The workplace of the future is one founded on uncertainty

workplace of the futureWe now know for a fact that the good people at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills take heed of what they read on Workplace Insight. After Simon Heath recently eviscerated the idea of the year 2020 as a useful marker for the ‘future’, a new report from the UKCES draws its line in the sand a bit further on in 2030. It means they can’t have a ‘2020 Vision’ and for that we should be very thankful.  Yet the report still falls into the same traps that are always liable to ensnare any prognosis about the workplace of the future, notably that some of the things of which they talk have happened or are happening already. Then there’s the whole messy business of deciding what will emerge from the chaos; a bit like predicting the flavour of the soup you are making when a hundred other cooks are secretly adding their own ingredients.

The last point in particular shouldn’t be taken as a criticism because not only is the law of unintended consequences well named, we also must remain unaware of the effects of the interactions between even those disruptive technologies and cultural and economic shifts we can predict with a degree of certainty. The authors of the report also acknowledge this by trying to avoid anything that might be deemed too specific. Presumably they are aware of a century of misplaced futurological uncertainty but the report is all the better for it. As is often the case, the report structures its thinking by outlining four scenarios that it thinks may emerge based on a number of key assumptions, primarily about the disruptive potential of technology which will continue to reshape the economy, workplace models and the way we view work. These are (along with their definitions):

1. Forced Flexibility Greater business flexibility and incremental innovation lead to  modest growth in the economy,  but this flexibility often results in fewer opportunities and weakened job security for the low-skilled.

2. The Great Divide Despite robust growth driven by strong high-tech industries,  a two-tiered, divided society has emerged, reinforcing the divergence in the economic  positions of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’

3. Skills Activism Technological innovation drives the automation of white-collar work and brings large-scale job losses and political pressure, leading to an extensive government-led skills programme.  

4. Innovation Adaptation In a stagnant economy, improved productivity is achieved through rigorous implementation of ICT solutions.

One of these doesn’t get talked about nearly enough yet but it is one that will hit us long before 2030 and change everything. An ever greater number of jobs will be automated, the people who do them first supported then supplanted by algorithms. This will be particularly disruptive because it will hit the middle class hardest as routine, data based tasks are increasingly carried out by machines rather than people and all based on big data. As the report tacitly acknowledges, the loss of middle class jobs will be far more problematic from a political point of view than a loss of low skilled or unskilled jobs, so we can expect Governments to worry about it more than they did, say, the demise of industrial jobs in the UK in the 1980s. It’s a cynical world.

The workforce will also have to adjust to the final end to any idea they may once have had of a well-defined career path. All this was predicted two decades ago by the mighty Charles Handy and so the report is only partly right in claiming “twenty years ago,  there was a widespread belief among commentators that the defining feature of the future UK labour market would be radically reduced working hours and increased leisure time”.

Instead, some like Handy were predicting exactly what has come to pass both in terms of the disruptions to once predictable careers and the amount of work we do and the time we take to do it. It will be interesting to see what will become of the relationship between employees and firms, who will continue to claim that people are their greatest asset while planning to replace them with an eAccounts package and a handful of contracted workers. My guess is that staff will write their own psychological contract as a result and it won’t involve a lot of loyalty to one organisation.

This may become doubly true when, as the report predicts, a gap opens up between the skilled (ie decision-making and creative) employees at the top and the rest who will rely on contract work and zero-hours work to get by. The report suggests that the haves will be concerned about work-life balance as they attempt to keep up with the unblinking machinery all around while those at the bottom will grow accustomed to insecurity and occasional destitution.

One thing we might agree with completely is the increase in multi-generational working. There is too much focus on Gen Y and its supposed needs, yet the future workplace is evidently multi-generational, as Sara Bean pointed out last week. A workplace with four generations (4G) will become commonplace as people delay retirement until their 70s or even 80s.

This is a very welcome report and one rooted in both reality and an acknowledgement that while the future workplace is going to be somewhere they do things very differently, we should be wary of being too prescriptive in our forecasts about what that means.