The Future of Work: The UN Staff Members’ Perspective
Posted on 25 Feb 2020
Categories: Focus on
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

The United Nations preaches to the world that we should ensure a world of social justice and decent work for all. Perhaps we should begin at home. It is always better to have a taste of our own medicine before prescribing it to others. Don’t you think?

Read the following UNOG broadcast reporting an imaginary meeting at the Palais, close your eyes and imagine the situation at the renovated Alliance of Civilizations Room:

Message from the President of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council, issued on 24 October 2030.

I write to you after the conclusion of a townhall meeting at the Palais des Nations, where UNOG staff members and staff representatives told the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations their apprehensions on her views about our jobs. We explained to her that we have embraced the advent of technology in the last decade and that we have performed professionally and dutifully under changing conditions and eroding job security. She understood that we have fought against the repeated attempts to relocate some of our functions to presumably cheaper locations and that we have accepted the reduction of our salaries with a sense of duty above all else. She told us that she appreciates that despite all this, the world has witnessed the magnanimous resilience and perseverance of our committed colleagues at the United Nations in Geneva.

However, today will be a day to remember, because in the face of our candid and respectful comments, the new Secretary General told us that she only inherited an organisation that offers this challenging status quo, and that we should have done our part during the last decade to unsure that we preserved the right conditions to work. Not so diplomatic for the world’s top diplomat. But perhaps most importantly was the fact that she was honest enough to tell us bluntly that the future of work at the United Nations will be even more different, as we cannot avoid the embrace of artificial intelligence, robotic administrative functions and a further reduction of the number of staff members. Not so much positivism and encouragement about our future work conditions. End.

Now you can open your eyes to reality. This is a hypothetic internal report of the UN Staff Coordinating Council to all UNOG personnel 10 years into the future. But perhaps its likelihood is not so hypothetical. Knowing what we know now in 2020, and having witnessed the adamant efforts of some Member States to diminish our organizational culture and our conditions of work under the guise of reducing the UN budget -and thus, their contributions-, we could perfectly find a new Secretary-General that would have campaigned and that would have been elected under promises to make our organization ‘more efficient with less financial resources’. More with less. Sounds familiar today? Yes, it does.

Our jobs will be different in the near future

The fact of the matter is that our jobs will look very different from what we have today. And it is not only the advent of new technologies and the mobility of our posts; it is the harsh reality that artificial intelligence can and will affect every possible administrative and operational function. Here at the UN and everywhere. And we should be happy knowing that we are resilient and can adapt to new conditions. Indeed, we can thrive under hyper-use of technology and automatization. That is not the problem, and the UN personnel has demonstrated consistently that we can embrace change and excel with technological innovations. The problem is how to navigate this transition. The fundamental issue for us at this present moment is to better understand what the so called ‘future of work’ really implies. Let’s see.

The previous UNOG Director-General Michael Moeller held several engagement sessions with the staff at the Palais in 2019. The sessions were organized around the outcome of the 2017 Staff Engagement Survey and served to postulate the ‘UN Geneva 2030 Vision’. The third session focused on conceiving solutions on the theme “How We Work”. The discussions considered opportunities and challenges for staff members in light of new and different ways of working, as well as on how technology and innovation may impact the work of the UN as a whole. We debated new ways of working, cross-fertilization and cross-assignments, innovation and risk-taking, improving communication and the recruitment process, work environment and post mobility, and overall the new skill-set of UN staff in the future as a requisite to foster a culture of collaboration, innovation, flexibility and efficiency in HQs and worldwide UN operations. We did welcome last year the DG’s invitation to join Microsoft Teams, the online collaborative tool open to all UN Geneva staff that strengthens our use of technology and facilitates collaboration, team building, conferencing and file-sharing, as a way to foresee what could be the future of our work.

New technologies present new opportunities but also create new challenges

Despite our measured optimism, we all know that technology brings along opportunities to create a better world but also could exacerbate an unequal and unstable system. The UN website recently carried an article about the beginnings of our 75th anniversary commemoration, reporting that the United Nations Academic Impact Initiative had invited Dr. David A. Bray, Executive Director for the People-Centred Internet Coalition, to deliver a speech examining the impact of technology on the work of the UN. According to the article, Dr. Bray and other panellists characterized technology as exponentially powerful, the most formidable tool of change, an innovation of even greater importance than the printing press. Yet, like every tool, he said that it can also be used negatively to slowly erode privacy, manipulate public opinion and polarize public discourse. They argued that technologies like artificial intelligence, understood by such a small minority, run the risk of provoking a fear of the “other” and a nostalgia, real or false, for an era in which those things were not present. It was also clear from their deliberations that the UN needed to adapt to new ways of working and interacting with the societies it serves. And to do so, the openness of UN staff members is seen as crucial to avoid a disconnection with this changing reality.

Our colleagues at the ILO recently released a series of publications and a dedicated website by the name: ‘The Future of Work We Want’. The premise is that the world of work is undergoing a profound transformation. Uber mobility and technological change are creating new paths to prosperity but are also disrupting existing work arrangements. Digital and technological advances – including information and communication technologies – create new opportunities for workers and enterprises, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, they said. The series postulates that conflict, climate change, shifting demographics, migration and changes in the organization of work will greatly affect all societies, organizations, workers and enterprises. The demand for some jobs will change, other jobs will disappear, and many may not resemble what they used to. As this constitutes an eye-opening alert, the ILO decided to establish the Global Commission on the Future of Work, made up of senior government officials, prominent academics and representatives from major workers’ and employers’ organizations. Perhaps UNOG should think of something similar, including staff representatives, of course.

A human-centred agenda for the future of work at the United Nations  

As announced in their website, the ILO Commission undertook an in-depth examination of the future of work, to provide the analytical basis for the delivery of social justice in the 21st century. It called for a human-centred agenda that strengthens the social contract by placing people and the work they do at the core of economic and social policy and business practice. This agenda consists of three Pillars of Action, which in combination would drive growth, equity and sustainability for present and future generations: 1. increase investment in people’s capabilities; 2. increase investment in the institutions of work; 3. increase investment in decent and sustainable work. This clear vision of what needs to be done is aligned with the four Pillars of Decent Work that we all know at the UN: 1. standards and rights at work; 2. employment creation and enterprise development; 3. social protection, and; 4. social dialogue.

We all know that human history has shown that the challenges humanity faces can be overcome when we all work together. The future of work at the United Nations should be envisioned under that premise. UN Member States, UN management and UN staff should share a common view and should work together to ensure job security that leads to increased productivity and the fulfilment of our collective mission. If the United Nations preaches to the world that we should ensure a world of social justice and decent work for all, perhaps we should begin at home. It is always better to have a taste of our own medicine before prescribing it to others. Don’t you think?

* Alex Mejia is the Editor-in-Chief of UN Today and Division Director at UNITAR.