Accelerating the Future of Work … How Covid-19 has changed priorities, accelerated technologies, and our shift to new ways of working

December 14, 2020

How has the pandemic shaped the future of work?

Covid-19 has accelerated many of the factors that were already shaping where and how we work. The new digitalisation of work practices are familiar to every one of us as we click on to our first Zoom call each morning. The days of the daily commute, jumping on tube trains, or racing through airports seem a distant memory.

While the pandemic was initially disorienting, we quickly came to grips with remote and multi- locational teams, in fact collaboration within and between organisations has never been so great. The old limits of physicality and time have dissolved. At the same time, a higher purpose, initially to survive, but also to do good, has become natural within our psyche.

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25%–30% of the workforce will be working from home several days a week by the end of 2021.

Here are some more examples of changing work patterns during the pandemic:

  • Achievers report said only 23% of employees felt “very well supported”. Top requests were for appreciation of efforts, better work-life balance, more support for health and well-being.
  • Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy predicted that workers will not return to the office 100% of the time with new hybrid models depending on roles.
  • BlackRock conducted pulse surveys to gauge employee stressors, leading to changes such as “enhanced health and well-being support, increased work flexibility and time off.”
  • EY introduced daily group counselling for parents and caregivers, daily mindfulness sessions, extended backup adult and childcare support, and virtual yoga and workout classes.
  • Infosys partnered with several others to create Reskill and Restart, a free platform combining skills assessment, training, and job matching.
  • Microsoft announced it is “embracing a flexible workplace,” because there is no “one-size-fits-all solution” saying working from home part of the time will be the new norm.
  • Siemens introduced “mobile working” two to three days a week as its new global standard. “Covid-19 gives us a chance to reimagine work,” said Deputy CEO Roland Busch.

The future of work beyond Covid

If we stand back, our ways of working were just not fit for a world of rapid change. Indeed, fuelled by technology and its applications, the next 10 years will probably see more change than the last 250 years. So at the start of 2020, pre-pandemic, I initiated a research project to explore the status of work, in preparation for my new book. This is what I found:

  • Organisations in which employees perceive meaning at work are 21% more profitable. However only 13% of employees worldwide feel engaged.
  • The ideal team size is between 4 and 9, with an optimal 4.6 people. Such teams bring diversity but can also make fast decisions and get things done.
  • Around 30% of useful collaborations typically come from only 4% of employees. Women are 66% more likely to initiate collaboration.
  • Companies where women are at least 15% of senior managers have more than 50% higher profitability than with less than 10%.
  • Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.
  • Migrants make up just 3.4% of the world’s population, but they contribute nearly 10% of global GDP.51% of CEOs of billion-dollar “unicorns” are migrants.
  • 75% of millennials want to work from home or from another location where they feel more productive.
  • Of the children entering primary school today, 65% will end up working in job categories that do not yet exist.

Now is the time to really grasp these issues, and to embrace new approaches.

Moments of shake-up, like now, are when we realise what we really need to, and can, do. That’s why in my new book “Business Recoded” I believe now is the time to have the courage to be bold, to look ahead, and to create a better future.

Has technology made us more or less human?

The world often seems to be working against humanity. We build walls across the borders of America, fence people in who seek to migrate in search of a better life to Europe, apply deep surveillance policies in China, prefer to be an isolated island than a connected continent in UK, automate our factories and workplaces for speed and efficiency, prefer to date online rather than in reality, and to chat with social media friends rather than local communities.

At work, we are told that machines, from AI to robotics, will affect at least 30% of the current activities of at least 70% of job roles. It is the most repetitive tasks that are likely to be automated, robots on production lines, chatbots instead of call centres. Knowledge-based jobs from accountants to lawyers, air traffic controllers to investment bankers are likely to be some of the most disrupted.

When Elon Musk declared that “in the future robots will be able to do everything better than us, I mean all of us”, few experts disagreed. However, more recently he has shared a more thoughtful view, saying that “automation is not the future, human augmentation is.”

Augmented humanity be a key driver of the future work, enhancing what we can do:

  • Assisted humanity: The interface between people and machines is evolving rapidly from keyboard to voice, to eyes and brains. Digital assistants like Alexa and Siri are already common on our phones and in our homes, and will increasingly navigate us through unattended store. Everyone at work will have their own assistant.
  • Intelligent humanity: As interfaces change, machines learn more about our thought processes and behaviours, using algorithms to predict what we need and to enhance our knowledge. They will help us to solve complex problems, consider more options and risks, and to make smarter decisions.
  • Connected humanity: Collaborative working becomes easier and continuous whether we are together or apart, distributed working at home or around the world is no impediment to working together, as knowledge flows seamlessly, and individual tasks are joined up intelligently.

Virtual reality tools like Google Glass augment how we work, for example engineers being able to read instruction guides through the lens of their eyewear whilst simultaneously working on machines, or surgeons being able to operate whilst also getting realtime diagnostic data on the patient’s organs and vital statistics.

At the same time this augmentation can be physical too. In Odense, at the SDU’s Athletics Exploratorium, I came across engineers simulating the use of exoskeletons to help dockyard workers carry loads which would have previously required cranes, craftsmen to have tools connected to their bodies.

Technology won’t replace us, but it could make us “superhuman”.

What’s your vision of the organisation in 2025?

By 2025 the majority of workers will be freelance individuals working around the world, independent of distance or background. They will apply their human, emotional, and creative skills to solve ever- more complex problems. They have the hunger to keep learning throughout their lives, the agility to keep adapting and updating their skills, and the open-mindedness to see things differently.

Modern and high-tech working environments are enhanced by a community feeling with shared facilities and resources. Many of the workers are not even employed by the companies, instead they are happier to remain freelance “gig-workers” working on projects that require specialist inputs. New ideas, new skills, new innovations and new opportunities swirl around in the creative atmosphere, and new partnerships often emerge out of the fusion. This is the new world of work. No jobs for life. Few permanent roles. Fluid job descriptions. Multiple jobs at the same time. And companies working together.

Some of the jobs of the future will be highly technical, whilst others will be much more human. In exploring the jobs of the future, consider the 4Es to reimagine the skills required:

  • Eternal skills: Some human skills have existed since our very beginning. No matter how brilliant our technologies become, these human skills, along with many others, will be of value through eternity.
  • Enduring skills: The ability to sell has always been important. Other such enduring abilities – being empathetic, trusting, helping, imagining, creating, striving – will always be needed. Such skills will be central to jobs of the future.
  • Emerging skills: New skills for the future relate to the complexity, density and speed of work. The skill to use a 315mb Excel spreadsheet, or to navigate a drone virtual cockpit. These will enhance our ability to utilise new machines.
  • Eroding skills: Many skills that used to be special are now normal, to manage a social media platform, to product a fantastic presentation, whilst others are redundant like photocopying or replaced like data entry.

However the World Economic Forum suggests that more jobs will be created than lost, 133 million created and 75 million lost over the 5 years to 2025, as we see a huge evolution in the workplace of what people do, as well as how they do it. Top emerging jobs will include:

  • Data analysts and scientists
  • AI and machine learning specialists
  • Software and application developers
  • Sales and marketing professionals
  • Digital transformations specialists

Beyond technology, data and AI, many new roles will also emerge in the broader aspects of engineering and sustainable development. The growth in elderly will drive a boom in care work, and many more creative roles will emerge through relentless innovation and more human pursuits, like sport and entertainment.

Completely new jobs in specific industries will emerge such as

  • Flying car developers
  • Virtual identity defenders
  • Tidewater architects
  • Smart home designers
  • Joy adjutants

Analysis by BCG in 2020 shoes that 95% of most at risk workers could find good quality, higher paid jobs, if they are prepared to make the transition. This shift also offers the opportunity to close the wage gap, with 74% of women and 53% of men likely to find higher paid roles. It suggests that around 70% of those affected will need to make a significant shift in job, requiring a huge skills revolution.

At the same time, it is not just about refitting people for new jobs. The “dandelion principle”, embraced by organisations like SAP, starts by hiring great people with a diversity of backgrounds and skills to create a richer talent base. It then seeks to build jobs around people, rather than people around jobs, in a more symbiotic way.

Do we all need to be technologists, or will non-tech skills matter more?

As machines take on our more physical skills, the opportunity is for people to be liberated from the drudgery of repetitive tasks to add more human, creative and emotional value. Imagination will drive progress, whilst machines sustain efficiency.

Human skills matter not only within the workplace, but also in engaging with consumers. In a world of automated interfaces, brands will differentiate on their ability to be more intuitive, empathic and caring. The roles of people, assistants in stores, nurses in hospitals, teachers in classrooms, will be to add-value with premium levels of service.

Creative skills are not only in demand in the areas of communication, marketing and innovation, but also in rethinking how organisations can better work, how business models can be transformed, and machines themselves deployed in better ways.

Typically these “softer” skills are what we could call more “female” attributes. Of course, that is to stereotype genders, but it certainly requires more empathy than apathy, intuition than evidence, influence than instruction, care than control. At the same time it requires men to adopt these behaviours too, and in general to embrace inequalities and diversity.

Meta skills, rather than technical or specialist skills which we may have trained for or focused on in the past, will become more significant. These are the more enduring skills which allow us to evolve and adapt to relentless change. Sensemaking, learning to learn, coping with uncertainty and change.

Sometimes this will require us to unlearn first, to let go of old assumptions and prejudices, and open our minds to new possibilities and perspectives.

In my new book “Business Recoded” I describe the 7 mindset shifts that organisations need to make in order to start seizing the opportunities of a rapidly changing world. Supporting this are then 49 codes from which you can start to build a new code for your own organisation, to survive in these uncertain times, but also to thrive as we move rapidly forwards.

Download a Free Sample of the first 50 pages of Business Recoded.

Work Recoded” is also one of five online eduction programs, bringing to life the insights and approaches in the new book with practical case studies and tools. You can find out more here: Business Recoded, The Future Acceleratoran accelerated leadership development program available online or physically, and customisable for your business.

Here is an extract from the program guide, the 4th module is focused on “Work Recoded” … exploring the future of work and organisations: