In the digital workplace, traditional job roles and organisational structures are being thrown into the air, and the world of work emerging from this shake-up looks very different. With individuals within organisations and across enterprises constantly connected and sharing information, there’s the potential, even an imperative, for tasks to be redistributed and reorganised, and value created in new ways.

At Telefónica, the Spanish telecoms giant, the realisation that more value had to be harvested from the edge of the network — in customer homes — was accompanied by a dramatic reorganisation of the workforce. Workers who had previously worked in discrete departments were tasked with working on cross-departmental projects, putting the customer and innovation at the heart of everyone’s job.

The then-CIO at the helm of this change, Cristina Álvarez, put it this way: “My ambition is to lead a service department that enables employees to access the tools they need on a self-service basis. I don’t want to be a bottleneck, and we are already offering big data capabilities on a self-service basis. Employees can be far more autonomous than in the traditional model of corporate workforce.”

At Telefónica, work now mirrors employees’ private lives, where they are used to navigating social media and downloading apps in their own style. Staff members can create a digital space for a project, where people can choose whether they want to come, or be invited because their title or responsibilities are relevant. In the new workplace, technology enables a “pull” as well as a “push” in team-building commercial benefits.

It’s an approach endorsed by Thomas Kochan, author of Shaping the Future of Work (2015) and a professor of management at MIT Sloan School of Management. Kochan argues that status and job titles are secondary to collaboration in the digital workplace and that it’s helpful to think of a job as made up of a collection of tasks. “Tasks performed by different workers can be rearranged in ways that make the best use of technologies to get the work accomplished,” he explains.

According to McKinsey, analysing work activities rather than occupations is the most accurate way of examining the technical feasibility of automation. In the report “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation” by The McKinsey Global Institute (2017), a key finding was that about a third of the tasks performed in 60 per cent of today’s jobs are likely to be eliminated or altered significantly by coming technologies. In other words, the vast majority of our jobs will still be there, but what we do on a daily basis will change drastically.

Kochan suggests the pertinent question society should be asking is: “How can we direct the development of future technologies so that robots complement rather than replace us?” He refers to a Japanese adage “giving wisdom to the machines.” In the emerging and future digital workforce, the wisdom comes from workers and calls for an integrated approach to technology and job design.