Six realities shaping the world of work
From challenging the idea of physical presence to the emerging technologies shaping organisational structure, Signify highlight the six realities shaping the post-Covid workplace
For a variety of reasons, we’re currently living through the most thorough – and thrilling – transformation in how we work since the rise of the assembly line and the modern corporation a hundred years ago.
The way we work was changing even before Covid-19 swept across the world. But the pandemic has accelerated and deepened those changes, transforming what were only emerging possibilities into established realities. We now have the opportunity to invent a new work culture that’s more humane, more responsive, more productive, and more capable of fulfilling our diverse needs.
Here are six realities that are defining the future of work—a future that was already on its way, but that has now burst open with unanticipated speed.
1: The shift to virtual
How we perceive ‘the office’ has changed dramatically over the past two decades. We are moving away from the idea that physical space is the sole way to measure and give value to our work. Cutting-edge tech now makes it easy to work from an apartment, or a coffee shop, or a flight, or a summer house terrace, or an office desk.
The result is a growing separation between work outcomes and workspaces. Not long ago, these things were linked: being ‘on the job’ meant being seated in one’s workspace. Only there could you get the job done. Today, on the other hand, a remote worker who forwards a supervisor a perfect piece of work, accomplished independently from any location on the planet, is considered a valued worker.
Teamwork itself is increasingly virtual. While emerging technologies are making virtual teamwork possible and seamless, there are still complexities linked to adopting new tech. Speed and efficiency can lead to more, whether for the better (more potential client contacts) or the worse (an overload of information that can proliferate exponentially). Workers who can manage such complexities are best positioned to succeed.
2: Great expectations
In the old days, when you left your workplace each evening, you were done until morning.
Now, an ‘always-on’ culture blurs boundaries between work time and private time. Anyone who’s checked their e-mail inbox or their coworkers’ WhatsApp messages or their Microsoft Teams notifications while in bed at night will be familiar with this state of affairs. Navigating the on-duty/off-duty distinction requires a new etiquette, new protocols, new habits, and new standards to maintain a healthy balance between work and life.
On the other hand, many welcome the disruption of the 9-to-5 work routine, as a chance to embrace flex work, checking into the office only when face-to-face contact is necessary. When these ‘digital nomads’ do show up at the office, they often bring their own trusted devices with them. And they expect to be free to arrange themselves as they wish in the diverse spaces that the new workplace should offer: that is, everything from traditional desk space to sofas to café tables and beyond.
Another change involves the growing importance of the horizontal networks that info tech promotes and the lessening importance of in-office vertical hierarchies. This doesn’t mean the end of bosses, but it could change how value is determined in a workplace. For example, rather than getting buy-in from a supervisor before an employee moves forward with an envelope-pushing idea, she can run it by dozens or hundreds of colleagues around the world instantly, submitting it to a process of what’s essentially wide-scale peer review—a form of company ‘crowdsourcing’.
3: Artificial intelligence is sneaking up on us fast
Robotic process automation, machine learning, deep learning, artificial neural networks, natural language processing, image and speech recognition: these AI disciplines are advancing in tandem, each of them getting stronger, faster, more precise, and more useful. The big-picture effects of these technologies remain a subject of debate, but everyone agrees that they will inevitably change the way we live and work.
One intriguing aspect of AI is that even as it achieves exponential growth in capability, it does so invisibly. In many cases it’s already there, working away in the background, supporting the tools we already use every day, without our even noticing.
This raises the question of how we can effectively manage and control it. According to an Oxford University study, AI will eliminate 47 per cent of today’s jobs by 2040. That means that the future of work will involve social disruption, since few phenomena are as destabilising as mass unemployment.
On the other hand, we may make a smooth transition to the new skillsets that the new world of work will require. AI optimists are quick to make the following reassuring point: a workforce that AI frees from routine work will have the time and the capacity to engage in more creative and more important activities.
4: New organisational models will proliferate
Tech simplifies and flattens. For better or worse, it eliminates the need for support staffers.
As tech prunes staffs and makes them smaller, it will change how companies organise themselves.
In a culture where the mystique of authority is downgraded and where responsibility is no longer spread over vast departments, core employees and groups of core employees will become more important. Their influence will be less diluted by bureaucracy, and they will no longer be identified solely with the people they report to. At the same time, the concept of discrete roles will weaken. In smaller, more horizontally-oriented organisations, job positions will become more dynamic. Different people will take on different roles and address themselves to different projects at different times, depending on the needs of the moment.
5: Exceptional employee experience will be key to retaining talent
When AI frees employees to do creative work that even the most powerful machines cannot do, attracting and retaining human talent will become ever more crucial.
To do so, companies will have to compete to furnish the best employee experience possible. Workspace arrangements will likely become more comfortable and personalised, featuring everything from human-centric lighting to a variety of productivity enhancements courtesy of the Internet of Things. The ‘trophy workplace’ will become a new reality—a place that maximises collaboration and in which workers actually want to spend time.
Alongside new support for flexible schedules and work-from-home arrangements will come a new set of flexible management principles. In lieu of rigid hierarchy, centralised authority, bureaucracy, and archaic models of workforce discipline, companies will look to build cultures based on creative experimentation, in which they trust their employees and tolerate eccentric thinking. They may even embrace the sort of ‘failure’ that generates new ideas that move the ball forward.
6: Workforces will become more diverse
In the future, diversity will emerge as an organising principle of the workplace.
The rise of females that defined the first decades of the millennium – a December 2019 government jobs report indicates that women hold the majority of jobs in the U.S. – will likely continue. This is partly a function of social reality: most college-educated adults have been women for decades now.
Generational diversity will become an increasingly important factor. People are living longer and retiring later, and age-related discrimination is frowned upon now more than ever. As a result, businesses may find themselves employing workers from five different generations. These different generations will have different needs, different expectations, different ingrained habits and different strengths. That will lead to challenges for managers, but also to exciting opportunities for synergy and collaboration.
In addtion to diversity of gender, age, race, and culture, the future of work will see a new diversity of organisational structures and relationships. As independent contractors and at-home workers proliferate, corporate culture will have to adjust. How must a company function differently if 40 per cent of its employees work remotely?
Meanwhile, the need to confront big-scale challenges will require the creation of business ecosystems in which different organisations work together toward a common social or environmental goal. Such socially-oriented collaborations are already happening, and promise to become both more common and more central to corporate identity.