And I am not ready
I was recently invited to speak about the future of work. This topic has interested me for a while, but I quickly realized that I was not fully prepared either for the talk or for the actual future itself. Neither as an employee nor as a leader and even less as a parent.
For years now, robust processes have been reshaping the way we work, and the past year has brought the future even closer. The way we do our jobs, where we perform them, and even what those jobs are, keep altering more and more. And while we are focusing on our everyday tasks, we sometimes do not pay enough attention to the metamorphosis that is creeping upon us.
The Future of Work From Home
Switching to work from home has been one of the significant changes many of us have experienced lately. And while a lot of us have viewed it as something temporary, it seems that it is here to stay. 38% of the employers surveyed by McKinsey are now stating that they will increase their offerings for work from home compared to 22% that were willing to before the pandemic. A change that has multiple implications on many levels.
The Impact on Employees
I have always hated working from home. It deprives me of some valuable interactions with my colleagues, hampers my ability to focus, but above all, makes it extremely difficult for me to maintain a work/life balance. I just cannot leave “the office”, so I never seem to stop working or thinking about work. These past 11 months have taught me to build boundaries to some extent, but I still do not feel completely comfortable with this setup. Many of my team members feel the same way and are just waiting for it to be over. But maybe it won’t, so we all need to try and take a different approach towards it.
Many, including some of the most successful people in the world like Jeff Bezos, argue that work-life balance is not the answer and we should be striving for work/life integration. This would mean interspersing your work activities with personal activities and not trying to build a wall between them. Preparing a daily schedule for the day would include addressing all your priorities holistically to manage all your needs. It would bring greater satisfaction and eliminate the tension caused by maintaining impossibly strict boundaries and balance between your work and the rest of your life. After all, work is an integral part of life.
For many of us who regularly work 10-12 hours days jam-packed with meetings and impending deadlines, this may seem like a difficult task, but having spent time with your kid or taking a walk in the middle of the workday may make that 9 pm conference call seem a bit less burdensome.
But achieving such integration depends not only on the employee but also on how employers address the requirements of the future of work from home.
The Challenges Before Companies and Leaders
2020 has forced most of the traditional employers to reevaluate work from home. Many of them were turning a blind eye to the global trends and their employees’ requests for more flexibility, putting forward arguments that it would negatively affect performance and business results and would impede the ability to control the work process.
Their fears have proven to be largely unfounded, and many of them are now considering maintaining at least partial opportunity for work from home in the future. But to truly reap the rewards of this new manner of working, they need to consider other changes as well.
As mentioned, work from home can be wholly beneficial for an employee only if combined with the additional flexibility that would allow them to integrate their work and personal life. Closing of schools and the need to care for family members have imposed allowing flexible hours to specific individuals. However, my observations are that this is still done on a case-by-case basis and rather as an exception.
Many of the remote capable jobs allow flexibility in hours, and this is not something that should be allowed only when a specific, unavoidable need arises. Employers should establish policies that enable this for all their employees to remain competitive in the labor market and achieve greater productivity and performance.
Prolonged or permanent work from home presents other challenges that need to be addressed on a leadership level. Work culture and team cooperation, and cohesion have often been built around office interactions and activities. Now that our communication is primarily remote, the efforts we need to make as leaders to keep our teams engaged and motivated need to change direction.
I lead seven teams and have been able to observe closely the different effects remote work has had on them. The teams whose work is centered around and requires constant cooperation have been able to adapt to remote work a lot easier. They interact with each other on work topics continuously throughout the day, and not being able to meet in person has not impeded their relationships considerably. Even new team members who joined the team during the pandemic have been onboarded and assimilated with the team with ease.
The only thing we as their leaders needed to do was carve out some time within their day dedicated only to informal interactions – we chat about our day, play virtual games, or discuss any non-work-related topic of interest. This was never something we had to intentionally organize while we were back in the office. And even though it seems like a small and insignificant activity, when we had to discontinue it for a couple of months dure to increased workload, the impact was felt, and the team requested it back.
It was even more difficult for teams whose daily work does not require intensive interactions with their colleagues. The first few months seemed to run quite smoothly. The completion of their daily tasks was not dependent on interactions with their colleagues, and being at home seemed to allow them to focus better and avoid distractions. But with the passing of time I can see that the connection and the sense of belonging with the team are visibly disturbed. And a simple regular informal chat does not seem to do the trick. My next task as their leader will be to introduce some joint projects to work on that will encourage collaboration and communication.
And these are just a couple of examples of how employers and leaders need to reconsider the communication practices and the structure of work to address the specifics of remote working. There is a lot more that needs to be addressed in order to preserve company culture and maintain engagement.
The Larger Impact of Remote Work
But work from home has significant economic consequences as well. Even now, it is easy to see the effects of less spend on dining and entertainment, transportation and fuel. With more and more companies revising their long-term workforce strategies and their future office space needs, the impact on real estate will become even more significant. Without the need to be close to big cities’ talent, companies may start pulling away, which will hurt city economies even more. A recent PwC study shows that the adverse effects of universal work from home could reduce the UK GDP by up to 15.3 bn per year.
As with everything else, the coin has a flip side too. Work from home, especially when it is taken a step further to work from anywhere, could have multiple positive economic effects. The Centre for Economic and Business Research has conducted a study that shows that the potential new work flexibility may attract unemployed or retired individuals into the workforce. They also predict that widespread flexibility and work from anywhere would increase the productivity of those currently employed. The overall impact on the US economy they foresee is to the amount of $2.36 trillion annually.
The ability to work from anywhere will boost countries and regions with lower economic power and lower the “brain drain” that is currently experienced in many parts of the world. I have been lucky enough to be able to remain in my home country and at the same time have a global, high-impact and high-income job. But many of my childhood friends and classmates have had to move abroad to achieve economic success. And even though I did not need to leave the country, I still had to move to a bigger city to find a job. With the future greater flexibility in work location, many of us will be able to live wherever we want in the world and still have the opportunity to do the work we are passionate about.
Automation, Digitalization and the Future of Work
But remote work is not the biggest factor that will change the way we work. Artificial intelligence and automation are rapidly changing the nature of our jobs. Various research shows that between 5% and 10% of the current jobs will be eliminated by automation in the future, and another 15-25% will be partially changed.
The World Economic Forum issued a report a few years back which stated that 65% of the then first-graders would have jobs that currently do not exist when they joined the workforce. Those kids are now third or fourth graders and are utterly clueless about the future that awaits them. But it seems that to our large extent, so are most of us who are currently an active part of the labor market.
The Future Job Skills
In their extensive research of the future job skills, McKinsey outline the skills that will see increased demand in the next ten years and the ones that will be less needed.
As can be expected, there will be a greater need for technical skills. But while we all can foresee the need for high and specialized technical skills that will be needed to facilitate the increased digitalization and automation, not all of us realize the importance of basic technical skills in all areas of activity. Those of us that work in an office and sit in front of the computer all day may acquire those skills without even noticing it, but this is not necessarily true for all professions.
My mother is a dentist. She has been working as such for nearly 40 years, focusing on maintaining her medical knowledge and staying up to date with her field. Technological skills have never been in her field of vision. Until last week when she needed to renew her contract with the National Health Agency, and due to the COVID restrictions, she could not do it in person but had to install and use an electronic signature. Something that would probably have taken my nine-year-old son 20 minutes to do engaged her for a week and rattled her to no end. And yes, she does not need to know how to install an e-signature app to be a good dentist, but without it, she could not have signed a contract that brings her most of her income.
While machines will be able to take over more and more of our tasks, there are certain areas where they are helpless. Hence skills formerly considered “soft” and often underestimated as a factor for performance or as an area that needs focused development will now come to the forefront. Empathy, advanced communication, initiative taking will be essential in the future of work. The importance of high cognitive functions such as decision making, creativity and critical thinking will also be reinforced.
Personally, I don’t find this very surprising. I have always found that common sense, ownership, and initiative were a better predictor for success at a job than having complete mastery over the “hard” components of the role. But this has not always been self-evident for the hiring managers I have worked with and would definitely require a shift in mindset.
There is another crucial aspect that we need to consider when thinking about the skills that are required for the future of work. And this is the fast pace at which everything changes. The lightning speed in which technology has been developing means that to remain on top of our job requirements, we need to learn and reskill continuously.
Are Employees Ready?
As employees, we need to make learning one of our main prerogatives. And while on-the-job learning usually has the most significant effect and retention rate, it might not be enough to prepare us for the future. We need to make a conscious effort to gain new skills and educate ourselves throughout our professional lives. For better or for worse, we live in a time when we will no longer be able to say, “I have become a true expert in my field. There is nothing more to learn, and now only others can learn from me”. Such an attitude will soon make us irrelevant and make us lose our competitive advantage in the labor market.
However, it seems that collectively, we have not fully grasped the transformed field in which we play. A 2018 study by Delloitte of 25 000 workers demonstrates that employees generally underestimate the effect that automation and digitalization will have on their jobs and the relevance of their skills.
Moreover, focused on tackling the requirements of here and now, we often do not pay enough attention to the future. Approximately every two years, I start feeling that what I currently know is insufficient and am overcome by a desire to learn something new. But lost in the daily tasks and current priorities, I don’t always follow through with that urge. And a few months afterward, I start regretting it because I am already struggling to meet the new requirements that come my way. But that does not necessarily make it easier to chisel out time for learning the next time it happens.
What Are Companies Doing to Prepare?
Forward-looking companies have already started building and implementing strategies of reskilling their employees with a focus on advanced IT skills, critical thinking and problem-solving. With the elimination of some jobs, plans are made to redeploy individuals to other positions in the company. This may require a restructuring of existing jobs and processes. But while those activities will assure utilization of the current talent within an organization, they need large investment, sound forecast and time.
And the current speed of transformation would not always allow for such long-term strategies. Enter the contract workforce. The gig economy has been gathering more and more strength in the past years but has recently become an even more critical factor in shaping the workforce’s future. More extensive use of contract workers allows employers to manage better their cost (something that proved essential in the tumult that COVID created) and be able to bring the right skills at the right time quickly. This trend is evident in a McKinsey study in mid-2020 where 70% of the 800 executive participants reported that they plan to increase the work of contract and temporary workers as they feel this would better meet their company’s needs.
On an individual level, this trend would provide us more opportunities to find the most suitable employment options for our needs and give us even more of the flexibility that is so much sought after in the modern world.
What Are The Challenges For Society?
Educational institutions and governments will face the most significant challenge as they will also need to respond to the new requirements brought by technology and the reshaping of the workforce.
Studies show that in some educational fields, 40% of the content that students learn in their first year of university is already outdated by the time they graduate. And I myself felt this very painfully a few years ago. I have studied psychology for seven years, investing immense effort, time and money in my education. About ten years after I graduated, I was feeling a bit bored, and I decided to take a Psychology 101 course on one of the online learning platforms. I could not found a better way to make myself feel stupid. With the widespread use of technology, psychology had changed so much; there were so many new findings, theories and studies that 90% of what I heard in the course was entirely new for me. I stopped after the third lecture. It was too overwhelming.
It is starting to be more and more evident that concentrating the majority of the learning at the beginning of our lives may no longer be relevant to our world’s demands. What is suggested is that rather than spending 4-6 years in university to learn something that will no longer be useful or valid after a few years, for many professions, it might make more sense to have shorter learning courses which however are spread out every few years throughout one’s whole life.
Of course, education is a beast that is very slow to change and adapt, and many governments have not even realized the need for transformation. Even if they have, transforming the whole educational system is a tremendous task that would require decades. And we don’t have decades because the future of work is already here and knocking.
Some countries have grasped the urgency and are already taking measures. Singapore has implemented a reskilling program for all groups of the workforce, which provides an educational allowance to each citizen to learn new skills no matter at what stage of their work-life they are.
In other places, the businesses are trying to fill the skills gap in the labor market. They are building academies and training programs that benefit not only their current and future employees but also the whole labor market.
But to catch up to the transformation in the talent structure a lot more is needed.
Change is inevitable. And in today’s life, change is also incredibly rapid. In order to keep up with it and prepare for the imminent future of work, preparations need to be made on individual, leadership and societal level. And they can no longer be taken in stride. We need to make conscious efforts, plans and build and implement strategies. Otherwise, the future will very soon burst through the door and slap us.