The way we work is making the work suffer

The way we work is making the work suffer

With a very few notable exceptions, the way our workplaces have changed has done nothing for the quality of the work.


A smouldering giant has awakened — Artificial Intelligence.

Those in the know will have been aware of developments for some, but this month Microsoft catapulted it into public consciousness with its inclusion in their also-ran* search engine, Bing (*market share 5% to Google’s 95%). The BBC vouched that this has rattled Google, which takes some doing.

The catalyst is ChatGPT, a chatbot which imitates – and will improves upon – human knowledge to produce detailed responses and articulate answers across many areas.

It’s already been used in journalism, admittedly mainly at the ‘functional’ end of things where the economics now prohibit large teams of professionals — think trade and local. It’s probably been used at national scale too, but nobody‘s admitting to that yet. Journalists and professional writers alike are rightly decrying it, but it’s early days…

Like all things tech, it’s been rapidly embraced by the young, students using it to create essays for submission. Many of these entries have earned high, even top, marks which has led to a serious and urgent review of how student performance is evaluated. It’s likely that it will complete the drive from set-piece examinations in hall towards continuous personal assessment.

Try it — it’s good and learning and improving exponentially. Perhaps it even wrote some of this…

Dystopia now

As with deepfakes and fake news, AI raises many moral issues.  I imagine — though again few might yet admit to it — that it’s already being used widely in the workplace, and that’s where we come in.

We’ve been steadily automating our processes for some time now.  Media agencies could not operate on current margins without doing so.

I remember back when Yahoo was a big thing. Yes, I’m that old. I had a meeting there in the very early noughties and the experience never left me.

On my way from lift to meeting (in a private office — remember those?), I passed row after row of identical white bench desks. Dozens, maybe a hundred, staff were sitting at these facing screens and wearing headsets, mostly with completely empty desk surfaces in front of them.  There were no personal effects in view, like mugs with pens and pencils or a snap of the family.

It was eerily quiet, with no interaction but for the odd headset murmur. In the meeting that followed, I was proudly told this was “hot desking”.  People just came in and sat wherever they wanted that was free. Each had a locker somewhere else for their personal things, coats, bags etc.

As a vision of the future, it was totally depressing.  Inhuman.

‘Progress’ but towards what goal?

You’ll probably laugh at this because this is how you’ve always worked and know no different (apart from your kitchen or dining table, sofa, ironing board or duvet).

It’s made employers happy because it’s much more space efficient and therefore cheaper. It’s also encouraged uniformity, another corporate goal.

Today, people sit similarly in front of their spreadsheets and data sources. Proprietary systems guide their work and workflow, whether it’s Slack or deal frameworks.

Hell, the clients are paying so little and expecting so much, the work has to get done somehow.

Sadly, with a very few notable exceptions, all this “progress” has done nothing for the quality of the work. There has always been bad advertising, but never so much. And despite the ability to target messages and control frequency of exposure, advertising has never been held in such low public regard.

So, are things ripe for the intervention of AI? Just like, say, Amazon, I would imagine that many companies now have software which watches and learns employees’ every move so these can be replicated and automated at scale.

Creepy? Scary? But why not? Perhaps the machines can do better? That’s seems like quite a robust challenge for 2023 and beyond.

Or will it be yet another example of tech promising much but delivering something different?

Bob Wootton spent 40 years working in advertising, first as a media buyer at some of the UK’s leading agencies  before joining the trade body ISBA in 1996, where he was advertising and media director for 20 years. He is also the founder of Deconstruction, a media and tech consulting business, and presents The Guitar Show on YouTube.

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