October 4, 2020

Augmenting Human Work

The future of work won't be about substituting humans, but all about empowering them.

Jobs in agriculture have gone from representing 8% of all US jobs in 1960, to roughly 1%. How can it be that agricultural output has grown by 3x since then?

The answer’s technology. Technology has increased productivity exponentially, and it is changing the way humans do work. Some predict these changes will extend to every industry, leaving little work for humans to do. Robots and algorithms will take over.

As I have argued in this newsletter before, I disagree with this notion. Work represents a fundamental source of pride and dignity for societies, so I don't believe it will ever disappear. Instead, technology will automate most manual tasks within our economies, and humans will have to focus our time on doing “Human Work”.

Human Work

I define Human Work (capitalized) as tasks that humans will always be performing over a robot: these will be difficult tasks to automate, but even if that’s accomplished, consumers would prefer to have humans perform those tasks.

I believe there are 5 categories of Human Work:

  1. Create + Curate: creative work by artists, influencers, curators, or activists.
  2. Communicate: bloggers, online commentators, book writers.
  3. Connect: bring together people in interesting, moving ways.
  4. Teach: facilitation of learning through teaching or mentoring.
  5. Care + Support: caretaking work, but also general support as therapists, or even coaches. A big part of it (especially child care) is unpaid and unrecognized today.

The future of work will be about "augmenting” this Human Work. Let’s unpack this.

“Augmenting” Human Work

In a future where robots stock and file orders (eliminating over 2M jobs in the US), drive taxis driving (400,000 jobs), or enter data (200,000 jobs), the number of Human Work jobs will increase tenfold to accommodate for all these job losses.

We’ll need millions of new teachers, caretakers, or therapists to run our economies. Yet today, most of these Human Work tasks are operationally expensive, so we can’t expect to multiply their supply just like that. "Augmenting" Human Work focuses on improving the quality of those services, and lowering the economic barriers so more people can participate in them, through technology.

Therapy is a great example of Human Work (Care and Support). Here’s how augmenting therapy can benefit society:

Therapy as Human Work

In-person therapy is costly. It requires a therapist's full attention, one patient at a time, and plenty of back-office work to get the patient in the room (about half of the hours they spend with patients).

Meanwhile, there’s an overwhelming demand for therapy, which cannot be served today.  

How Baylor Scott & White is addressing the shortage of mental health  professionals | Scrubbing In
The supply gap in therapy could be addressed through better enabling technology. Image

The rise in mental health apps hasn’t reduced the need for therapy. The answer to this supply gap likely won’t be building therapy bots or apps so everyone can access therapy on their phones.

Instead, the answer is to augment the work of therapists: use technology to reduce the back-office, improve the patient’s digital experience, and provide digital complements to the in-person experience will free up therapists to focus on their patients.

Once therapists are liberated from those tasks, they may choose to accommodate more patients in a day, or perhaps give more time to their appointments. More therapists should be able to set up shop too, as this progress could lower the economic barriers to entry, if not the regulatory barriers, which would have to change too in order to accommodate for that future of work.

These strategies also apply to many other forms of Human Work, such as doctors, writers, or teachers, who spend 3-5 hours a day planning, answering emails, calls, and other tasks.

Strategies to Augment Human Work

The playbook to augment these professions is slowly taking shape. Here are four strategies that are being applied today across industries to Augment Human Work:

🎨 Empower creators, curators, and communicators

📠 Build complementary tools to reduce manual workload (teachers or supporters)

🏋️ Improve decision-making

📱Move the synchronous to asynchronous

The road to Augmenting Human Work won’t be easy.

First, we will need to accept that most work done today should and will not be done by humans. Then we’ll have to focus on building the tools that empower humans to do Human Work.

That is what will get us to live in a world where teachers don't spend 5 hours a day on administrative work and doctors can focus on helping their patients heal.

A better world, hopefully.

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