Some of the most dangerous viral pathogens in the world require close human contact to transmit. Even with that ‘limitation’, a new virus like coronavirus (COVID-19) was able to infect over four million people globally in the first five months, and has been responsible for at least a quarter of a million mortalities around the world so far.
The critical link for infection risk is physical proximity, which is produced by both social and working interactions in our economy. While we can limit social interaction through social distancing restrictions – identifying, limiting and ultimately restructuring the usual workforce interaction, while taking steps towards building economic resilience stands as the clear challenge of the present.
The economist Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, 1776, explained that productivity is built on a process of dividing up labour into small specialised tasks. Some of these specialised tasks involve human contact through physical proximity like medical services, hospitality and customer service, whereas others can be done at distance using technologies, essentially making them remotable.
Most jobs will have an element of human interaction, broken into smaller tasks that may act as a conduit to spread viruses through society. Jobs that involve these tasks are not only more exposed to infection, putting workers at risk, but also increase the spread of a virus by acting as a distribution network for it. Therefore, the element of a job that makes it a potential viral contaminant are the tasks it performs that involves human interaction, not necessarily how well paid it is, or if it’s blue or white collar. In a pandemic, all jobs are painted with the same brush: do they involve human contact, and can they be done remotely? Once we understand the jobs and tasks that are at risk, can we reformat these jobs to keep more of our workforce healthy and productively employed?
Faethm, an AI-based workforce management tool, has identified and classified a huge amount of detail on jobs, and tasks performed in jobs and skills required to perform those tasks. They have identified over 30,000 tasks across 5,000 jobs, along with 17 different forms of technology, including robotic process automation, natural language and various AI-enablement technologies to help identify how different tasks within jobs can be augmented or automated, allowing organisations to manage and restructure their workforce to increase business resilience and efficiency.
According to a recent study by Faethm, the Australian economy is composed of about 12 million full-time equivalent jobs (FTEs), roughly three million of which can be classified as requiring high human proximity (interaction) that represents about $200 billion in wages a year to the economy, or roughly 26 percent of all wages1.
Specifically, the kinds of jobs that lie on the ‘front line’ of a pandemic ‘wave’ are high risk jobs that can be either essential or non-essential. While non-essential risky jobs, like waiters in restaurants, can be removed or paused during a pandemic, others that are essential, like nurses, carers and supermarket workers must continue to function through a lockdown. Equally, there are jobs that are very friendly to ‘remoting’, such as certain kinds of education, as well as many in the financial services. In the middle, lies the industries and jobs that are not evidently close connection, but are not currently doable remotely, such as construction.
Jobs that are important for economies, like construction, but are not the highest in terms of transmission of a virus could be re-introduced in a sequenced way that allows the economy to continue to pay these wages, but runs only a moderate risk of viral transmission.
Technology can help reshape the nature of jobs and tasks through a combination of automation, the removal of a task from an employee, or augmentation, which changes the nature of the task but keeps it as part of a job done by a person. Technological augmentation can keep high risk jobs in operation, but dramatically lower their human interaction and therefore risk of a virus, making them lower risk. Take as an example, a number of essential roles in Australia for which we have not developed a Plan B for delivery (Graph 2, Panel A).
For those roles that have high augmentation, such as Police, or automation, such as Shelf Fillers, opportunity we will see is technology moving into fields where the adoption has lagged capability. The technology exists, but hasn’t yet been widely utilised by companies. For non-essential roles (Graph 2, Panel B) that are still high risk, like hospitality, virus quarantine removes the livelihoods of these workers, saving them viral infection, but causing enormous economic harm.
Before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008, the concept of a ‘bank run’ was a vaguely academic history lesson. Post 2008, it become a guiding light for policy that would stretch for decades after. Just 6 months ago global pandemics were something from the movies but now as a global population we all understand how severe pandemic risk is. We now look towards to a post-COVID-19 era of business resilience and pandemic planning.
Technology has finally caught up to a point where our workforces can do the work they are meant to do. To date, technology has been implemented as an improvement to production and/or business activity through automation primarily relying on lowering unit-cost production economies. The forces of automation and augmentation were constrained to a framework as competing with humans for jobs. Now these technologies will be reconsidered as a collective action to create robust and automated processes to protect workforces against viral outbreaks. Next, we will recognise the technology as the enabler for more meaningful work for our people.
During the pandemic we saw a rapid acceleration of technologies enabling remote work as a form of necessity for many organisations to continue to be operational. In the post-COVID-19 era we may see this continue and expand in scope – some organisations will use this to adjust the work their workforce does, and push ahead with technological adoption that may have lagged. New plans for digital adoption will present a view of technology as a partner to automate and augment activities to create business resilience, or at least provide a second line of defence for societies to ‘keep the lights on’ during a future pandemic. A way for our economy as a whole to become more resilient and less reliant on government assistance and stimulus that can create economic burden on generations to come.
Automation and artificial intelligence will define a ‘robust automation’ criteria that will focus on the necessary elements to keep a workplace functioning, against other forms of technology that will be seen as the discretionary elements of improvement. Business resilience will have a new dimension that will require business, companies and citizens to have buffers, technologies and methodologies to deal with extended periods of collective actions like lockdowns for what could be the next pandemic.
For Australia, that means explosively ramping up the investment in the research and adoption of remoting, augmenting and automation technologies to collectively improve our resilience as a society. And it will mean embracing technologies as allies in that endeavour, rather than as opponents. Using the current situation to take time to reflect on future resilience could see large organisations making bold moves to install longer term resilience.
This article was written by KPMG in collaboration with Michael Kollo, General Manager, Faethm.
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