The future of work has never seemed more immediate than it does today, with national lockdowns and social distancing forcing enterprises to fast-track investments in remote working, digital channels, automation software and even physical robots. Many of these changes to the workplace will stick – resulting in profound transformations in the ways in which we work by 2025.
This is not just due to the pandemic – PwC’s Workforce of the Future research highlights how the world of work is changing at unprecedented speed and scale due to five megatrends:
- Rapid technology advances;
- Demographic shifts – especially the aging of the rich world;
- A significant increase in the world’s population moving to live in cities;
- Economic power shifting between developed and developing countries; and
- Resource scarcity and climate change.
PwC notes that among the forces shaping tomorrow, how humans use and regulate technology will have a major impact not just on the future of work, but also on the types of society we create. “Technology has the power to improve our lives, raising productivity, living standards and average life span, and free people to focus on personal fulfilment,” says PwC.
“But it also brings the threat of social unrest and political upheaval if economic advantages are not shared equitably.” Given that 60% of the people PwC surveyed think ‘few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future’, this question is likely to be top of mind for governments and regulators over the next five years.
Here are some insights from HR leaders, consulting firms and other observers about how this could play out over the next five to 10 years:
Replacing humans or augmenting their capabilities?
The major questions organisations and societies will face over the next five years is not just how much human work can be offloaded onto artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, but how much work should be automated. Enterprises will be walking a fine line between reaping the highest levels of efficiency through automation, while deciding where humans should take the lead.
These choices might, in some cases, be driven by politics as much as by the capabilities of the technology. That’s especially true in societies where unemployment is already high. The sanguine view is that machines will not be able to replicate human empathy or creativity. However, even in that case, we face years of uncertainty and even upheaval as human workers reskill to keep pace.
Work from where?
There is little doubt that remote work will form a big part of the future – just how big is the question. Some studies indicate that 60% of workers will not be able to transition to remote working permanently. That means that, globally, as many as 40% of employees will be able to work from home at least part of the time.
Beyond the pandemic, there will be a major focus on understanding who should come to the physical office, when and for what purpose – and how to manage them. Many traditional processes and procedures might become victims of this re-evaluation of how the business operates. For example, some enterprises might dispense with many of the status meetings or site visits that once seemed essential.
Job flexibility or employment instability?
The work-from-home trend could have a profoundly disruptive effect on many traditional roles and jobs, especially when paired with digitalisation and automation. Organisations might decide that they don’t necessarily need to restrict themselves to hiring people from the same country or the same city for remote roles, when cheaper or better talent is available elsewhere.
They may also be more open to using freelancers and contractors for roles that were once reserved for full-time employees. There will be winners and losers in this equation – better-educated people with rarer skills will be at the front of the queue for the prime permanent roles and the most interesting, high-paid gigs. Other workers could see an erosion of employment stability and benefits.
“As the coronavirus pandemic forces a re-think of entrenched work culture norms, the opportunity arises for disruption of professional services via the gig economy. But the tools to move towards a less exploitative and more just platform economy will be essential – with strategies that involve transparency, accountability, worker power and democratic ownership,” writes Desmond Dickerson on the World Economic Forum (WEF) blog.
The sentient workplace
Those workers who still regularly go to a physical place of work may find a workplace that is friendlier and more responsive to their needs than today’s open-plan offices. MoreySmith’s Workplace Futures Report anticipates the rise of a ‘sentient workplace’ that adapts itself to itself to its occupants’ needs.
“The result,” says the report, “will be a playground for personalisation, forming atmospheric bubbles around individual workers.” Deloitte’s Edge building in Amsterdam is an example. An app controls parking, daily desk allocation, locker access and food ordering. Deloitte believes this has led to 60% fewer absentees, a fourfold increase in job applications and an increase in talent retention.
The future is not yet written
As PwC notes, the trajectory of the future of work is hard to predict because it’s as much about how humans respond to the challenges and opportunities as the evolution of the technology. There can be little doubt that business leaders, regulators and governments face massive challenges in policy and implementation as technologies like AI race to maturity. Some difficult decisions lie ahead.
[Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash]