There are lessons to be learnt about the future of work in one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons titled ‘King-size Homer’, from the seventh season which aired over 20 years ago.

As you may recall, Mr Burns tries to get employees at the nuclear power plant ‘in shape’ by leading a workplace exercise program. As expected, however, Homer avoids this by taking advantage of the rule that someone who weighs more than 300 pounds will be classified as disabled and can then work from home. Unsurprisingly, he manages to gain the necessary weight and a computer terminal is installed in the Simpson house to allow him to do his very safety-critical work (monitoring a nuclear reactor!) remotely.

Homer cleverly works out that he can set up a ‘drinking bird’ to operate the computer for him while he is out. He arrives home from a visit to the cinema to find that his assistant bird has toppled over and a nuclear meltdown is imminent.

The Simpsons is notoriously prescient in the stories it tells (see the episode aired in 2000 that portrays Donald Trump as President of the United States …). While ‘King-size Homer’ is now more than 20 years old, the story raises some thought-provoking issues that continue to be relevant for HR and IR practitioners and managers more generally in the current workplace:

  • are workplace health and fitness programs valued by employees?
  • how should disabled employees be accommodated? Do they need to, or should they, be allowed to work from home?
  • which parts of an employee’s role can actually be safely automated?
  • what controls and processes are necessary when allowing employees to work from home?

The last two of these are particularly relevant when thinking about some of the emerging trends around how work might be performed in the future. As discussed in our recent blog ‘The future of work – what are the lessons for employers‘, two of the trends identified were:

  • the use of robotics to perform tasks more quickly, safely and efficiently than humans; and
  • telecommuting and remote working will become the norm (rather than the exception) in some industries.

So what does looking back at an old Simpsons episode tell us about these? There are a couple of valuable points to keep in mind:

  • employers will need to give careful thought to which tasks can be automated and what the ongoing role of humans is in ensuring that those tasks are completed safely and efficiently – it won’t be enough to set up a drinking bird and leave it be. In many cases, human oversight will be required. What training and skills will employees need to make sure the equipment functions correctly and – perhaps more importantly – what can be done to engage with and motivate employees in these situations to ensure that boredom doesn’t set in?
  • employers will need to develop and implement comprehensive and flexible systems to monitor and manage employees who are working from home to ensure that: employees are performing the work they have been assigned in a productive, efficient and responsible manner; and
  • the health and safety of those workers is not compromised by the home environment – and, conversely, that the health and safety of other workers in the employer’s workplace is not compromised by those working from home, like Homer did.

Homer is definitely not the shining light for the work of the future – but his behaviour gives food for thought about what we need to think about when structuring working arrangements.