Future of work: How did we get here and what can we expect?

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“Any kind of job is going to have a digital component. It does not mean everyone’s got to be a computer scientist” – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

When most of us approached the beginning of the new decade we certainly did not think that the fireworks would announce a year of life-changing incidents one after the other. There has been barely anyone who has not been affected by the pandemic and its consequences in one way or another. One major group has been the workforce. The topic future of work has circulated for the last decade and includes a variety of subjects revolving around how the concept of work has adapted to a change in western cultures. Let us dive deeper into how we got to where we are today, to the consequences for some of us, and how to best prepare for the next decade full of change in our workplaces

How did we get from there to here? History of work

The concept of having to participate in labor in exchange for something has been around for as long as humans have occupied this planet. The understanding of work, as known in the Western world, found its origins in the 1940s-1950s when women became a crucial part of the workforces after the war. Starting with offices on factory floors and cramped spaces to open office concepts in the 2000s, a lot of external factors, but most importantly our cultures, have shaped the places we now spend most of our days in. The 1950s brought office spaces and the 1980s brought Dolly Parton’s 9-5, alongside with corporate culture and the world wide web, which later in our journey will be crucial for new jobs to come to existence as well as for many to cease. The next decades not only brought along electronic gems to ease our lives but also a drastic change of mindset. Employees started to emancipate themselves from their employers around the same time companies started to implement open office plans. The 2010s gifted us with diversity, globalization, and a change in corporate culture. One of the trends most commonly observed is that employees are starting to prioritize their teams and the relationships over their work; choosing a team atmosphere over big money; to prioritize their mental health over their occupation (Atlassian, 2020). All the abovementioned have paved our way to the future of work.

What has been influencing the changes? General trends future of work

As mentioned in our history lesson of western work, trends have been playing a key role in the evolution of work. The future of work is no different than its past. More than ever we are able to spot and monitor the socio-cultural, economic, and political trends influencing corporate culture and the very essence of work. Here are a few of the biggest trends to date:

Automation and AI: paving the way for a more digital future of work

According to a survey conducted by LinkedIn and Capgemini, almost 30% of professionals assume their current skill set will be redundant over the course of the next 2 years. Automation is a real part of the future of work. So yes, the more physical and manual skills are required for your job, the more likely it is that AI or automation will and can replace/transform your job. By 2025 only 48% of the total working hours (from 71% in 2019) will be performed by humans (Ow, 2020). Overall there has been significant growth in knowledge-intensive sectors such as telecommunications, financial services, real estate, education, and big tech (Atlassian, 2020). Automation is not currently proven to affect human employment significantly, as for now technology is meant to make physical jobs and labor easier for humans. More rapid adopters of automation are countries in which demographic trends are a key influencer on the workforces, such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea in which the workforces are getting older and older (Randstad N.V., 2020).

The degree of job transformation will depend on how many discrete automatable tasks within a job that could be logically ‘broken-down’ and be cost-effectively supplemented or replaced by machines, artificial intelligence, or robotics in a socially acceptable manner (Ow, 2019).

The only caveat here is that if your job is 100% manual or that automation can take over all tasks that you are currently doing, then automation will eventually take over your job” (Ow, 2019).

Next to automation, AI will take over a great role in our work. In HR and recruitment, AI is seen with potential value for taking over regular hiring and talent acquisition. Implementing Artificial Intelligence could make the processes more efficient and decrease human error and biases (Randstad N.V., 2020).

The Millennial takeover and the shift in organizational culture

The last of the generation of Millennials are ready to move into the workforce, slowly replacing the top-tiers of the Boomer generation in their positions. This will inevitably allow leadership and organizational cultures to shift. Leaning toward a diverse, open, and innovative future of work. Millennials, even those that were relatively old during the phase of implementation, have grown up with technology and its fast-paced evolution. Seeing technology as a tool to increase productivity and efficiency rather than a hurdle to overcome to stay competitive. This trend links perfectly with the below-mentioned shift to flexible and remote work, as they prioritize work-life balance and their overall mental and physical health overwork (Sixt, 2020).

What’s with the growth in the gig economy and flexible work?

Short-time, independent, or zero-hour contracts are alternatives to full-time employment contracts. And exactly those, included in the concept of the gig economy, have seen a rise in demand. The gig economy is one of the key sources of new forms of work, reshaping employee/employer relationships, including remote working, flexible hours, more diverse compensation, arrangements, and contracts. It is expected that 43% of the U.S. labor force will be made up of gig workers by 2020 (Randstad, 2020).

The gig economy and more specifically remote working have been one of the most obvious outcomes of the pandemic. For the employer, this poses the question of how much are we willing to offer mutual advantages to our employees. Ideally, a business realizes that whilst they are allowed to work toward cutting costs and maximizing efficiency, their employees’ rights, well-being, and happiness are equally important. And whilst, for many, this newfound opportunity of working from someplace else than one’s office was forced upon them, many have found this to be a much better alternative for them. For employees, the benefits such as more options, new possibilities, increased flexibility, and for some a way to be more present in their families have emerged and manifested themselves. For businesses, this means if fully or partially implemented they can reduce real estate costs, overhead costs for resources such as electricity, phones, computers, and potentially reduce the costs spent on commuters (Randstad, 2020).

Do we benefit the same from the future of work?

Diversity and women in the future of work

“Concerted and creative new solutions are needed to enable women to seize new opportunities in the automation age; without them, women may fall further behind in the world of work.” (McKinsey, 2020)

It is expected that by 2030 between 40 and 160 million women globally may have to transition into high-skill jobs but the same prediction also suggests that the same year could bring 20% more jobs for women. A 58% gross job gain could be from the healthcare, social, manufacturing, retail, and wholesale industries. Additionally, women’s jobs may be more protected from complete automation than most men’s. So to be able to transition to the higher-skilled jobs of the future, women will have to face large barriers on levels of skills, willingness of mobility, and tech-savviness. The future beholds work that is not more pay but could also bring more productivity. The only real threat to this is the potentially growing wage gap which could slow down the real progress toward gender parity.

What steps can you take to prepare for the future of work?

There is no doubt that there are a million things each one of us would have to do to properly prepare to face the future of work. One great aspect of the age we live in is that we can never be completely prepared, the workforce changes rapidly and consistently and so should the workplace and the people in charge of it. Since the 1940s there have been countless changes and adjustments that have molded work as of now, as long as there are people and there is culture, there will never be stagnation of change. A few things we can keep in mind in preparation of the future are:

As an employee: As previously mentioned, Automation is a real part of the future of work, meaning many people will have to invest resources in acquiring new skills in fields where human skill is indispensable like customer-focus, value creation, and data analytics (Ow, 2019). So, diversify your skill sets and get ready to be good at more than one thing. Or become so good at one particular skill that you are crucial for functioning business.  (Watkins, 2020).

As an employer: Accept that there are more ways to work than the traditional 9-5 office work. Embrace the gig economy and the benefits that it provides to your employees and to you since it seems like this change will stick around for a while. Enable life-long learning, employees will need to acquire new skills to benefit both themselves and your company and to stay ahead of the change. Appreciate diversity and try to implement it in your workplace because that allows your employees to thrive in their job regardless of their background, gender, age, and ethnicity (Martin, 2019).

“When an organization makes the decision to value the individuality of its employees, it is not only the employees who win – the system wins, too, and wins bigger than ever” – Todd Rose, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

There is unprecedented uncertainty when it comes to the future of work, as we have experienced in the past few months, one thing can lead to a snowball effect of long-lasting changes, affecting millions and billions of people. Experts are sharing their views on the importance of offices, future with automation, the gig economy, and the actual people working. But what we need to ask ourselves, despite everything around us, how do we want the future of work to look like, what do we need to change to see a better future for one of the biggest parts of our lives.


Background information

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