When we try to imagine the future of work, we usually picture a scene from a science fiction film. Young, tech savvy folk and their robot sidekicks, staring at large screens in a minimalist office that looks like a cross between a spaceship and a hippy commune. Sadly, the reality is likely to look much more mundane as Professor André Spicer, an expert in the areas of organisational behaviour, leadership and corporate social responsibility, at Cass Business School explains.
The worker of the future is called Paul. He has a degree and works as a sales engineer. Paul works at home about half the time and spend the other half of the time in the office. He feels a little isolated working at home, but he is also more productive and a little happier than when he worked from the office. His working days are getting longer and beginning to blur into the rest of his life. On top of this, he faces the additional pressures of caring for his elderly parents. Paul finds his job has changed recently as he has started working with Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. This has required him to sharpen his analytical and interpersonal skills. Whilst Paul feels generally satisfied and secure when it comes to work, he also feels demotivated due to the longer hours and the lack of increased financial remuneration.
Challenges facing the worker of the future
You might ask why we have picked Paul as the employee of the future. First off, Paul is a man. Women have made significant progress in the world of employment in recent years, transforming the workplace in the process. However, an analysis by the International Labour Organisation suggests that the rate of this progress has flattened.
Like nearly 25% of his generation, Paul went to university and now in one of the fastest growing occupational sectors, as a sales engineer, but could equally be working as a designer, a management analyst or as part of the green economy. If Paul had not attended university, he would be likely to work in a routine service job such as a healthcare assistant, a logistics worker or in food preparation.
Where Paul spends his working days reflects the choices many employees like him made after 2021. This is in line with a study from Stanford University which found that the average worker said they would be prepared to work at home about half the time. Managers were initially worried that home working would lead employees to slack off and would corrode the effective sharing of knowledge. However, many businesses discovered that having workers out of the office represented a big saving on expensive inner city office space. This has also granted managers access to a wider range of talent who live outside of the major urban centres where big businesses are based. Paul likes his manager’s new-found enthusiasm for flexible working, and in line with a study by Stanford University’s Nick Bloom, he finds that he is a little happier and more productive working from home. However, he notices that his informal office network has dwindled and he no longer has his finger on the pulse of what is happening in the company which has resulted in him being passed over for promotion like the homeworkers in Bloom’s study.
Working from home has its upsides. Paul certainly likes the fact he does not have to commute anymore. He also enjoys the flexibility he now has. However, Paul notices that his working day has changed. Instead of having a strict 9-5, his working hours seem to have become more fragmented. Paul finds he is working more and often at odd hours of the day. He also finds that much of that time involves coordinating with others through email, Zoom and other platforms. This experience reflects a recent study conducted by Microsoft which found that one third of people have seen their working day get longer whilst working from home, and more than 50% indicated that they felt they had to be available at all times
The impact for families
From a personal perspective, Paul finds it particularly hard to deal with his working day because he is caring for elderly parents. This is in line with projections by the International Labour Organisation which show that as the population ages and children spend longer in education, the ratio of working people to non-working people is falling. This means that people who have jobs are increasingly likely to be looking after extended family and people who do not have jobs which will put increasing pressure on time, finances and emotions. This conundrum is likely to be particularly challenging for women who continue to find themselves assigned the majority of unpaid care work. Employees in societies such as China and India, where the average family size has shrunk, but people are expected to live with and care for their elderly parents are also expected to feel the impact more acutely.
The acceleration of automation
In addition to the pressures associated with care, Paul has seen his job change with increasing automation and a greater presence of AI. Many of the tasks he used to do are now performed by algorithms. This has opened up new opportunities which often involve blending people skills with hard analytical tasks. The challenge that Paul faces reflect those of the wider workforce who might be fearful of being replaced or de-valued by robots. However a recent study suggests that most workers only face a small chance of actually having their job automated out of existence. Often, automation displaces largely routine tasks. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Daron Acemogulu, when firms introduce labour saving automation, it frequently leads to what he calls ‘so-so innovation’. These are innovations such as automated checkouts which replace jobs but do not actually increase efficiency. Automation is more likely to lead to increased value for businesses when used in conjunction with people at work. The real challenge is that many existing jobs are changing in a way which requires employees to rapidly develop advanced analytical skills to operate the technology, as well as the soft skills required to connect with people.
Although Paul’s life at work is not easy, he is relatively satisfied. Recent research on employee engagement, by Gallup, found that during the past decade, rates of employee engagement have been rising, despite being impacted a little during the pandemic. He also feels fairly secure in his job which correlates with research by The London School of Economics which found that, despite much talk about uncertainty with regards to employment, the majority of employees in developed countries like the US, UK and Germany feel safe in their job. Despite these positive indicators, Paul feels undervalued, having not received a significant pay rise in years, in spite of increased productivity in a highly profitable company. This experience reflects a wider trend in most developed economies where wage levels have remained relatively flat. With little prospect of a pay rise and other challenges creating obstacles, what can organisations do to ensure the wellbeing and happiness levels of employees?
How can business leaders support workers of the future?
Having a workforce made up of people like Paul poses some unique challenges. How do you manage him when he is not in the office? How do you help him to deal with a fragmented and lengthy working day which sees him juggling caring responsibilities? How do you ensure he has the right skills to get the most value out of automation? And finally, how can you ensure he stays motivated?
Having your employees working remotely half the time naturally has a big impact on a company’s office needs with the required space shrinking and becoming much more focused on meeting and collaboration rather than individual work. In the future, businesses will increasingly look to establish satellite offices in commuter towns or give their employees memberships to share working spaces. They will also provide employees with the right kit to set up home offices.
Managing these teams of remote work will require new techniques. According to Harvard Business School’s Tsedale Neeley, managers need to ensure they spend time building a shared team identity. They also should put time aside to remind remote workers that someone cares by showing routine empathy. Managers of remote teams need to be skilled at using engaging and inclusive language with their teams and should dedicated time to encouraging shared learning. Finally, managers of virtual teams must carefully monitor how technology is used and the different patterns of communication, to inform their management style.
To get the best out of their workforce, companies need to help people like Paul create boundaries around their work. When work bleeds into all aspects of our life, we inevitably become less productive. To safeguard against this, leaders can create times during the working day to allow employees to focus, engage in concentrated work and make progress on tasks which are truly meaningful to them. For instance, there could be designated times during the week when no meetings are allowed.
As well as giving employees space to focus, companies will be under increasing pressure to consider the question of care. Many of their employees will find caring responsibilities could make their working life increasingly difficult. This will mean giving employees flexibility and support to deal with their caring commitments. But the best employers are likely to recognise that caring for others requires employees to care for themselves. To improve this process, good companies will not simply pay attention to employee wellbeing but will also ensure that work is designed in a way which reduces un-necessary strains and stress. Doing this will help companies retain the talent which might otherwise be alienated.
If companies want to get the best out of automation and AI, they need to ensure that they upskill their workforce. A central part of this is developing employees’ analytical skills as well as their softer ‘people skills’. This means not just training people in critical thinking and coding but also in self-development and negotiations. By doing this companies can help their employees bridge the gap between the technology and their customers
The final big challenge that companies face is motivating employees like Paul who are relatively satisfied, secure but feel undervalued. One way to do this is to provide the workforce with some of the non-monetary benefits which they value like praise, recognition and opportunities to work on projects they find highly meaningful. Another more radical step would involve giving employees a greater stake in the business through initiatives such as shared ownership schemes. Companies which have experimented with this model have often found it helps to retain and motivate talent, as well as drive business performances.
Clearly, not all workers of the future will be Sales Engineers called Paul, but many will face the same challenges. The most successful companies looking to attract and retain talent will be those which proactively help employees like Paul to solve some of the problems that they face. If a company is able to do that, then they are also likely to be able to harness the talents of Paul and other workers of the future in order to create sustainable value for the business.
Professor, Cass Business School