Everything about the Future of Work: what it is, why it matters, the drivers shaping it, forecasts and scenarios… And of course, how to make it more human and humane.
In the last few years, the Future of Work has become a fashionable catch-all word, a fad, or a commercial magnet used by consultants, business people, HR professionals, and academics alike (me included!), meaning different things to different people.
In this post, I aim to clarify the concept, explain why it matters and how it affects us all, and start working towards a better Future of Work.
This is a simple guide about the Future of Work, and it includes the following sections:
1. What is the Future of Work?
2. Why the Future of Work matters
3. Drivers shaping the Future of Work
4. Future scenarios and forecasts
5. The organisation of the future
6. The leader of the future
7. Towards a Humane Future of Work
1. What is the Future of Work?
As the term itself evokes, the Future of Work is about knowing how the world of work (the nature of work, the workers and their skills, the workplace) may evolve in the future.
As stated above, all the leading consultancies (Deloitte, McKinsey, Bain, BCG), HR blogs, and other organisations such as the OECD, the ILO (International Labour Organisation), and the World Economic Forum, amongst many others, have published their reports and definitions of it. You can pick the definition that resonates most with you.
Regardless of the specific definition you have selected, there are some commonalities between them all. One of them is the presence of trends or drivers impacting the future, technology, and AI in particular being very salient. As Gibson famously said:
“The Future is already here -it’s just not evenly distributed”.
We cannot know precisely the future, but the future is shaped by actions, trends, and drivers in the present, so we can try to forecast or predict it, however inaccurately that might be, by observing these trends and drivers.
The world is changing increasingly faster, and it is now VUCA (or even VULCAN; that’s adding Lazy and Noisy to the traditional Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous). Technology, in particular, is growing exponentially in many areas, so it is not surprising that more and more people are starting to worry about all these changes and how they will impact something as important as the nature of work, the workforce, and the workplace.
When is the future?
A topic that doesn’t get discussed so often is the timescales of the Future of Work: when is the future? By definition, the future could be tomorrow or next week, but when we are talking about the Future of Work, we are talking about longer timescales in which the trends have enough time to enact significant change.
With the current pandemic, economic crisis, the exodus of people working from home, and the acceleration of certain processes, such as the digital transformation of organizations, adoption of e-commerce, and the appearance of new business models, many authors are talking about the Future of Work with a relatively short-term view. For them, we will reach the Future of Work when we get to the post-pandemic “new normal.”
There is no reaching the Future of Work. There will always be a future beyond this present, and the talk about the Future of Work and worries about automation date to the times of Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century.
In this topic, I like to follow the guidelines of the Institute for the Future. When making forecasts and talking about the future, they usually like to speak of at least ten-year spans. Ten years is far enough that current drivers and trends can shape it, there can be significant change from the present state, and you can imagine a significantly different future; but close enough that we can more or less see where we are heading and the forecasting doesn’t become a futile exercise of science fiction.
Thus, when I talk about the Future of Work, I would define it as the observation of the forces impacting the nature of work, the workers, and the workplaces over the next decade and beyond, to act upon them.
2. Why the Future of Work matters
As I said repeatedly, the future doesn’t happen to us. It’s not like the weather or an earthquake. We make it happen through our actions in the present, combined with some forces we cannot control, but we do have some agency over it.
That’s why it matters studying and knowing about the Future of Work. Not only can we better prepare ourselves to mitigate the risks and benefit from the opportunities the future might bring us, but we can also actually shape it in a way that will help us even more.
Let’s look at why it matters from the point of view of three different constituents: individuals, organisations, and governments.
A few months ago, someone I know in Spain told me he wanted to study to become a train driver.
“Why would you do that?” was my first reaction.
“I am unemployed, I have no studies, and if I manage to get in, it looks like a nice job: government job with good pay, good working conditions, stability, a job for life, etc.,” he responded.
“Are you sure about the job for life part?” was my response. “I am not sure if you are reading and seeing documentaries about the advances in AI and automation, but I’m pretty sure there won’t be much need of train drivers very soon. Many trains in airports and some cities already go driverless. You should study something else.”
That was my brutal advice, and I feel sorry for this acquaintance of mine, but this is one reason why we as individuals need to study and do our research about the Future of Work. It will affect our livelihoods, our careers, and our wellbeing.
The skills organisations will be looking for will change in the next decade. New opportunities to have different income streams will arise via platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, Freelancer, or Medium. Some people are creating new careers for themselves as Instagram influencers, for example, and in a few years, there will be plenty of new jobs that don’t exist today, some of them with ridiculous names.
If you don’t look after your future, nobody will, so take ownership of it now. The first step is to know what may happen and what you can do to make it happen in a way that benefits you as much as possible.
It’s a similar story with organisations. How can they attract and retain the best talent? What skills will they need to succeed in 2030? What will their employees expect from their companies to feel engaged? How will consumer tastes change? What new business models can they create to grow their business? What new product or service will disrupt their current markets?
It will be critical that organisations are able to answer these and many other questions if they want to succeed and be still around in 2030 and beyond.
Kodak’s demise is often showcased as the typical example of a complacent company being disrupted out of a comfortable position. An engineer in Kodak was the first person to invent the digital camera in the 70s. Still, the company leaders decided not to invest in the technology and leave it under wraps, so it didn’t disrupt their profitable and dominant position in the film-based industry. Of course, someone else disrupted them, first with digital cameras and then with the ubiquitous smartphone, and Kodak stopped being a household name.
What happened to Kodak is happening now a thousand times. There are so many things changing in the market and the workplace, every day, that the companies that aren’t alert, with their ears to the ground, will end up going down.
Organisations should have futurists in their payroll or hire their services, not to predict the future, which nobody can, but to look at all the different directions in which the future can travel and to see what risks they should avert, what opportunities grasp, where to invest, and even how to develop new markets and new employee experiences.
Only the companies that know the future well will be able to conquer it fully.
Governments and public agencies
Imagine a world in which AI has advanced so much that all or most jobs are automated and most of the population doesn’t work. This is one of the possible endgames of automation, and it may sound implausible at the moment, but many distinguished thinkers and researchers think it is a distinct possibility, and that it will happen within the next few decades.
What would be the role of the state in a society without human jobs? How would wealth be redistributed? Governments the world over need to start preparing and planning for this or other possible futures.
Even if not all jobs are automated, the world of work will likely be disrupted; it is being disrupted already, and governments are not adapting fast enough.
Businesses have been telling governments for years that the education system is not developing the skills they need to succeed in the current market, let alone in the future one. There is a significant skills gap between what organisations need and what universities and schools teach, and this gap is increasing.
Inequality is rising, there are raising concerns about surveillance capitalism, there needs to be a deeper discussion about ethics in AI, political polarization due to the use of social media is increasing, a few tech companies have enormous amounts of data about ourselves and our tastes… There is a long list of issues linked to technology and the Future of Work that need some state intervention or regulation to be tackled successfully.
3. Drivers shaping the Future of Work
The future is being shaped continuously in the present by drivers. There are also trends and mega-trends, but I prefer to focus on drivers, on what drives change.
I wrote a post about the drivers shaping the Future of Work some months ago, so I won’t extend in this topic here, but in my opinion, the main drivers impacting the Future of Work are the following:
From advances in AI and the unstoppable march towards further automation to the more extensive use of blockchain for setting up smart contracts, the promise of IoT and 5G, the dataification of society, or the new possibilities offered by Extended Reality (virtual, augmented, or mixed), technology is and will be one of the main disruptors and enablers in the workplace. Technological disruption will affect how and where we work, and the nature of work itself.
For the first time in history, there are five very distinct generations in the workplace: the Traditionalists, Veterans or Silent Generation (those born before 1946), the Boomers (born 1946 to 1964), Generation X (1964-1979), Generation Y or Millennials (1980-1997) and Generation Z (after 1997).
In 2030, there will not be many Boomers left in the workplace, the Veterans will have been gone too, and Millennials will be the most represented generation. The oldest ones will be 50, so they will be occupying many of the senior positions that today Boomers or Gen’Xers occupy.
Gen Z, the first fully digital native generation, will have entered the workplace en masse. They are distinctively different from the previous generation (they are more sensitive, less confident, more concerned with safety, with social causes and the environment), so it will be interesting to see how they help shape the workplace in the next decade and beyond.
Flexible Working arrangements
One of the main learnings from the pandemic is that it is possible for a big proportion of the population, especially white-collar employees, to work from home or anywhere else. It seems to be efficient, and both companies and employees seem to like it.
There is some research demonstrating productivity increases, and considering the huge investments companies have made on real estate, it is possible that in the “new normal,” there will be smaller offices and people will work more often from home or other spaces that aren’t the main office, like co-working spaces and satellite mini-offices.
The jury is still out. Some CEOs are in favour, like, for example, Jack Dorsey from Twitter, who said that employees could work from home “forever.” Others are against, like Reed Hastings from Netflix, who said working from home was “a pure negative” as it reduced creativity and innovation.
I think, as always, the final response will lie somewhere in the middle: white-collar employees will work from home more often, but they will still go to the office for meetings, social interaction, and networking.
Apart from working from home, there is a trend towards more flexibility of working hours and greater work-life integration.
The world is changing ever faster and is increasingly complex and competitive. New technologies are coming to the market at a neck-breaking speed, and new jobs pop up here and there. The skills that made people successful 20 years ago are now obsolete. New skills are required to be successful today, and probably other new ones will be demanded in the future job market.
All this means people need to keep learning and reinventing themselves all their lives, including into their retirements, as our aging society will require many of us to come and go from retirement and be in a permanent semi-retirement state after a certain age, never fully retiring.
Traditional education in secondary schools and universities is being turned upside down, and new, more agile, modes of learning are appearing via digital tools.
The objective is to learn, not just show up and get a certificate, and there are plenty of different ways to do so beyond the traditional training course.
Organisations designed to favour constant learning amongst their employees will have the edge over the rest.
Globalization, or its recess
Globalization has been a strong driver shaping economies, business models, and organisations, but it seems to be going backwards.
Considering the reduction of travel due to the pandemic, the trade war between China and the US, the US’s retrenchment from global institutions, Brexit, and many other recent events, this may be one of the few trends that is being reverted at the moment. However, it may be too early to conclude that, and this may be just a blip in the overall trend towards further integration.
Whichever way globalization goes in the next decade, it will have a severe impact on trade, on how organisations operate, and on the world of work.
I didn’t identify this as a driver in my previous post, but I have written about it before (here and here). I think it is an important one, increasingly so. More and more companies are portraying themselves as purposeful companies, focused not only on profit maximisation for their shareholders but also on benefiting all the other stakeholders: workers, consumers, suppliers, the community in which they operate, and the environment.
This is the right thing to do morally, but it also makes business sense. Consumers are increasingly selective when deciding their purchases, and the ethical credentials of the company from which they want to buy matter more and more.
The same happens with employees. They are increasingly worried about the type of company they work for and their impact on the environment and society. This will be the case even more as Millennials dominate the workforce and more Gen Z members enter it.
Companies that want to attract talent and clients will have to take active measures to reduce carbon emissions and plastic use, treat their employees fairly -even beyond mere statutory requirements-, drive their Diversity and Inclusion agendas, purchase responsibly, and create employment in the community.
They will have to walk the talk or suffer the consequences.
4. Future scenarios and forecasts
As Bergman and Karlsson state in their review of the research literature on the topic of the Future of Work1:
“When it comes to the future of work, few books with that title or similar contain any predictions at all. One might suspect that those words are in the title to make it more catchy and interesting.”
They are probably right, and many of these books don’t make any predictions and talk about current trends. Lately, we have also seen many instances where the Future of Work is mentioned in relation to going back to the “new normal” and the post-pandemic world. This is a rather short-term view of the future, as we are talking about a timescale measured in months and not years or decades. Still, as stated above, there is no definite timescale when talking about the future: even tomorrow is the future.
Regardless of the timescales, not including any predictions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nobody owns a (fully functioning) crystal ball, and futurists’ role isn’t to precisely predict the future, but to make assumptions about possible futures, so we can look at the different alternatives in front of us, with their risks and opportunities, and get ready for them.
Forecasts and scenarios
To do this, we don’t need predictions, but we need forecasts, which are the essential tool in the futurist’s toolkit. Forecasts are more useful than predictions because they open possibilities to different realities, but without the sort of inevitability that predictions have. Predictions basically tell you, “this is what is going to happen, whatever you do.” Forecasts enable and promote agency and action; predictions remove them.
A scenario is a type of forecast. It is a forecast in a narrative form, as it is told as a story that could or might happen. As such, it usually contains elements of fiction, even fictional characters, but they can be very vivid, and they can be powerful in transporting us into the future and looking at the possibilities it has to offer.
When talking about the Future of Work, it is useful to use forecasts and scenarios. In Possible Futures: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I presented three different scenarios of what the world could be like in 2050. As I wrote there, these probably won’t happen exactly as they are described, but some of its elements could happen, and the aim of the article was to push people to make a choice and ask themselves in what sort of world they would like to live.
In a similar vein, I recently wrote some forecasts about the world in 2100, focusing on areas like climate change, demography, geopolitics, and technology. The further you go into the future, the blurrier it gets, and the more difficult it is to see yourself in, but we will eventually get to that future too, and it is worthwhile looking at things with a long term view.
I will definitely continue writing scenarios and forecasts of the Future of Work and the world in general, as they are handy tools, so watch this space for more.
5. The organisation of the future
The Future of Work happens in organisations, so it is essential to look at what type of organisations we will have in the future. Companies with certain characteristics will be better prepared to compete in the future. Coincidentally, some of these companies will also be better at promoting the values of the humane Future of Work we should strive for.
As stated in the section about drivers above, we are recently seeing the increase of the purposeful company, and this is a trend that will only grow. Corporations are important social agents, and their purpose is not only to maximise profits for these shareholders but also to look after the interests of all stakeholders: employees, consumers, suppliers, the community at large, and the environment, both in an economic and ecologic sense.
Consumers are increasingly looking at the values and social and ecologic credentials of companies before buying. The same happens with talent, who will identify (or not) with a company’s purpose. This will have a vital role in the talented employees’ decision to join or stay in a particular company. Even investors are piling into ESG (environment, social, and governance) companies and funds to invest in and making a killing out of it.
This trend will only increase as more Gen Z members, the generation most concerned with the environment and social justice, enter the workforce and become an ever-greater part of the consumer base.
The future company will be distributed. This means it will be less static and more flexible, with a more distributed workforce working from different places and at different times.
As stated above, it’s not clear if the corporate office will definitely be dead when we go back to some kind of normalcy. It is safe to assume that we will go back to some sort of hybrid model in which we alternate days working from home with others working from an office or a co-working space.
Flexibility will be the key word.
Companies like Gitlab have been fully distributed for a while, and with great success, so they will be the models to emulate.
AI and data-enabled (but not driven)
The future organisation will be enabled by AI and Big Data, but it will not be fully driven by it. Humans will still be in the driving seat.
The companies that work out how to integrate AI into their business processes and transform their business model around it will succeed; the rest will fall back or fail. The companies that can combine well the potential AI offers with human intuitions, emotions, and social abilities, those who keep or foster their humanity, will be the real winners.
AI and robots will be able to do more and more jobs better than humans, so automation will increase. However, new jobs will be created, and AI will likely enhance and complement many existing jobs, but not entirely replace them, at least not in the next couple of decades. What happens beyond that is anybody’s guess, but the number of human jobs available in the market may go down, slowly but inexorably.
Big Data and machine learning will have a more significant weight in decision making, but we will have to find a solution to the “black box” problem, the entrenching of biases on data and other AI-related ethical issues. A combination of humans and AI is still my best bet for the best decisions.
In an environment that is changing faster every year and is being continuously disrupted, organizations that don’t learn and adapt will not survive. As simple as that.
A learning organization means an agile organization that can learn and change its shape and structure to answer the needs of the environment better, but primarily it means an organization in which the people can learn and adapt. An organization is made of people, after all.
For that, we need to encourage a growth mindset in our organizations, allow experimentation and errors, and be more tolerant of risks and change.
Training does not equate to learning. It is only one learning method and not even the most effective one at that. We have been obsessed with training, but it is time we opened the space and prioritised other learning methods.
Learning through projects, facing new challenges on the job, coaching, mentoring, shadowing others, conducting research, gamification, immersion on new learning environments via VR, micro-learnings on a smartphone, e-learning, and attending webinars, reading a good old book… there are many ways in which we can learn something new and useful.
Which method we use will depend on the subject we want to learn and on the learners themselves, but usually, a blended approach will be the most effective one.
As already stated, globalization is dead. Long live glocalization! The world has seen the biggest push towards globalization in history in the last few decades, but this seems to be coming to an end in the last couple of years. It already started with Brexit, Trump’s election, and the trade war between China and the US, but the global pandemic has accelerated the process.
The world won’t forget what it already knows, and it will continue being smaller than ever, but traveling has come to a halt, trade between countries is going down, companies are thinking of bringing their supply chains closer to home, and some international institutions are losing steam.
The companies capable of maintaining a global strategy but are nimble and adaptable to each local situation and contingency will succeed in the future.
To be agile and nimble, companies will have to decentralize their structures and give the country and local entities autonomy.
The future company will act more as a network of different parts talking to each other, many of them partnerships or ventures outside the corporate structure, than a rigid top-down hierarchy.
Are HQs ready to relinquish some of their power and let other people, closer to the ground, decide what is best for the company?
6. The leader of the future
A new environment and a new type of organisation will require a new kind of leader. The leader of tomorrow will have to have some specific mindsets, competencies, and skills to succeed.
We need purposeful leaders for purposeful organisations. People will follow a leader with a clear purpose, especially if this purpose is aligned with their values. As Sinek claims, people follow a leader because of their WHY, not the HOW or the WHAT.
There is also a concept of clarity versus certainty. As Johanssen expresses2, in today’s ever-moving world, certainty is the fastest ticket to failure, but clarity is like the lighthouse that guides people in the dark storm. A great leader has clarity on what general direction they, their team, and organisation must go to succeed, but they are not always certain on the exact way to get there. Still, that clarity of purpose guides them.
There is no leadership without vision. In a future more worried about values, helping the community and the environment, that vision should have a clear and engaging purpose.
Our societies and therefore, our teams are more mixed than ever, and a great leader needs to understand all the different views in their teams, and more importantly, make everybody in the team feel safe and included.
Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice. We are all unique and, therefore, diverse, so diversity will exist whether you want it or not, but whether you want to make everybody feel included or uncomfortable, that’s your choice. This is why usually, when discussing Diversity & Inclusion, I think the latter is much more important than the former.
Diversity is also important, of course. Any company needs to ensure that all the uniqueness and diversity of gender, sexual orientation and identity, cultural and ethnical origin, people with special abilities, generations… are all represented in their workforce. Still, it is even more critical that all of them feel included. The important thing is that everybody should come to work as they are, without having to hide anything about themselves, and feel comfortable about it, and not being afraid of being judged.
For all this to happen, the key figure is the leader. A leader has to be open-minded, understand all the differences, have empathy for others, be compassionate, and accept everybody as they are.
This starts with oneself: how many people don’t accept themselves and aren’t compassionate with themselves? We are often our harshest judges and tell ourselves things we wouldn’t say to our worst enemies.
Love yourself and love others. That is probably the best mantra for the inclusive leader.
In a world increasingly dominated by machines, emotions will get more critical. As AI takes more and more of the tasks humans do, we will value more what makes us humans. With their good and bad things, emotions are one of the main things that make us humans.
Leaders will still lead teams composed of human beings, and to lead them successfully, they will need emotional intelligence above many other things. This is true today and will be true in the future.
Emotional intelligence is not only about emotions; it’s about many other things (some count up to 12 dimensions of it). It’s about being self-aware and understanding what is happening with oneself, our emotional responses, how we feel and react in certain situations, but it’s also about being aware of others’ emotions, reactions, our impact on their feelings, etc. It’s about having empathy and understanding others.
An emotionally intelligent leader regulates their emotions and manages the relationships with others effectively, and is thus capable of motivating and getting the most of their team.
Advances in AI mean that automation is growing, and machines are taking more and more tasks that until now were being undertaken by humans. This trend will continue and possibly accelerate with time.
AI can do remarkable things, things humans cannot do, and cannot do very basic stuff we can do easily. Artificial Intelligence is intelligent in a way but isn’t in many other aspects. AI and humans will complement each other and will bring different skill sets to the table.
A great leader will know this and will make the most of it. They will understand the full potential of AI and how this can transform and disrupt the business model under which they operate and make all processes more efficient. They will also understand where their limitations lay and when it is better to use human intelligence.
Finally, the future leader will understand the risks of AI and use it indiscriminately. The leader of tomorrow will be well aware of the ethical pitfalls and risks of AI and will know how to navigate those to make the most of AI, but using it appropriately.
Innovation and Growth Mindset
We live in the age of innovation, the age of technological wonders, and the future leader will have to have the right mindset to make the most of it.
This means being open to experimentation, risk-taking, and failure. People with a growth mindset will succeed; people with a fixed mindset will be left behind.
Innovation mindset doesn’t mean being the next Steve Jobs and focusing only on technology. There is plenty of innovation in technology, but not only. Innovation can be remodeling a process to make it more efficient, creating a new service that satisfies a client need hitherto unmet, or bringing in new types of people with unique talents not appreciated beforehand.
The future leader doesn’t necessarily have to be a great inventor but has to have the right mindset to be open to change, innovation and to build the right team that will bring that innovation to fruition.
7. Towards a Humane Future of Work
The whole point of studying the future is to get ready for it or to shape and influence it in the desired way. For that, we would have to first agree on what type of future we would like to live in. Each of us has different values and opinions of what is good and desirable and what isn’t.
As I explained in another article, I believe we should strive to build a human and humane Future of Work. What does this mean?
The Future of Work should be built by and for the people. We should create workplaces where people can reach their full potential, grow, and learn, where they don’t feel alienated, exploited, or discriminated against, and where wealth is more evenly distributed.
We should create a future in which values like liberty, equal opportunities for all, fairness, prosperity, wellbeing, and personal growth are possible. Sadly, this may sound like a big ask in today’s world, but it shouldn’t be this way. I think it is possible and desirable to reach this future.
How can we get there? I outlined above two ways in which we can build a humane Future of Work. First of all, by creating and promoting organisations with a purpose beyond profit maximisation. It is our responsibility as consumers, employees, and shareholders to buy, work for, and invest in companies with values that go beyond profit maximisation and positively impact their communities and environment.
Secondly, we should promote a specific type of leader of the future. We need future leaders with integrity, values, and a purposeful vision to engage their teams towards fulfilling that vision. Leaders who understand their teams, inspire them, help and support them to grow and innovate, make them feel included, and know how to use AI to achieve their objectives, but who always put people first.
This post is long enough as it is, and its target audience isn’t politicians or public servants, but I didn’t want to finish it without a few words on governments and states. They will also have an essential role in building a better, more human and humane, Future of Work for all of us.
Governments the world over will need to invest in digital infrastructure and a better education to prepare the workforce of the future. They will also have to redistribute wealth in a more equitable way to combat rising inequality. They must also support people through a Universal Basic Income or similar when more and more jobs are automated, and there isn’t enough work available for everybody. And last but not least, they should stop squabbling with each other and start working together to solve the big problems we face as a species, which are many, complex and with no easy solution.
There is plenty of work to be done for all of us, but that’s what makes it exciting. The future hasn’t reached us yet; it will never will, as the present is the only time we constantly live in, but we can still work upon it, so when we reach our new present in ten, twenty, or thirty years, we are ready to enjoy it and make the most of it.
I hope you will come with me on this exciting journey.
1Bergman, Ann; Karlsson, Jan Ch. Three observations on work in the future. Work, Employment & Society, SEPTEMBER 2011, Vol. 25, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 2011), pp. 561-568. Sage Publications.
2Johansen, Bob. Full-Spectrum Thinking. How to escape boxes in a post-categorical future. Oakland, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2020. Print.