Being human in a digital world – Ali Mahlodji


“We need to learn to live with automation to our own advantage.” An interview with Ali Mahlodji about being human in a digital world.

Ali, you are the founder of the platform WHATCHADO.COM, which presents the stories of 65,000 people from 100 nations about their lives, their jobs, and their backgrounds. How do you structure your work, and what would you like to do differently in the future?
I used to organise my life around my work. But in recent years, I have taken a lot of time to organise my work around my life. I noticed I wanted to have more time in my work to think and reflect. To be able to do jobs not when they came up but when I was in the flow and felt like doing them. I just wanted to listen to my biorhythm. The working environment as we know it today doesn’t allow for that – it is just not really acceptable to take time to think about a task before getting started on it. It is still some sort of status symbol to have lots to do and to be stressed out. I have made the shift from reacting to acting, and it feels good.

Is this where the working world is headed? What will it be like in 10, 20, 30 years time?
I think the rigid structures will be among the first things to go: sitting in the office every day from nine to five, waiting for your 25 days annual leave, working for one single company throughout your entire career, and retiring at 65. The old safety nets don’t exist any longer. Today, the work environment has become more flexible – people change their jobs every five years – and at the same time less predictable. The World Economic Forum published a great study last year suggesting that 65% of the jobs we’ll be doing in ten years time don’t even exist yet. So as I see it, one of the big management challenges in the coming years is to guide employees into an uncertain future. Generally speaking, working patterns will become more and more personalised. People will be able to work from pretty much anywhere. For managers this means that they will have to become more like a life coach than a commander in chief. It will be about getting employees onto the right track, giving them tasks according to their abilities, and mentoring them. The market and the economy will be changing, and for companies to be able to react to these changes, they will need to adopt an agile and flexible business model.

What will working together within companies look like in the future?
Communication will become even more important. But in the sense of listening and understanding, rather than the way it is handled nowadays, where somebody says something, and the most important thing is to have an answer immediately. We have to redevelop our listening skills and learn to hear not just the technical issues, but also the human ones. What motivates colleagues in a project team, what is their vision, and what are the concerns and obstacles for them? This sort of communication across different layers in the team will be a key issue, especially since we will not all be physically meeting in the same room anymore in the future. To me, this means that personal encounters – where you can really get a personal sense of each other – will become more and more important. In a world where everything works digitally, the human connection becomes increasingly important.

Will there be room for the human element in a virtual world? The virtual world is already cool, and will become cooler still. Developments in technology (graphics, sound etc.) will make everything even closer to reality. It will make no difference whether you are actually jumping out of a plane or experiencing it through a pair of VR glasses. Similarly, technology will help us to feel like we are actually in the same room even in virtual “rooms”. All the same, there will still need to be some meetings in real rooms. Not to discuss the project, but to deal with the human factors and to develop shared visions and mindsets. One of my clients, a global construction group, is making investments along those lines already: it brings its 150 managers together four times a year to allow them to meet and exchange ideas “in real life”. Last year, for example, two days of their conference focused on the topic of empathy: perception, listening skills, feelings.

Many experts claim that the digital transformation means that there is no longer any need for people to go out to work. Machines and algorithms will take over a large proportion of our work. Humans will have a lot of spare time on their hands. Will those who still want to work distinguish between work and the rest of life any longer?
I think that even today it is important to get to a point where we value our time both at work and in the rest of life. This will only function if the line between work and spare time becomes less stark. In both cases you are the same person with the same interests, desires, and fears. The split into “the work me” and “the private me” is arbitrary, as is the evaluation of “spare time = good” and “working time = bad”. It is important to find a personal purpose and added value in both. It is not up to someone else to get us to that point, but a question of our own attitude.

So what will working relationships need to look like in the future? What sort of companies will people be working for?
I think once we live in a world where people have the choice to do what they want, they will only work for companies where they feel that the organisation enables them to achieve something that they cannot achieve on their own. Many people will choose to work on a self-employed basis, even though this is hard. They no longer want an employee relationship, where they have to ask if they can come in late tomorrow or take a few days off. I am convinced that in the future, experts from companies in different fields who enjoy doing their jobs will make connections with each other, and if companies want to retain these talents, they will have to work at it.

The human being is in the centre of your philosophy. Sometimes buzzwords like digitisation and technocratisation make people wonder whether the human factor is being taken out of the equation.
The thing is, machines were not invented by other machines, but by human beings who just did not want to deal with certain tasks anymore. Now some work is being outsourced to machines. Unfortunately, we are gradually forgetting our own potential and becoming dependent on the services provided by machines. Who can still remember a long telephone number these days? The weird thing about it is that despite the help of machines, people are more and more stressed, and feel that they have less time to themselves than ever. People are adjusting themselves to digitisation, but I believe it should be the other way around. We need to learn to live with automation to our own advantage.

Ali Mahlodji was a refugee and high-school drop-out. He has had more than 40 jobs, from assistant cleaner to manager and teacher. He is co-founder of WHATCHADO, EU Youth Ambassador For The New Narrative, and, since 2017, an author.
And, yes, he is trying to save the world (seriously)!

Ali gives talks and keynote speeches all around the globe. In 2017, he published the book “Und was machst Du so? Vom Flüchtling und Schulabbrecher zum internationalen Unternehmer“ (“And what do you do? From refugee and high-school drop-out to international entrepreneur”). His WORKREPORT 2019 is published by the Zukunftsinstitut (Future Institute).

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