In some ways, it’s a little misleading to talk about the future of work.
Discussing “the future” of anything makes it feel as though the topic at hand is somewhere to be found in the distant future. Often times, this is not the case.
Earlier this year, the Irish Times published a piece on the future of work and illustrated this point exactly. “To see the future of work we only need to look at what is already changing. The workplace and workforce of the future are already here, just in their nascent form,” stated the article.
The media is also responsible for some of the cliched coverage that exists on this broad and complex topic.
Misunderstanding artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning
Click bait and alarmist headlines have been screaming, for the better part of a decade, about the threat of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation culling jobs in their millions.
While not all media coverage has focused exclusively on the alarmist side of the AI and machine learning conversation, not enough airtime has been devoted to understanding the nuances of this vital debate. The result is that we’re getting a lot wrong about AI.
Another consequence is that we’re all so focused on robots taking our jobs (to reduce the argument to its most basic form), that we’re missing how work is already transforming.
Technology and humans are working together
We’re not discounting the disruption that autonomous systems are already bringing to many jobs. Nor the increased disruption forecast for the future.
Likewise, there are also many benefits this disruption will bring. The McKinsey Global Institute released a report in 2017 that looked at how automation could be harnessed for a future that works for economies and businesses worldwide. The world of work is changing, there’s no denying that, but the future may look more collaborative between human and machine than originally thought.
Although automation and data are not the same thing, one of the ways in which the future of work announces the fact that it is here already is how data is informing the way work is changing.
“Big data” has become such a ubiquitous term that it’s easy to lose sight of just what a game-changer data has been to how we work. From understanding customers, to how we interact with brands, to the customer experiences, products and services we build, to countless other examples, it’s clear that AI algorithms and humans are co-workers.
We can only expect more of the same in the years to come.
Workforces in different places
The rise of the “gig economy” is well covered. As mobile technology and better access to the internet have both improved, the rise of a freelance workforce has skyrocketed.
However, the desire for remote working conditions are not confined purely to independent contractors. Many full-time employees, who wish to stay employed and not transition towards freelance work, also want to explore a decentralised way of working.
It may have made sense to ensure your staff all worked in one office or factory in the past; mostly for efficiency reasons. But this way of working has its origins in the age of the Industrial Revolution, and its limitations are becoming apparent as the 4th Industrial Revolution gets well underway.
Talent is often more evenly placed than opportunities for employment. In the past, workers mainly accepted that they’d either need to move to large cities or commute for their jobs.
But it’s not just the future of work that’s in flux. The way people live their personal lives is also transforming. As cities become overcrowded, and house prices in certain locations explode across the globe, many people are questioning why it’s even necessary to be forced to work in one location when internet connectivity means work can be done just about anywhere else.
It’s easy to see the case for employees. For employers, there’s a bit more to think about in terms of managing processes and keeping remote workers feeling, and acting, as part of a team.
There are benefits for employers too though, especially in a job market where competition for talent is at an all time high. Companies and organisations that embrace new ways to empower their people to work will have an easier time recruiting the strongest candidates.
Understanding your team members’ why
Simon Sinek’s seminal book, Start With Why, is considered a classic tome on how leaders can inspire action. But understanding the reasons why your staff are motivated to work will also help attract the kind of talent you want (before you begin to inspire them).
Individuals no longer want to work just for a paycheck. Of course, remuneration is important. However, in the modern workplace motivation to do a good job extends beyond money.
Much is written about millennials; not all of it accurate. However, one of the chief, and most welcome, transformations millennials have brought about in the workplace is the desire to be part of a mission or greater purpose.
This represents a huge opportunity for organisations that truly want to empower their human capital to be the best. Understanding the person as a whole, and rewarding them with a package that goes beyond a salary, is a strong retention strategy.
Employees in the current workforce, and those who will work in the future workforce, place a high value on lifelong learning, regardless of the generation they might be. Savvy employers are already offering their staff opportunities for professional, and occasionally, personal development.
A further trend that’s starting to be noticed, and will likely only get stronger in the years to come, is the fluidity people expect within the companies they work for. While organisational structure still has its place, it’s no longer conducive for smart working to have strict and rigid line management.
How to thrive in the future of work
Both employers and employees need to adapt to the changes that the future of work will make commonplace over the next while.
Stepping away from the dystopian idea that robots will make humans redundant is a start.
Individuals will need to ask themselves what they really want to gain and really want to contribute in their careers. Identifying these answers will help them approach their career as an ongoing part of their lives; and not something that happens only between 9am and 5pm.
Employers have a role to play too. Soft skills are showing every sign of being essential skills. Companies who want to harness the potential of future workforces will need to consider more than the qualifications of their potential hires. If you’re hiring, it’s the critical thinking, creative and problem-solving skills in candidates that will help your organisation grow. No computer scientist has yet created a trusted AI solution to impersonate emotional intelligence.
Employers will also need to accept the fact that the workforce of the future is well aware of the benefits inherent in technology. These include, among other things, the opportunity to make remote work viable, the ability to offer lifelong learning programs and the chance to adjust operations and structures for more flexibility.