What Can We Reasonably Expect the Workplace of the Future to Look Like?
It’s not unusual for people to try and predict what the future will look like, but too many times when people try and predict what will happen in the future, the reality of what is happening today isn’t taken into account. Imagining the workplace (and workforce) of the future requires we look at where we are today, the pace of change, and what changes are expected. It may not go the way you envision, but the more empirical data you use to model what the future looks like, the less disappointed you’ll be when your imaginary benchmarks aren’t met.
Consider for a minute the world of science fiction. The whole genre is less about fantastic images of a future world than it is about commentary about how humanity functions when faced with drastic change. Many of the 20th century’s best science fiction authors legitimately thought that by the turn of the millennium we’d have flying cars, have visited the surfaces of other planets, and have developed sentient computer men that would usher in utopia.
Of course, that time is long gone and, now, almost one-fifth into the new century, we have barely mastered self-driving cars, haven’t really explored the solar system, and have developed some machine learning capabilities that we bill as “artificial intelligence” when it is really just advanced data analysis. That’s not to say we haven’t come a long, long way in a short period of time, and that the pace in which change is happening isn’t accelerating; but, ultimately, we tend to let our imaginations run away with us too often. This month we will attempt to look into the future to see how the technology we’re developing today will change the world, and how that technology will affect humanity.
Where are we now?
As we stated before, the best way to gauge what will come is to look at where we are. Some of the technologies written in fiction have come to fruition. Smartphones and tablets, nanotechnology, even A.I. (as it is today) are all right out of a science fiction novel from the 1960s.
Today’s business is operating on two fronts. On one hand they have their operations, and on the other they have their online presence. In fact, many times, the difference between two similar businesses is how they’ve been able to use the Internet to their advantage. As the transcendent technology in a time where there are several society-changing technology innovations, the Internet is now available on almost any device you can imagine, and for the business that hasn’t yet embraced the technology, it can be intimidating to consider how to begin.
Some of the technology offered on the Internet, like cloud computing and social media are both relatively new and extraordinarily useful. Many small businesses have started moving parts (or all) of their computing infrastructure to the cloud, using virtual environments to cut infrastructure costs and provide superior accessibility. Social media has also been extremely useful for the average small business by giving them access to a whole cache of potential customers, and a platform in which to engage with them.
With the development of these advanced, Internet-based technologies, the modern small business is able to compete with larger organizations better than any other time in modern commercial history. Management software that can manage supply chains, human resources, and all the bookkeeping an organization does, have allowed some businesses to remain lean, spending capital on production workers rather than support staff.
Some technologies are in their infancy and being billed as complete game-changers. We’ve already mentioned artificial intelligence, but there are other technologies that are new over the past decade that people are trying to build use out of. Blockchain is one. Distributed networks are traditionally more secure, but had lost their function in the enterprise space (due to the demands of data storage and dissemination) up until the development of blockchain technology. Adding encryption to the concept of distributed resources creates in essence a static, secure ledger, that if innovated upon, could revolutionize the way people send and share secure information. This presents a myriad of uses for blockchain, and investors have noticed as venture capital firms have invested at least $1.3 billion in blockchain so far in 2018, up from the $900 million that was invested in the technology in all of 2017.
Another technology that businesses of all sizes need to be aware of is the growth in the Financial Technology sector. Known as FinTech, which along with building more opportunities for businesses to raise capital outside of the traditional banking structure, it also is forces those banks to change their policies to be more user friendly. In particular, a strategy called open banking is forcing financial institutions to build a whole set of processes that allow businesses to pay and get paid faster. Digital bank-to-bank transactions through secure applications can go a long way toward offsetting the costs most businesses incur because of a litany of unpaid invoices.
No matter how much technology we utilize today, the backbone of almost every business is still people. The modern workplace has largely been altered from the repressive factory farm strategy that many older workers have had to deal with over the years. With workers requiring a lot more work-life balance; and, the work they are doing being much more collaborative, organizations have turned to technology to improve productivity.
This has led to more organizations than ever installing and using tracking technology, as they need to get the most out of their workers in order to compete. Sure, allowing someone to work remotely has its own benefits for the worker, but to get the most out of that strategy, the organization needs this tracking software to set performance indicators that need to be met by their workers in order for the organization as a whole to prosper. Remote workers cut down on a lot of utility and management costs, but with data security an important line item for almost any organization, other considerations have to be made when an organization decides to allow people to access data, applications, and communications remotely.
According Pew research 35 percent of the workforce is now characterized as “millennials”, while 33 percent are from Generation X, 25 percent are baby boomers, and the other seven percent are elderly and teens. Most millennials have lived their lives with access to the Internet. Now that they are all of working age, and have become the largest part of the modern workforce, you are beginning to see a shift in the way that people are managing their employees. You are seeing more open office setups, more collaboration, more remote working, more outsourcing.
You are just beginning to see a trend that many analysts have expected for some time: the replacement of human workers with automated smart systems. The robot workforce is growing quickly and may turn into a troubling situation before long. In fact, Forrester Research suggests that automation will replace up to nine whole percent of U.S. jobs in 2018 alone. The trend of adding automation to cut costs isn’t really a new phenomenon, but the better systems are at performing the jobs that humans traditionally have performed, the more expendable the human workers, who cost much more, are.
Looking Into the Future
We’ve touched on a lot of things that need to be considered. Firstly, technology is replacing humanity at a pretty alarming rate, and workers that aren’t technically savvy are going to have a harder time in the workplace of the future. As machines get smarter and able to analyze data better and “make “decisions,” humans will be pushed out of the workforce. That’s not to say that humanity won’t react to this trend, but as it stands the growth of machine learning and the use of metrics to quantify the effectiveness of humans vs. machines are not promising for the future worker.
Businesses will continue to use innovative new technologies, software, and strategies to push productivity to higher levels. Based on modern trends, the worker in the future will be in almost ubiquitous contact with technological systems in order to push efficiency, and ultimately profitability, higher and higher. A reliance on technology will come with new and innovative ways to secure it. The more people are pushed out the workforce, the more companies will be looked on as subversive organizations rather than champions of innovation, changing the culture in multiple ways.
Multinational professional services giant PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that the next twelve years will be a time of great change. In fact PWC suggest things could go in four directions. One scenario suggests that humans will get so fed up by technology that they will create a “Made by Me” strategy that would indicate that no machines have been involved in production of a product.
It’s totally possible, then again, we’ve been wrong before.