June 2, 2021

OEHS in the Algorithmic Age: Closing Keynote Imagines Workplaces of the Future

By Kay Bechtold

June 2, 2021—New technology developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change the design of workplaces and the way people practice occupational health, futurist and keynote speaker Mike Walsh told the virtual audience of AIHce EXP 2021 during the conference’s closing session on May 26. Walsh’s presentation provided insights on how industrial hygienists and occupational and environmental health and safety professionals can navigate accelerating technological change and prepare for a new future of work. He stressed the importance of people and behavior to the future of all industries, especially OEHS, and urged organizations and leaders to be ready to transform in order to survive in what Walsh terms the “Algorithmic Age” of artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, and automation. According to Walsh, AI will change the way products and services are designed, which will have an “extraordinary and profound effect” on the nature of work itself.

“The workplaces we’re going to have to prepare for in the future [and] the kind of hazards and safe environments that we now need to design are going to be very different from a few years prior,” Walsh said. “Platform-based businesses that are built on data, AI, and automation [will] require [safety] professionals who think in very different ways.”

Walsh predicts that the “new world” will run on new rules, three of which he shared with attendees of AIHce EXP. The first rule is that digital disruption—the notion that technological innovation is causing upheaval across industries—has settled into normal business processes. According to Walsh, the COVID crisis pushed businesses to leverage AI, remote work, data, and automation to keep workplaces thriving and safe; businesses that weren’t able to become digital are likely no longer operating. Walsh’s second rule is that business leaders must move beyond digitization and embrace virtualization. One example of virtualization is the use of cameras and shape-recognition software to determine whether people are adopting social distancing practices in different environments, including retail. In addition to sophisticated AI, Walsh told the virtual audience to expect more citizen scientists in the workplace as smart devices become more common and more powerful—for instance, standard Apple Watches now include built-in decibel meters that alert users to potentially high noise exposures. The last rule Walsh discussed is that the future of safety is going to be AI-powered. Walsh suggested that humans and machines will work together to deliver effective safety solutions—people by providing judgment, context, and insight, while AI adds fine-tuned control, reliability, and standardization.

Walsh’s presentation also addressed the notion of remote work as central to the idea of how work has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is no such thing as remote work; [there is] just work,” he said. “It is not where we work that is changing, it is the how. Remote work is just the beginning of a much bigger revolution that is changing the nature of business itself.”

As technology changes jobs and organizations, the roles of leaders will change as well. According to Walsh, “algorithmic leaders” of the future will need a deep understanding of human complexity—a sense of how to motivate teams and what makes a good experience in the workplace. Future leaders will also need a new set of more technical skills, including the ability to leverage data and systems to augment decision-making and understanding, Walsh said.

“The new frontier of thinking about occupational health in the 21st century is going to be much bigger than just physical hazards—it’s going to [come down] to the core question of what is truly an equitable workplace in the future?” Walsh said. “What is it to be a good leader when you’re now often leading alongside algorithmic systems that are monitoring, surveying, and rewarding or punishing people based on their performance?”

Walsh advised industrial hygienists and safety professionals to embrace new capabilities; to design work for purpose, not profit; and to develop a strong moral compass to guide organizations during this time of technological change. Designing purpose-driven work will also be key to attracting new talent to the profession.

“The next generation will be joining your profession not just because they’re passionate about safety, but because they’re passionate about people, about human beings, and about what it takes to create a meaningful environment,” Walsh stressed.

“Now is a time for us to reimagine how we engage our customers, our clients, our coworkers and our communities,” he said. “Now is the time for us to rethink our role as leaders because now more than ever is truly a time for transformation.”

Kay Bechtold is managing editor of The Synergist.