Just like the world at large, the world of work shifts and changes over time. The future of work refers to an informed perspective on what businesses and other organisations need to know about how work could shift (given digitisation and other trends), plus how workforces and workplaces can prepare for those changes, big and small.
When you think of the future of work, what do you picture? Offices that look more or less like today’s? Factories full of robots? Or something else entirely?
While no one can predict the future with absolute certainty, the world of work is changing, just as the world itself is.
Looking ahead at how work will shift, along with trends affecting the workforce and workplaces, can help you prepare for what is next:
- One in sixteen workers may have to switch occupations by 2030. That is more than 100 million workers across the eight economies studied—and the pandemic accelerated expected workforce transitions.
- Job growth will be more concentrated in high-skill jobs (for example, in healthcare or science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] fields), while middle- and low-skill jobs (such as food service, production work, or office support roles) will decline.
- A few job categories could see more growth than others. The rise of e-commerce created demand for warehouse workers; investments in the green economy could increase the need for wind turbine technicians; aging populations in many advanced economies will increase demand for nurses, home health aides, and hearing-aid technicians; and teachers and training instructors will also continue to find work over the coming decade.
- But other types of jobs may be at risk: for example, as grocery stores increasingly install self-checkout counters, there may be a need for fewer clerks, and robotics used to process routine paperwork may lessen demand for some office workers.
The future of work was shifting even before COVID-19 upended lives and livelihoods. But the pandemic accelerated three broad trends that will continue to reshape work as the effects of the crisis recede:
- Remote work and virtual meetings are likely to continue, although less intensely than at the pandemic’s peak.
- E-commerce soared, growing at two to five times the pre-COVID-19 rate, and other kinds of virtual transactions such as telemedicine, online banking, and streaming entertainment took off. And shifts to digital transactions also propelled growth in delivery, transportation, and warehouse jobs.
- The pandemic propelled faster adoption of digital technologies, including automation and AI. Companies used them to control costs or mitigate uncertainty; they also deployed these technologies in warehouses, grocery stores, call centres, and manufacturing sites to either reduce workplace density or deal with surging demand for items.
Understanding these macro trends within the global economy is vital to planning for what is ahead.
The future of remote working? And hybrid?
COVID-19’s spread flattened the cultural and technological barriers standing in the way of remote work. The pandemic sparked a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people. But will it last?
Recent analysis of the potential for remote work to persist looked at 2,000 tasks used in roughly 800 jobs in eight focus countries. It showed that 20 to 25 percent of workforces in advanced economies could work from home in the range of three to five days a week—which is four to five times more remote work than pre-COVID-19.
It is worth noting that more than half the workforce has little or no opportunity for remote work. For example, jobs that require on-site work or specialised machinery, such as conducting CT scans, need to be done in person. Of these jobs, many are low wage and are at risk from broader trends toward automation and digitisation.
Moreover, not all work can be done remotely. For example, negotiations, brainstorming, and providing sensitive feedback are activities that may be less effective when done remotely.
Hybrid work setups, where some work happens on-site and some remotely, are likely to persist. And organisations will need to refine their operating models in response. To unlock sustainable performance and health in a hybrid world, organisations can build strength in:
- Expand executives’ focus on strategic clarity, coaching, and empathy. The leading driver of performance and productivity isn’t compensation or stretch goals but rather the sense of purpose work provides to employees. Be more intentional about interactions, especially those that happen in person.
- Foster outcome-based management of small, cross-functional teams. This is both more human and more effective as performance management practices shift from being about controlling employees’ work to empowering and enabling teams and people to perform.
- Increase talent velocity, especially with reskilling. Being able to staff teams across organisational siloes is a hallmark of agile models. Moving in this direction for talent management might entail developing internal talent marketplaces or hubs for talent redeployment that make it easier for people to discover potential projects. It will also involve reskilling and upskilling people more quickly than in the past, leaning on formal training, as well as apprenticeship and mentoring.
- Find new zero-cost, high-optionality ways to collaborate. It can help to define a model to increase how quickly your organization can discover and adopt better modes of collaboration, both physical and digital. Do workers need an informal, confidential channel for banter or guidelines on making hybrid meetings more effective? Be intentional about designing these interactions and communicating expectations and working norms.
- Increase the rate of technology adoption. It’s imperative for companies to seek out new tech and use data to drive optimal results and make better decisions.
What elements matter in understanding the future of work?
Companies exploring the post-COVID-19 future of work need to tailor their approach to their unique context. Balancing three symbiotic elements can provide a holistic understanding of the forces shaping the future of work:
- The nature of work. Organisations should be able to answer two big questions clearly. First: How do we make money? Second: How does work get done? Linking the answers to these two questions to a dollar value can yield a clear set of organisational priorities and enablers for delivering the strategic vision.
- The workforce of the future. People are an organisation’s most valuable asset, and getting ready for the future will include understanding the workers you have (supply) as well as those you need (demand). Getting clear on both can expose skill pools where you are either long or short on talent—and allow you to take action before the talent gap becomes a competitive liability.
- The workplace of the future. A combination of physical location and organisational norms and ways of working make up the workplace. And while in the past, companies brought people to work, say, in massive factories or industrial centres, technological advances in recent decades may be influencing a shift that takes work to the people, for instance, in more flexible long-term remote or hybrid models.
Addressing social and economic inequality will be crucial to sustainable, inclusive growth. And at work, ensuring that employees from all backgrounds can perform and thrive, often involves dedicated efforts to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion.