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    The future of work

    Six realities shaping the workplace now

    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 the novel coronavirus swept across the world. But the COVID-19 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 upon us with unanticipated speed.

    1: The shift to virtual: the physical workspace no longer defines the meaning of work

    For years, we’ve been rethinking the spaces in which we work. We’ve all read about the “new workplace”—as defined, for instance, by the unconventional workspaces of Silicon Valley. In fact, how we conceive of “the office” has changed dramatically over the past two decades.


    We are now living through the next step, in which we are moving away from regarding physical space as 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.” Bad work might get you dismissed, but not being present definitely would. These days, 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 a valued worker indeed.


    Business and work cycles have also broken free of the physical. Nowadays, schedules are rarely built around the delivery of an overnight package, followed by the photocopying, distribution, and consumption of the contents on the recipient’s side. Sending a document from Boston to Tokyo, or from Dakar to Shanghai, is now effectively  instantaneous.


    Teamwork itself is increasingly virtual. You can have a face-to-face meeting online with someone on another continent as easily as you can meet with someone down the hall. Developments such as these—and the new concerns and restrictions occaisoned by the COVID-19 pandemic—are driving a reappraisal of what the terms “team,” “teamwork,” and “team member” can mean.


    The tech that makes virtual teamwork possible is easy to use. But that doesn’t mean that the work in the future will be easier, since new tech brings new complexities along with it. 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.


    Then there’s the challenge with which every information-age worker is already familiar: the constant turnover as work structures, processes, platforms, and systems are replaced with newer, better ones year after year. Adaptability is key here, and will become more important as the meaning of work changes. 

    2: Workers’ lifestyles will change—and workers will have new expectations

    In the old days, when you left your workplace each evening, you were done until morning. The work/non-work distinction was clear.


    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 work/life balance.


    On the other hand, many welcome the disruption of the 9-to-5 work routine, as a chance to embrace “flex work” and work remotely, 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 cubicles to stand-up desks to sofas to café  tables and beyond.


    Another change involves the growing importance of the horizontal networks that info tech promotes—and the lessesning 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.”


    Finally, a growing percentage of workers expect to find meaning, purpose, and intellectual and emotional engagement in the work that they do. A significant body of research points to this phenomenon, particularly among younger workers. Indeed, some studies show that most people are willing to accept less in the way of compensation to do work they consider meaningful.

    3: Artificial intelligence is sneaking up on us fast

    Most of us are used to tech innovations that arrive with a splash. The latest iteration of a smartphone. An office communications platform that becomes indispensable within a week of its launch.


    Artificial intelligence (AI)  is different. 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% of today’s jobs by 2040. That means that the future of work will involve social disruption, since few phenomena are as destabilizing 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 organizational models will proliferate

    Tech simplifies and flattens. For better or worse, it eliminates the need for support staffers. Ditto for employees who mostly just pass work along from one level in a hierarchy to another.


    As tech prunes staffs and makes them smaller, it will change how companies organize themselves. Leanness and lightness imply less hierarchy. The boss sitting across the table from you day after day in an office 30 or 40 employees may muster respect. But that boss is unlikely to command the mystique that an old-fashioned captain of industry did, to the benefit of the organization. He or she will simply be too accessible, and the size of the organization will lend itself to a relatively free exchange of opinions and ideas.


    In an 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 organizations, 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.


    Under such circumstances, the most valuable workers will be capable of fulfilling numerous functions. Broad general experience will be more useful than deep specialization.

    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 personalized, 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 maximizes 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, centralized 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.


    The idea of the mission-driven company will likely become more important, requiring a strong corporate identity that extends to the higher purpose of the work that they’re hiring people to do. A company will need to stand for something besides making widgets—and will have to communicate its values clearly, both internally and externally.

    6: Workforces will become more diverse

    In the future, diversity will emerge as an organizing 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 organizational 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 percent of its employees work remotely?


    Meanwhile, the need to confront big-scale challenges will require the creation of business ecosystems in which different organizations 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.

    About the author

    Headshot of Peter Duine, Global Subsegment Director for Offices, Signify
    Peter Duine is Global Subsegment Director for Offices at Signify. He joined Philips 26 years ago as an engineer in the Research Laboratories. Peter moved to the lighting division 16 years ago as an optical engineer, and was a pioneer in developing light engines and drivers as systems for general lighting applications.

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