Let’s work a bit less, says tech entrepreneur and insurance chief

UK firms should use automation to allow staff to work four-day weeks and ward off an “epidemic of mental health issues”, according to acclaimed technology entrepreneur Jason Stockwood.

Mr Stockwood – chief executive of Simply Business and former executive at lastminute.com and match.com – told the Press Association that companies need to change their attitude to technology and the traditional workforce model, or he warned the “wheels will come off”.

The author of new business book – titled Reboot: A blueprint for happy, human business in the digital age, released in September – is urging other firms to consider using automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to not just boost business, but also create happy and more productive workforces.

With this week’s World Mental Health Day highlighting the importance of employee psychological well-being, Mr Stockwood is hoping to lead a force for change in corporate Britain.

Business insurance group Simply Business – which has offices across London, Northampton and in Boston, America – is already practising what he preaches with a four-day week trial and move to abolish sales force bonuses.

But he said workers are often wrongly seeing AI as a threat, when it can and should be a force for good.

He said: “We are storing up an epidemic of mental health and psychological issues.

“Quite frankly, the wheels will come off in the next couple of years if we don’t do something.”

He said it was time for “an upgrade in terms of our models of what work should be”.

“Let’s work a bit less,” he said. “Let’s have another change in society.”

“The four-day week could be a next chapter in giving people more freedom,” he added.

But he said businesses need to change their attitude to management and the use of AI.

With Brexit on the horizon and the potential shortage in skilled workers that it could create, he said it risks seeing firms use automation to replace staff rather than enhance workforces.

He said: “Some firms might think that if they can’t get the talent then automation is their answer.

“But it can’t be about businesses creating the most efficient operations.”

His vision may come up against some scepticism, with even the Bank of England recently warning about the impact of automation on jobs and wages.

In a recent speech, the Bank’s chief economist Andy Haldane said: “Increased automation and the dawn of a Fourth Industrial Revolution could… result in slower pay growth and workers receiving a smaller slice of the income pie.”

But Mr Stockwood is optimistic firms can rise to the challenge.

He said: “It’s beholden on business leaders to build businesses that can be seen in a broader social context.

“It’s about benefits being shared by all stakeholders and not just shareholders.”

Simply Business – which has around 500 staff – was sold to US giant Travelers Companies Inc in March 2017 for £400 million.

With the backing of Travelers, the group has plans to tap further into the US market – a potential 50 billion US dollar (£38 billion) market, according to Mr Stockwood – with Europe to follow.

But maintaining his ethos on working will remain key as it grows, while he said he is also now advising Travelers, with Simply Business acting as a “petri dish” for technology and workforce ideas.

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