Governing Digitally – A Critical Inflection Point: Hybrid Work and Artificial Intelligence
As Covid subsides, deep-seeded changes to the workplace expand. Two of the most important drivers – hybrid work arrangements, and Artificial intelligence (AI) are also closely interrelated, and of profound importance to the future of the public service.
With respect to hybrid, recent collective agreements for federal public servants mark an historic inflection point. The Treasury Board mandate for a minimum of two days a week on site (or 40-60% of weekly hours) is now being implemented, with flexibility and enshrined commitments to continuance and ongoing dialogue.
Many workers welcome at least a partial return to the office, pointing to the power of in-person interactions to spur innovation and creativity. Indeed, prior to the pandemic, governments at all levels invested significant resources into innovation labs and other creative spaces. Others contend however, and not without emerging evidence, that with the right tools and platforms, much of this collaboration can now be done virtually (and potentially in more open, inclusive and effective manners).
A hybrid world is not fully remote: the term itself implies novel alignments of in-person and virtual processes to empower workers, while also accounting for collective requirements and outcomes. Hybrid implies give and take, as the emerging workforce development challenge for modern organizations is to devise human resource and digital infrastructure frameworks that enable workers to define their own path. Such a path implies an optimal mixture of in-person and virtual experiences that best corresponds with a person’s physiology, professional duties, and family and personal responsibilities.
If that were not enough, AI is taking the world by storm – promising to eliminate large swaths of human workers, before possibly wiping out all of humanity itself. IBM has already announced plans to end hiring in those support functions deemed suitable for AI automation. Likewise, as the Joint Councils have already done, many government departments and agencies are exploring AI deployments as enablers of service innovation and better policy-making.
While significant public sector layoffs in the near term are unlikely, it does bear noting that the federal public service has expanded massively over the past few years, and so it is not unreasonable for some right-sizing to occur at some point. Yet one can also expect that all governments will struggle mightily with AI, as has been the case with every prior wave of digital investments.
As this transition unfolds, hybrid and AI are closely inter-related in three ways. First, governments at all levels will be evermore challenged to recruit and retain highly skilled and scarce AI professionals, as the global shortage of such workers intensifies. Accordingly, providing hybrid (and in some cases fully remote) positions will be an essential aspect of government competitiveness in this highly specialized realm.
Secondly, human diversity is essential to overcome a key AI challenge, namely inherent design biases in underlying coding. Inter-disciplinarity in deploying and managing AI systems is equally important. Providing hybrid work experiences can help enable a more open and inclusive workforce, with flexibility an essential enabler of advancement for traditionally marginalized groups (that remain vastly under-represented in the upper echelons of public sector managers). Hybrid training programs will also be important to lessening such barriers, and to facilitating AI awareness and understanding.
Thirdly, as some AI automation does begin to eventually take hold, the offsetting benefit for organizations is to deepen a focus on human-based activities central to learning, innovation, and ongoing adaptation. Human ingenuity is also the basis of essential AI oversight and redress measures. Public servants thus require safe and accommodating spaces for reflection and focus (traits in short supply in a world of ubiquitous mobile connectivity and unrelenting emails and meeting invites). While hybrid is no panacea for the many forces at play, it can allow workers and managers to devise an improved and more optimal work path of scheduling and locational conditions conducive to both cognitive performance and mental well-being,
In short, the new world of work is never really upon us since we are constantly adapting in ways both large and small. A global pandemic and the rise of AI are two critical elements demanding a renewed and more integrative digital and human resource prism for public sector governance.