different forms of transition support needed for workers who can, and those who can’t, work remotely across the country beyond digital and childcare infrastructures. We think new forces are demanding a re-evaluation of the importance of place as part of a UK Future of Work Strategy (as we discuss here), a point bolstered by new IFS research which suggests that "social mobility…is a post-code lottery."

Meanwhile, our evidence review takes a look at what we actually know about automation and reminds us that, although there are signs of an AI innovation winter as investment is cut back, remote work can still catalyse some forms of automation.

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The recent scrapping of Public Health England is a call to action to redouble focus on the social determinants of health. Echoing the findings of the recent Marmot Review of Health Inequalities, we’re increasingly sure that an effective public health strategy after COVID-19  will require widening access to work opportunities, and building good work into targeted COVID-19 recovery packages and regional resilience agendas. Our Principal Researcher Abby makes a strong case for local authorities to pick up the baton and ensure work and health are aligned here. And our Head of Ops Sam is putting the finishing touches on our Good Work Monitor, which maps the relationships between conditions for good work, good work and health at a local level. Watch this space!

What else to look out for...

Big problems with accountability for algorithmic decision-making were thrust onto the national stage last month when the exams regulator, Ofqual, found itself at the centre of a widely-predicted storm about unfair A-Level results. Our Equality Task Force has been examining these from the perspective of machine learning systems used at work, and will report next month on how to fill the gaps between our data protection and equality law regimes.

We argue for an overarching ‘umbrella’ approach, driven by principles including ‘equality by design’, to shape development and use of data-drive systems from start to finish. And, as Anna argues in this blog for Apolitical, socio-technical systems that are capable of projecting structural inequalities into the future, must be codeveloped, not left to technologists (or Ofqual) alone.

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We began the summer with an illuminating and enlightening partnership with the international technology festival CogX. Now, we are delighted to be a partner of both the Financial Times Future Work Digital Conference Series and Chatham House Future of Work Conference this autumn.

Events for your calendar...

Future of Work Geeks' Update

For a full briefing on the best future of work-related reports, articles, videos and podcasts from the last month, subscribe to our Future of Work Geeks' update here. We are excited to share that soon we’ll be sharing these resources as part of our upcoming Future of Work Library. Here in our monthly newsletter, we'll include a few key pieces.

Our favourite reads this month have included the FutureSays digital exploration of how AI is used in the workplace, which comes with a new report on AI@Work, and this New Statesman spotlight into automation and the future of work.

AI, ML and algorithms need a new approach from unions, as Christina Colclough argues in this report. While much of the narrative around gig work focuses on the ‘universal’ precarity of workers’ experience, in fact it creates new hierarchies – or ‘heterarchies’ - of worker experiences within a single platform, as this paper argues. As noted in this article, we must insure against inequalities in good work with adequate policy. The question, then, is how?

The digital giants are shaping work on a systems, firms and individual level. As we become increasingly reliant upon them through the pandemic, IFOW Research Fellow Joshua Simons argues here for platform utilities to be regulated as though they are public utilities. As the hype builds around AI as part of our economic recovery, we must cultivate a regulatory environment which shapes a future of better work and living, which addresses risks and spreads benefits. And we must be careful not to swoon over innovation which may be writing the next gig economy into existence.

For more updates, follow us on Twitter @_futureofwork.

If you have any ideas, comments or suggestions for our round-up, please drop us a line at info@ifow.org.

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