The world saw a rapid shift towards automation and remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pivotal question arises: are these changes substitutes for human labor or catalysts to augment it?
A recent NBER working paper (Are Software Automation and Teleworkers Substitutes? Preliminary Evidence from Japan by Richard Baldwin & Toshihiro Okubo) focusing on Japanese workers during the COVID crisis reveals that automation and remote work are more synergistic with workers than competitors.
Why This Matters: It’s crucial to discern whether automation and remote work are replacing or augmenting human roles, as a very vocal minority claiming (if not advocating) for automation to eliminate, rather than enhance, any and all positions. Such insights can influence job market dynamics and the evolving nature of work.
A Closer Look:
- Occupational Variances: Different jobs have distinct adaptabilities for remote work and automation. While management, finance, IT, and research roles are conducive to both, jobs in sectors like food service, healthcare, and transportation don’t lend themselves easily to either. This disparity across professions indicates that the interplay between automation and remote work varies by sector.
- Globotics Quadrant Study: The research categorized jobs based on their propensity for remote work and automation. Interestingly, only about 10% of jobs were highly compatible with both. Moreover, the study also shed light on corporate software investments during the pandemic, revealing that investments for task automation such as RPAs (Robotic Process Automation) aligned with those promoting remote work, underscoring their complementary nature.
- The Japanese Workforce Perspective: A 2021 survey involving 10,000 Japanese professionals revealed that those anticipating more telecommuting also foresee their roles evolving through AI. The survey showcased a pattern – positions with a higher-than-average telecommuting expectation also predicted above-average automation adoption. This correlation suggests harmony between the two, with 20% of individuals in median roles anticipating telecommuting and a slightly lower 18% forecasting AI-driven changes.
- An Important Distinction: While office-based roles predicted a higher likelihood of automation and remote work, hands-on jobs like food service and transport exhibited below-average expectations. Furthermore, while most professional roles expected heightened automation investment, telework predictions varied. For instance, educators and religious practitioners anticipated limited telework opportunities.
The Bottomline: When quizzed about automation’s potential role in their future job landscape, 86% of respondents who believed AI would augment their roles also anticipated increased telecommuting. Although it’s not an absolute verdict, the prevailing sentiment indicates that automation and remote work are allies, enhancing human labor rather than replacing it.