The future of work was a hotly debated topic at Work Awesome NYC, a one-day event in late October featuring tech executives, senior HR officials, authors and professors.

Speakers discussed the growing need for work to be tied to a distinctly expressed purpose. Modern workers, many of the panelists said, wanted to know the value of their effort and were increasingly seeking corporations with clearly defined values.

“I’m one of the people that believes purpose and profit go together because purpose allows you to have a long-term plan for your business,” said Pooja Anand, head of people and leadership at Siemens. She was a featured speaker on the “Reskill, Upskill, Vanish? The Future Of Talent In The World’s Largest Organization.”

“But today, there’s so much disruption in the world. Everything changes; what is trending today is traditional tomorrow. How do you keep it consistent? For a company our size, with a diversified business portfolio across world, how do you unify everyone with one purpose? Because there are geopolitical, cultural and economic differences.”

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How the modern worker approaches employment

Experts also chewed on particularly thorny issues like the significant reduction in average employment tenure, automation’s effect on the workforce and whether corporations can ever truly give their employees true purpose.

Daniel Masata, president and founder of the tech hiring firm Volonte, was also on the panel and highlighted the vast changes in how the modern worker approaches employment. The days of people spending their entire lives working for the same company were effectively over, according to Masata.

“The average tenure for someone under the age of 35 in the US is now 2.8 years. That used to be a temporary assignment in the past but it’s now a permanent job. So there is now a lot more change and turnover for all companies,” Masata said.

“The future of work is definitely more on-demand than it ever has been. It’s now supremely important and in every company’s self-interest to make sure they have a holistic view of talent and what it takes to keep people. I do think that unwanted turnover at excessive levels is bad. The turnover that you want and need can be managed much better.”

Statistics show that 57 million Americans are now freelancing and are increasingly turning to cooperatives or associations to fill the gaps left by traditional employment, he noted.

The value of upskilling

While some on the stage tried to tie the general increase in turnover to the rise of automation and a variety of culture-altering technology, Anand said Siemens had found far more value in upskilling its workers and training them out of labor-intensive positions.

She added that people needed to rethink the conversation around automation because once they shed the boogeyman-esque connotations around it, they will see its true value to a modern workforce.

“With technology, it’s always easy to be scared and paint something negative, but coming from a manufacturing organization, factory floors are traditionally considered to be dirty, dangerous dark places. Now you can eat off of our floors, our workers work more on iPads than anything else. We have more women in the workforce in manufacturing jobs than ever. There are many ways technology can enable you to get to the next level,” she told the audience.

“For us, the reason we spent $50 million upskilling our workforce was about a focus on digitization. It’s about making sure you optimize your workforce and the utilization of resources so that our customers are given uninterrupted service. We’re all working harder at upskilling because it’s about using technology like AI and automation to assist the worker.”

Tech in the workplace

In another panel titled, “From AI to Ageism: What World Of Work Do We Want To Live In?” iRestart CEO and founder Rajkumari Neogy said the influx of technology in the workplace has been a good thing but it hasn’t fully been taken advantage of.

“I focus on how to bring human spirit into organizations. If colleagues don’t know how to deal with each other, the revenue potential is diminished. We need to shift from a cycle of chaos at work that leaves us stressed, diseased and medicated to a more neurochemically inclined place of joy and aliveness,” she said.

“Technology is propelling us forward but keeping us contracted.”

Neogy and author Douglas Rushkoff agreed that the future of work had to involve more cooperative businesses where workers had a greater stake in the company’s success.

Rushkoff noted that he wished humans could go back to a time where people produced things because they were good at making them and enjoyed the process. Humans have added an unnecessary extra step, he said, and now do things they don’t want to do for money ito get to a place where they can do what they like.

“Where you’re working to produce something, not just to spend these hours at a place. The next wave of how we build things needs to be about human capital,” Neogy said.

“Businesses will learn that rather than extracting $10 from the economy once, they’d rather earn $1 10 times that moves through the community. You want you marketplaces to be filled with money instead of taking all the money out of the landscape.”

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