Work today looks very different than it did in the 1960s, and the future of work will feel very different than it does today.
As an applied futurist, I model how the latest technology, business, and societal trends will combine to transform work. Based on my research, and many conversations with technologists, business leaders, and social scientists, I firmly believe that the future of work is augmented, diverse, and anywhere. Let’s examine each of those in turn.
Augmentation Technology Will Elevate Our Abilities
Much is written about how automation will destroy jobs in the coming years. Technology will inevitably automate some jobs. Tech has always destroyed some jobs while creating many new ones. For most workers, technology won’t replace their jobs, it will become a partner that boosts our abilities, mitigates for our weaknesses, adapts to our needs, and elevates work.
As I explore in my latest book, powerful new technologies will underpin a new generation of intelligent machines and smart tools. Knowledge workers will use AI-powered tools to boost their creativity, imagination, intuition, empathy, and decision-making skills. Physical workers will be guided by augmented reality headsets and have their strength, stamina and physical reach enhanced by exoskeletons, robots, and drones.
Computer-aided design company, Autodesk, has developed “generative design” tools that augment the creativity of designers, architects, and engineers. These tools use AI to “riff” on the original human-created design and create hundreds or thousands of alternative versions. The designer then picks the version they like most. People using these tools report they expand the creative landscape and makes them feel more creative. The resulting designs are a collaboration between a human and a machine, something that neither could have achieved on their own.
Real estate tech company, First, built an AI to help real estate agents predict which former clients are most likely to be in the market for a new home. Such tools are remarkably accurate and essentially give agents an augmented intuition.
Manufacturing and warehouse workers use exoskeletons to boost their strength and stamina. And cobots, robots designed specifically to collaborate with humans, partner with humans to boost their productivity. The SAM-100 cobot works in partnership with a bricklayer. Working together, they lay six times as many bricks as a human working alone.
Drones can augment us too. Tree planters expand their reach with the help of swarms of drones that fire seed pellets into the soil to plant new forests.
In the coming years, most of us will partner with technology that augments our abilities and takes on the boring, repetitive, and dangerous work that we don’t want to do.
New Vectors of Diversity Will Reshape Teams
Solving the complex challenges of the future requires teams of people with a broad range of experience and expertise. For example, to determine how a self-driving car should behave when faced with the choice of hitting a child who’s run into the street or swerving into oncoming traffic and risking the lives of passengers, engineers and ethicists must collaborate closely.
The most successful workers will be naturally curious, maintain respect for people with different experience and expertise, and have strong communication skills so they can bridge gaps in knowledge, culture, and practice. Mutual respect is critical. Liberal arts majors can no longer pigeonhole engineers as knuckle-draggers, and by return engineers must no longer dismiss other disciplines as less valuable.
The most valuable workers of the future will be “T-shaped” individuals, people with a base understanding of many disciplines and deep expertise in one. This broad, if shallow, appreciation of other fields lets them collaborate far more effectively. Those most in-demand this century will be “p-shaped” workers, people with broad knowledge and deep expertise in two disciplines. These workers bridge between domains and can deliver transformative breakthroughs. A person with expertise in medicine and artificial intelligence is well placed to transform healthcare technology, for example.
Anywhere Workers Will Redefine the Economy
COVID-19 exploded the myth that remote workers slack off when not under the watchful eye of a supervisor. Physical workers will still need to attend their place of work for the foreseeable future. But for many knowledge workers, some form of remote work is now an attractive option.
Remote work has its limitations. Networking and relationship building require more effort, online tools lack any notion of serendipity, and back-to-back Zoom calls are tiring. But the benefits of “anywhere” work are significant.
No commute means reduced traffic, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, stress, and wasted time. The average American currently spends 225 hours a year (more than nine full days!) just getting to and from work.
As remote work becomes the default for many knowledge workers, they will only visit the office to achieve specific collaborative tasks—brainstorming sessions, networking events, and to strengthen relationships with co-workers.
Facebook expects half their employees could be remote by 2030. German engineering titan, Siemens, plans a hybrid work model where employees work from home or in remote co-working spaces two or three days per week.
Employers will reduce their real estate footprint and devote more space to collaboration and less to offices and cubicles. Fujitsu will close half its offices in Japan as it pivots to a remote working model.
The talent pool employers can access expands from the commutable zone around their office to the entire surface of the planet. Next generation satellite constellation networks will bring broadband to every corner of earth and enable digital workers to be productive anywhere. As anywhere workers move away from expensive economic hubs in search of a different quality of life, pressure will be reduced on expensive urban housing and wealth will get distributed into more rural communities, changing the nature of our economy.
Companies may reassess pay policies as they compete globally for talent and adjust salaries to match local living costs for remote workers. Both commercial and residential real estate will experience high turnover as companies downsize and remote workers seek property with great home office setups.
Thriving in the Workplace of the Future
Work is forever changing. We should expect more change to work in the next decade than in the last 50 years.
To thrive in this new world of augmented, diverse, and anywhere work, 21st century workers must be highly adaptable, able to collaborate in diverse teams, comfortable with non-human coworkers, and have exquisite communication skills.
Work will be safer, more enjoyable, more rewarding, and more meaningful as a result.
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