What Is the Future of Work?
The future of work is defined by two major trends that are changing workplaces, workforces, and the nature of work in the 2020s. The first trend is the growing adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotics in the workplace. And the second is the changing physical distribution of the workforce and the rise in remote employees and gig workers.
Many elements of what was considered the future of work have been accelerated and have become today’s reality for many companies, as COVID-19 made it necessary to undergo rapid workplace restructuring. But changes in the working world were already well underway long before the pandemic was upon us. In the past 10 years, the number of employees working remotely increased by 91% according to a 2019 FlexJobs report. The number of gig workers has also been steadily on the rise, expanding by over 15% since 2010 according to a 2020 ADP report. The adoption of AI in the workplace has been another growing trend, with a 2020 Deloitte survey reporting that 71% of executives plan to spend more on AI in the coming year.
Workplace and workforce transformation
In the past hundred years, the world of work has undergone continuous evolution. The steady push of technology and the rise of the digital workplace have shaped not only how and where we work, but also the nature of the roles and skills required in a highly dynamic working culture. The working world continues to evolve, requiring business leaders to look for innovative solutions that will support the workplaces and workforces of the future.
- How and where we work: Until very recently, a mobile device was simply a phone – but today, smartphones are used by workers as portals for increasingly sophisticated software and data management tools. In a recent study, 87% of companies were dependent upon employees having access to mobile business apps from their devices. When portable devices such as laptops and mobiles are augmented with AI and connected to advanced digital systems, employees become untethered from the cubicle. They are freed up to work wherever they are – and to focus their minds more on solutions and innovation, and less on repetitive tasks.
- Changing roles in the workforce: As the use of AI in the workplace increases, so does the demand for roles that are primarily knowledge-based and cognitive. And despite concerns about humans being pushed out of the workforce by AI and robots, the forecast is actually much rosier than many may think. For example, in 2018, a WEF report found that, while disrupting some more traditional roles, the digitalization of the workforce is on track to create up to 133 million new roles by 2022 – occupations that didn’t even previously exist. Furthermore, by 2022 these emerging roles are forecasted to comprise up to a third of the employee base of large firms around the world.
- Demand for new skills in the workplace of the future: As the digital workplace reduces the need for an on-site workforce, it also increases the need for knowledge-intensive tasks. From 2000 to 2019, the proportion of employees with graduate-level qualifications rose from 24% to 42%. Other studies and statistics also show a nearly 20% rise in the past 10 years in jobs calling for evidence of complex problem-solving and innovative thinking. And, of course, a sophisticated level of computer and software literacy is basically essential for the workforce of the future.
Six trends that are shaping the future of work
The extreme importance of resilience and agility has recently been brought into sharp focus for many companies. This has meant that workplace procedures are increasingly prioritized for efficiency, personalization, and flexibility. Six of the top trends shaping the future of work are:
- The distributed workforce: Gig workers, remote workers, and hyper-specialized consultants have been comprising an ever-greater segment of the workforce for the past decade. In fact, recent statistics show that the gig economy is growing three times faster than the traditional U.S. workforce. The pandemic forced us into a very rapid expansion of the distributed workforce. In doing so, we have gained insights into this employment model that may have otherwise taken us years to acquire. Instead of hiring employees with generalist skills to be physically and permanently located in a central office, the growing trend is to form dynamic teams based upon task-oriented skills and for those teams to work within a much less centralized and hierarchical structure.
- AI in the workplace: By automating tasks and minimizing errors, artificial intelligence can take over mundane and repetitive tasks across the business. This liberates employees to focus on problem solving and more creative and interesting tasks. AI-augmented systems can analyze and interpret Big Data and widely disparate data sets, delivering highly accurate and actionable insights. This supports not only employee wellness initiatives, but greater innovation and more confident decision-making in all areas of the business.
Superteams are a growing trend in the workforce of the future. Integrating AI into already skilled and talented teams can empower the team to achieve superior results – with the benefit of advanced analytics, machine learning, and Big Data management on their side.
- Diversity and inclusion: Diversity in the workplace is no longer simply a matter of compliance and ticking boxes. Companies are increasingly proving that diversity in the workforce leads to higher levels of innovation, success, and employee satisfaction. In a recent McKinsey study, companies that were in the top quartile of the nation for diversity outperformed their competitors by an average of 36%. Employees who are part of diverse and inclusive workforces benefit from a wider range of cultural and life experiences. Augmented by advanced analytics and the capacity of AI, such teams gain a competitive and creative edge in a fast-changing market and economy.
- Multigenerational workforce: Until recently, the prevailing culture of work had been established by the Baby Boomer generation and was based upon their generational experiences. A trend – and a challenge – in the workplace of the future will be to forecast and understand the changing generational differences in the modern workplace and the unique needs and expectations of a wide range of age groups. Recent workforce shifts have also seen significant movement of employees out of the workforce. This has created new opportunities as well as a need for increased development, career planning, talent management, and related initiatives. Modern HR technologies and AI-augmented tools are contributing to solutions for these complex challenges by helping leaders gain insight into the unique needs of each generation. This means that learning and work preferences can be accounted for – and benefits and wellness options can be customized for the needs of all age groups within the workforce.
- Upskilling: Integrating increasingly sophisticated AI and digital solutions into the workplace requires specialized training. New ways of working with distributed workforces also has a learning curve as it requires more complex communication processes and remote-work technologies. But as the adoption of AI and new technologies creates a need for digital upskilling and reskilling, it also provides innovative solutions for delivering that training. For example, AI-augmented virtual reality (VR) experiences can personalize training procedures, and bots can learn from their users to create immersive environments that are customized for each user’s unique needs and learning preferences.
- Employee engagement and wellness: It has never been more important for companies to be innovative and able to shift quickly with the times. A major 2020 survey of 17,000 employees across more than 20 industries, shows how prioritizing workforce engagement is crucial to building more resilient and high performing businesses
But with increasingly distributed and remote workforces, achieving employee satisfaction and high degrees of employee engagement can be a challenge. Modern HR leaders are turning to AI and new human resources technology to provide the augmented experiences and Big Data analysis necessary to attain this.
As Forbes magazine observed in 2019, “highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability.” These are just a few examples of the many innovative ways that AI and digital solutions are being used to support employees and to improve their engagement, and workplace experience:
- Wellness recommendation systems that allow companies to create customized care plans that take into account employees’ health, medical history, and previous treatments
- Real-time communication tools that can answer questions and provide support and guidance in employees’ natural language
- Sensors and wearables that can monitor movement, postures, and actions to help determine when employees may be struggling with frustration or negative emotions – and to ensure that support comes as quickly as possible
- Customized health and fitness plans that consider employees’ preferences, personalities, and fitness levels to help develop programs and routines that are as enjoyable as they are healthy
- Blockchain security solutions to ensure that employees’ confidential personal wellness and medical information remains private and protected
The future of work has arrived
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic made the world sharply aware of how important it is to be able to successfully adapt to the unexpected. To embrace resilience, companies need to have employees who are strong and skilled – who feel valued and supported. And who are empowered with technologies and solutions that help them work with efficiency and confidence. The future of work is arriving fast for many companies that are using innovative ideas and solutions to transform their workplaces, workforces, and the nature of work itself.