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Automation to cut work week to three days: Richard Branson

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Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, and Investec joint-CEO Fani Titi.
Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, and Investec joint-CEO Fani Titi.

Employees will in future only work three days a week, as business models change as a result of automation taking over certain tasks in the workplace.

This is the word from Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of multinational conglomerate, Virgin Group, addressing the “Business Is An Adventure” event organised by Virgin, in partnership with Investec, yesterday in Johannesburg.

Speaking during a panel discussion titled, “Business out of the ordinary”, facilitated by journalist and former radio presenter Redi Tlhabi, the British billionaire warned of the reality that certain jobs will inevitably be taken over by machines.

He called on governments and organisations across the globe to think about how the fundamental nature of work and remuneration packages will be affected.

“While technology presents many opportunities and benefits, such as health, education and safety benefits, it also presents a real danger, which is that it will cost many jobs,” noted Branson.

“Governments and organisations have to start pondering how best they can ensure people still keep their jobs. In the next 20 years, people are going to be working an average of three out of five working days and companies will have to pay them the same salaries as they would on a five-day working week.”

The rise of robots is already seeing transformation in the workplace, with the automation of menial and repetitive tasks being the most obvious change.

A study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that between 400 million and 800 million of today's jobs will be automated by 2030, across the globe.

While some research shows that in the future, technological advancement is poised to be a job engine that will create more employment than it destroys, Branson believes the contrary is true.

The business mogul urged organisations to retain as much human talent as they can, and highlighted the importance of workers making the most of their free time.

“You could argue that new jobs will be created by technology in other areas and so on…but I just don’t think there is going to be enough ‘new areas’ to create many jobs. People need to think about how they can make the most of their own leisure time by doing something meaningful over the three or four free days a week they will have.”

An estimated 5.7 million jobs in SA will be at risk over the next six years due to automation, resulting in a crippling effect on the economic growth of the country, according to an Accenture report, titled "Creating South Africa's Future Workplace".

Innovation and continuous reinvention

Branson’s current net worth is estimated to be around $4 billion. He founded ‎Virgin Group in 1970, in collaboration with British businessman Nik Powell. Today, the multinational venture capital conglomerate spans many sectors, including travel and leisure, telecoms and media, music and entertainment, financial services, and health and wellness.

He highlighted the importance of businesses reinventing themselves and continuously adapting to change, referencing the trajectory of his first company, Virgin Records, and how it had to move into other industries to remain relevant.

“As Virgin Group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, during that time we have evolved from Virgin Records and established different companies in different sectors. If we had stayed and not evolved, we would have been bankrupt ages ago.

“When we realised that a lot of the money customers would spend on records was now being spent on mobile phones, we immediately ventured into Virgin Mobile – so diversity and reinvention are important elements to business success.”

Intertwining humans, machines

As more organisations create workplaces run by robotics, research firm IDC predicts that in most cases, the AI agent will be expected to work alongside humans.

Investec joint-CEO Fani Titi, also participating in the panel discussion at the Virgin event, noted how innovative use of technology enables organisations to provide better services and products, but cautioned against over-prioritising technology.

“Although Investec has heavily invested in technology to innovate, improve our relationship with clients and stakeholders, and empower our employees, technology is not everything. Companies should not have to make the choice between humans and technology but should adopt best practices to intertwine the two.

“If you are dealing with issues of lending money over a 15- to 20-year period, like Investec [does], technology becomes very useful, but we need more than technology. Therefore, we need to invest in improving the standard of education and ensure access to the right type of education by focusing on digital skills development, to prepare workers for the future,” said Titi

Kim Reid, CEO and founder of Takealot.com, and Sir Richard Branson.
Kim Reid, CEO and founder of Takealot.com, and Sir Richard Branson.

Kim Reid, CEO and founder of Takealot.com, discussed the impact of AI on business, society and the world's economy.

“AI is going to change not only the future of business but the world in many ways. Businesses which are not going to adopt AI in the short- to medium-term are really going to struggle in the long-term, because AI is really going to be a game-changer.

“In healthcare, AI, through algorithms, is able to detect and identify cancer cells more accurately than doctors who use traditional methods.

“Organisations need to start thinking about how they are going to accumulate and best leverage customer data because businesses that make better use of data are going to be more successful than businesses that don’t put their data to good use,” asserted Reid.

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