A simple guide to 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. Trends 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, and 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”.
“The Future is already here -it’s just not evenly distributed”.
We cannot know the future precisely, 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 where the trends will have enough time to enact significant change.
With the recent pandemic, economic crisis, the exodus of people working from home, and the acceleration of certain processes, such as the digital transformation of organisations, 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, the Future of Work means the next couple of years.
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 a 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, so we can 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 to study and know 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.
3. Trends shaping the Future of Work
The future is being shaped continuously in the present by trends. I wrote a post about the drivers shaping the Future of Work some months ago, so I won’t extend on 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) and the Metaverse, 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, and more concerned with safety, 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 anywhere. 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 it, like Reed Hastings from Netflix, who said working from home was “a pure negative” as it reduced creativity and innovation.
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 in 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.
Globalisation, or its recess
Globalisation 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 are being reverted at the moment. We may be entering into a new phase in the geopolitics of the future.
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 they 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. I have restarted again the Possible Futures series, with more fictional scenarios (see Possible Futures – A day in your life in 2040 and A dystopian world – the collapse of society).
In a similar vein, I wrote some forecasts about the world in 2050 and 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
Read More: 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 ecological 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.
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 emotions, intuitions, 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 organisation is an agile organisation that can learn and change its shape and structure to answer the needs of the environment better, but primarily it means an organisation where people can learn and adapt. An organisation is made of people, after all.
For that, we need to encourage a growth mindset in our organisations, 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 in new learning environments via VR, micro-learnings on a smartphone, e-learning, 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 topic we want to learn and on the learners themselves, but usually, a blended approach will be the most effective one.
As already stated, globalisation is dead. Long live glocalisation! The world has seen the biggest push towards globalisation 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 travelling 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
Read more: The 4 Leadership Qualities of the Future Leader
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.
Read more: Leadership Quality – Being Future Ready
Being future-ready means understanding the possible futures that are most likely to happen, being prepared for them and taking the necessary steps to shape the most desirable outcomes in those futures. Being future-ready means having foresight, an innovation mindset and being tech-savvy.
Foresight is about having the right tools, resources and knowledge to understand and interpret the trends shaping the future. The world is changing increasingly faster, and great leaders need to have the capacity not only to follow the world around them but to shape it and make it better.
Apart from being able to correctly interpret and foresee the future, the future leader will have to be able to innovate and shape that future themselves. They have an innovation and growth mindset, and they apply this mindset to everything. They know human beings think linearly, but they think exponentially as much as possible.
The future leader will also have to be tech-savvy and AI literate. The world is changing faster and faster thanks to technology, and a tech-savvy leader thrives in this environment. A great leader creates new markets and opportunities by leveraging new technologies. They won’t necessarily have to be tech experts, but they will need to understand the general implications of new technologies and how to leverage technology to bring better results, better lead their teams and build a better world.
Without being future-ready, it is impossible to shape the world and build a better future, and we want future leaders who can do just that, bringing us nicely to the next dimension, purpose.
Nobody follows a leader without a purpose. The future leader will have an engaging, inspiring and aspirational purpose and will transmit it to their teams, clients and society. This means the future leader will have an inspiring and engaging vision, clarity instead of certainty, and the purpose of building a better world.
As I wrote before, I believe in Simon Sinek’s mantra that people follow and buy into a WHY, not the WHAT. The future leader does things for a reason, and that reason transcends themselves, and it is there for the bettering of society. They have a vision that inspires people and engages them to follow them. This vision will have to come from clarity.
As the futurist and author Bob Johansen tells us in Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, the leader of the future will have clarity in their purpose, but not certainty. The world is too complex and uncertain to have certainties, and if we want to be successful in this VUCA world, we need to have the flexibility and agility that will allow us to achieve our objectives. Certainty will bring unequivocal failure.
The future leader will be purposeful. They know themselves well, understand who they are and why they are here and have a clear vision of the future they want to build with their teams. They have a clear life purpose, and they know the purpose of their job and the jobs of their team members.
The future leader is an advocate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. She understands a diverse team that feels included is a more effective team and that we all need to put our grain of sand to build a more sustainable world.
Purpose is possibly the most important leadership quality a leader must have, as, without it, all the rest becomes empty and meaningless. There is no point in having all the other qualities on this list if the leader doesn’t have a clear purpose beyond maximising profits or earning more money.
Read more: People Skills – A Critical Leadership Quality
The future leader will have to know how to leverage technology, yet people will continue to be the most critical asset in any organisation. A leader will continue managing people and interacting with clients, suppliers, and other human beings, so people skills will still be essential.
This leadership quality is a very broad one, so the main focus should be on emotional intelligence, communication, and managing hybrid teams.
Emotional intelligence was first introduced by Abraham Maslow in the 50s but was popularised by Daniel Goleman in the 90s. It is well understood as a theoretical concept in leadership studies circles and the self-help and personal development movement. The central tenet of the model is that emotional intelligence is more critical than traditional intelligence and other skills in predicting good performance. We continuously interact with other human beings and need to understand our emotions and how they impact others.
As I wrote in We Need to Talk About Emotions, all emotions are important and have a function. Some are more pleasant than others, but they all have a role to play, and that’s why they exist. Knowing how to manage and regulate your own emotions and understanding those of others will help you improve and better manage yourself and your relationships with others.
Communication is another broad concept. It can relate to delivering a clear message, both in written or orally, in a one-to-one conversation or to a team, in a presentation or a conversation, but it is also about listening and understanding well what others are trying to convey.
The listening part is as important or more important than the delivery part. Active listening is about being present, listening with all your being, and paraphrasing and summarising to ensure you have understood correctly. It is also about asking powerful questions that derive from that listening.
The future leader will have to master all these different aspects of communication.
With the advent of hybrid workplaces and more flexible working arrangements, the future leader will also have to be a master in engaging and connecting with virtual teams, which have different needs and require different management skills.
The challenge is when a part of the team is more regularly present at the office, and another is working remotely or in a hybrid. How to make sure they all receive the same attention and those working remotely don’t feel forgotten? The leader of the hybrid workplace will have to pay special attention to the needs of the remote teams to keep them engaged and connected.
All these dimensions are equally important, but the one that will allow the future leader to grow and improve themselves and their teams is Personal Growth. The future leader will have to continue growing and developing.
As the late Steven Covey said in the popular The 7 Habits of the Effective Leader, a leader must Sharpen the Saw. This means the future leader needs to take care of their spiritual, physical, social and mental needs and make sure they learn new things and improve daily.
The future leader will have to have a Growth Mindset and be open to being challenged and making mistakes, learning from them. They will have to be self-aware, know themselves well, ask for feedback and have the right mindset to receive it positively in order to keep growing.
It means they will also know how to build the right habits that will allow them to become a better version of themselves every day.
The future leader will know about the different learning and development methods and philosophies out there, and they will use them for their and their team’s growth and development. They will participate in training and e-learning and attend seminars and webinars, but they will also work with coaches and mentors, undertake stretch assignments that will allow them to test and develop new skills, play games, get immersed in virtual reality worlds, and a long et cetera, all in the service of learning.
The future leader won’t stay still and will keep growing and learning. The future leader will be a lifelong learner.
7. Towards a Humane Future of Work
The whole point of studying the future is to get ready for it or to shape 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 need to reimagine our workplaces so they enable better and happier lives.
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 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.
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