Broadly, economic growth can be decomposed into employment growth, labour intensity growth (i.e. growth in actual hour worked per employee) and productivity growth.
Given Singapore’s total fertility rate is persistently below the replacement level, and the socio-political costs of increasing our foreign workforce, maintaining sustainable employment growth is an uphill task. It is therefore no surprise that manpower has been a perennial issue for businesses, especially hiring people with the right skills and attitude.
Furthermore, labour intensity growth is likely to fare even worse due to an obvious cap in the number of hours an employee can work, but also as a result of an aging population and change in work attitudes (for example, millennials placing greater emphasis on work-life balance).
At the same time, the travails of raising Singapore’s productivity levels have been well documented. Productivity growth in Singapore remains anemic in spite of the best intentions of the government.
Taking all these together, does this mean the Golden Age of Singapore is behind us, and that Singaporeans should be prepared for a new normal of low to no GDP growth?
The Rise and Rise of the Digital Workforce
Thankfully, there is a way out. The rapid maturity and proliferation of digital technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is ushering the era of the Digital Workforce — virtual employees who can be scaled (almost infinitely) within datacentres, works 24/7 and can perform select tasks much faster and far more accurately.
Given that aforementioned manpower constrains, Singapore and Singaporean businesses will do well to leverage on the capabilities of this Digital Workforce.
For inspiration, one can turn to Japan, a country with certain characteristics not unlike Singapore. As an example, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group embarked on a productivity drive in 2017 with the implementation of RPA. Within three years, the group is expected to generate about three million hours of operational capacity, which is equivalent to the workload of about 1,500 employees.
At this point, naysayers may argue that automation technologies will lead to job losses and social unrest. In our view, such automation anxieties are uncalled for.
According to McKinsey, less than five percent of jobs can be fully automated with existing technologies. Rather than replacing workers wholesale, technologies can help automate that thirty percent of mundane and repetitive work that occurs in the majority of existing occupations. Rather than harming workers, focusing on performing higher value work will help boost their wages, while improving employee engagement and staff morale.
And the companies benefit too. Microsoft experimented with a four-day work week in its Japan office and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, productivity actually jumped by forty percent! Tim Ferriss’ four-hour work week might remain a pipe dream, but things are certainly trending in the right direction.
A Robot Co-Worker to Augment Every Employee?
In fact, visionaries like Daniel Dines are now advocating for “a robot for every person”, a la Bill Gates’ “a computer on every desk”. If the results of the personal computing era are anything to go by, we should expect a similar surge in productivity and innovation as a result of today’s hyper automation era.
To be sure, the Future of Work is evolving rapidly. As noted by Harvard Business Review, there are now eight sources of work that organizations need to orchestrate and navigate. Employees will undoubtably remain the primary source of work, but companies looking to survive and thrive in this digital, automation-first era would do well to consider all alternatives, especially AI-powered Digital Workers.