What Does it Mean When We Talk About the “Future of Work”?

By BrainStation August 2, 2019

We’ve written about preparing for the future of work and future-proofing your workforce, but we haven’t answered a fundamental question: what do we mean when we talk about the “future of work?” 

Let’s take a closer look at a number of factors that have turned this into an important topic of discussion. First: 

The Definition of Work is Changing

Officially, the definition of work is “to perform work or fulfill duties regularly for wages or salary.” This has been the appropriate definition since the industrial age at least, where the notion of work has become increasingly transactional and routine: organizations provide jobs and people specialize in certain tasks. These tasks tend to get even more specialized with time, which helps create more reliable products and services (and more reliable product margins). The more something can be standardized, however, the more susceptible it is to technology. 

All of which brings us to the future, and more specifically, the reason why everyone seems to be talking about the future of work. With technological innovations increasing at an astounding pace, there is a sense that we are moving towards a world where work is less transactional in nature, and more about experiences and doing something with a sense of purpose. 

As Author Sophie Wade has written, “work is morphing from a place into an activity,” with less rigidity in structure, changing office dynamics, and blurring time boundaries spurred on by always-on connectivity. Millennials, she argues, are “unfettered by the legacy habits, perceptions and ingrained, accepted norms that limit earlier groups and generations.” 

And much of that is being fueled by the fact that: 

The Way We Work is Changing

The rate of adoption for new technology has never been faster. The telephone, for example, needed 75 years before it had 50 million users. Facebook hit that milestone in under four years and even that seems quaint given the speed at which apps can explode into our collective use. 

The workplace has not been immune to a quicker pace of change. Consider, for example, the rapid rise of:

  • Remote work
    “Working from home” and “telecommuting” options were not available to most people’s parents.
  • “Digital nomads”
    Technology and shifting perspectives on career development have made the idea of freelancing from anywhere in the world much more attractive and attainable over the last decade.
  • “The gig economy”
    The rise of Uber is just one example of the “sharing economy” employment model that has allowed people to supplement their incomes with part-time work. 

The Way We Work With Employees is Changing

In many ways, the traditional employee-employer relationship has changed. Apart from the aforementioned differences in the way employees are completing their work, organizations are now expected to operate in a much more transparent manner. 

Companies like Mattermark and Buffer, for example, have generated press coverage by sharing information on employee compensation and financial performance, despite the fact that they are not required to. In Buffer’s case, the decision to share this information led to a dramatic increase in job applications. 

“It kind of feels like this is somewhat of a movement bubbling up here. That’s kind of surprising,” CEO and Co-Founder Joel Gascoigne told Quartz, explaining that it also improved the quality of talent the company was attracting. “The percent of people who were a good culture fit was a lot higher,” he said, adding that while sharing salary information might scare some people away, “it scares the right people away.”

These companies are tapping into a cultural shift, where younger employees are increasingly attracted by jobs – and forward-thinking companies – that have a purpose. In fact, according to an Intelligence Group study from 2014, 64 percent of Millennials would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring. In addition, 71 percent of professionals said they’d be willing to take a pay cut if it meant they could work at a place that had a mission they believed in and a clear system of values congruent with their own.  

Knowing this, companies have had to put an emphasis on employee engagement, with increased training opportunities leading the charge. 

As we’re written about, training can break employees out of daily routines, giving them the kind of new experiences that increase loyalty and commitment. “New experiences don’t always have to come with promotions or vertical projects,” Eileen Chadnick, Principal at Big Cheese Coaching told us. “It can be gaining exposure to a new skill or new software.”

We Are in the Age of Big Data 

In 2009, Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist predicted that “the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians.” Exactly ten years later, Data Scientist roles have increased by 650 percent, with the number of available data jobs in the US increasing by 364,000 to 2.7 million. Fueling this demand is the fact that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every single day…and this is only increasing. In fact, 90 percent of the data in the world was generated in the last two years alone! 

According to a study by Dresner Advisory Services, data science adoption in enterprises increased from 17 percent in 2015 to 59 percent in 2018. Expect this number to continue to increase as companies and industries get a better handle on how to leverage this deluge of information. Already, data has had a dramatic impact on everything from sports (including the Raptor’s NBA championship), community building, and efforts to spearhead societal change.

Digital Transformation Is Real 

According to BrainStation’s Digital Skills Survey, 74 percent of executives said their organization was actively involved in digital transformation activities, with an additional 63 percent claiming that their digital investments were growing. To understand the impact of these initiatives, consider that 89 percent claim there are elements of their products and services that did not exist five years earlier.

So, digital transformation is happening, and clearly, it’s important, but you’d be forgiven for not exactly knowing what it refers to. The term, after all, has been so broadly used that it can refer to a number of things, including the integration of technology (like the aforementioned use of data) and making significant cultural changes.

The Agile Elephant defined it this way: “[Digital transformation] involves a change in leadership, different thinking, the encouragement of innovation and new business models, incorporating digitization of assets and an increased use of technology to improve the experience of your organisation’s employees, customers, suppliers, partners, and stakeholders.”

According to the Altimeter Group, companies undergoing a digital transformation enjoy increased market share and customer engagement, higher employee morale, and increased customer revenue. There are, however, a number of challenges associated with this kind of endeavor. In a survey sponsored by Jabil, the top five were: 

  • Employee pushback
  • Lack of digital expertise
  • Rigid organizational structure
  • A lack of digital strategy
  • Limited budget

Much of the pushback from employees is being driven by uncertainty caused by the fact that:

The Robots Are Coming

By now you might have heard: automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to be playing a bigger role in our daily lives. In fact, we’ve already outlined how AI can help diagnose and treat mental illness, create art, and transform banking and finance. Depending on your point of view, these articles are incredibly exciting or utterly terrifying, and both feelings are perfectly valid. 

Estimates differ on the exact impact automation will have, but it’s safe to say that a number of jobs are at risk. In fact, researchers at Oxford University found that 47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years. A McKinsey report, meanwhile, predicted that “up to 375 million workers, or 14 percent of the global workforce, may need to change occupations — and virtually all workers may need to adapt to work alongside machines in new ways.”

These kinds of estimates are causing considerable anxiety among employees. A Pew Research Center survey found that 72 percent of Americans are concerned about robots and computers taking jobs, despite the fact that just 2 percent report having actually lost a job to automation. Underpinning that anxiety (as misplaced as it may be), is a real opportunity. As the Deloitte Center for the Edge writes in a new report: “That opportunity is to return to the most basic question of all: What is work? If we come up with a creative answer to that, we have the potential to create significant new value for the enterprise. And paradoxically, these gains will likely come less from all the new technology than from the human workforce you already have today.”

To that end, the report encourages companies to embrace automation to the fullest, with the goal of freeing up and developing new forms of work, which will create more value for workers and organizations. The goal has to be to use technology to solve problems and – like humanity has done throughout history – turn innovation into new opportunities and progress. 

After all, the same McKinsey report estimated that overall spending on technology will increase by more than 50 percent in the next decade, creating between 20 and 50 million high-paying jobs globally.

So, What’s Really in Store For the Future of Work?

Taken together, the pace of change can be concerning, which leads to alarmist discussions about the “future of work.” But we’ve seen how much workplaces have changed over the last 100 (and even 20) years, and despite these drastic shifts, we are still here. So, while you might read about (and fear) a dystopian future run by blood-thirsty robots, it’s far more likely that technological innovation and adoption will bring about a whole new realm of opportunity. 

The trick is making sure you’re prepared for it.