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Work is changing, both in nature and its execution.  With recent advances in technology opening up avenues previously unimaginable, people are ready to move beyond the conventional view of work as a thing one does for five days each week, sandwiched between two days of ‘life’.  People’s desire for an integrated approach to work, life and leisure is beginning to be reflected in attitudes, behaviours and roles played – both within the workplace and in society at large. 

The workplace of yore, where one entered as a recent graduate (or, often straight from school) and remained in the same company for 40 years, is largely extinct.  The changing demographic profile of workers is impacting massively on what people do, who does it and where it is done.  Tomorrow’s work will be done in an increasingly diverse environment, by multiple generations of people – Traditionals, Boomers, Generations X and Y and beyond – each of whom have their own paradigms, raisons d’etre and modus operandi.  Managing the challenges and deriving the benefits of these age-diverse groups will require a new type of management.  

Diversity is not limited to age.  The need for gender equality, integration of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds - with a variety of educational and skills levels – and understanding and appreciating multiple cultures and origins, will be central to ongoing success in organisations.  Similarly, work itself will not remain static in this environment but will change as different perspectives, visions and world views come into play.  Some of the changes are likely to be harmonious, whereas others will impact more jarringly on people at work. 

Of likely significance in the future world of work is the sense of meaning and purpose people derive from it.  Many people invest significant emotional energy into work and with an increasingly integrated work-life scenario this may have consequences which also stretch beyond the workplace.  Despite changing and potentially becoming much more collegial, distributed and amenable to an integration of work and other aspects of life, work should not be the only place where we receive affirmation. 

Whether work-life balance, as a concept, exists or should be spoken of at all raises issues around how future work may shape and be shaped by factors traditionally not directly associated with work.  This emotional and psychological aspect of future work lends itself to an organizational development model which matures along with levels of worker’s minds. 

A growing trend (even today) in work is towards the use of ‘third places’.  Working in coffee shops and other ‘third places’ opens up new ways for workers to interact, build networks of contacts and ‘get the job done’.  It also illustrates the reality that workers increasingly are not tied to a single organisation but rather placing greater emphasis on their personal networks and sources of work.  However, it also indicates that despite the ability to interact electronically and remotely, people will still want face-to-face interaction from time to time. 

With the explosion of social networking tools workers are becoming increasingly empowered, enabling them to set the work agenda rather than have it set for them by formal bosses.  In addition, “peer production” or “crowdsourcing” may open up new ways for creating and acquiring knowledge, profoundly impacting work. 

People will manage across boundaries (corporate, national and global), with formal organizational and geographic boundaries no longer the ‘corral’ within which employees work and by which they are limited.  People manage and report to those from other organisations and even other countries.  Indeed, the world of work is likely to move towards boundaryless-ness in the foreseeable future. 

Coupled to a boundaryless world of work will be a world where work, such as it is, may well be distributed, rather than centralised geographically.  Evidence seems to support a situation where culture, norms and values are what hold organisations together in future, rather than bricks and mortar.  Indeed, as work located in ‘fixed’ places and common locales decreases (and distributed working increases), organizational cultural cohesiveness may become the competitive elixir of future successful businesses. 

Flexibility – at work, on the playing fields, in life – has been mooted as a key enabler of success.  In the future world of work, it will go far beyond merely enabling work and is likely to become one of the cornerstones and defining criteria of work itself.  The need for flexibility – locating near airports, working in remote offices or from home, telecommuting, working across time zones and the like – increasingly drives choices.

The need for flexibility also speaks to a new type of skills likely to be demanded from tomorrow’s worker – the ability to manage in all directions – upwards to one’s boss, sideways to peers and through delegation to direct reports.  This complexity is likely to be enhanced when the diversity issues mentioned above are layered over it within the work environment. 

By working as part of the global village, workers in less-developed regions will be able to be a part of the developed world despite geographic separation.  Indeed, limitations caused by the vagaries of birth may well be irrelevant.  However, people will continue to congregate in urban areas despite the increased opportunity for living in idyllic rural and other remote settings. 

An issue which will almost certainly receive greater prominence in the years ahead is the impact of environmental concerns on work.  There has been a marked increased in people locating near airports to support the need for commuting.  However, the need to curb carbon emissions may see more and more people making use of means other than physical presence to engage in work.  Telepresence – or derivatives thereof - has the potential (in some format, and dependent on available bandwidth) to revolutionise the way people work across borders and between regions. 

The impact of environmental issues is not limited to commuting.  It will influence where people do their work even if they live and work in the same city.  For example, increased use of home offices and short-term office rentals (down to even a few hours at a time) may allow environmentally-conscious workers and companies to reduce their carbon-footprints by working at alternative offices on occasion (or making those offices ‘permanent’ and occasionally travelling in to a central location).  In addition, entire work environments are likely to be built ‘green’ as workers seek to ensure their physical environments are sustainable and healthy places to be. 

With severe skills shortages already in evidence in several economies, the possibility exists of increased and accelerated skills importing and exporting.  This may take the form of actual migration (both intra-country and across borders).  However, the impact of technology could allow skills to be mobile, even when the owners of the skills are not.  Indeed, from an environmental perspective, it may be preferable that mass global migration and significantly increased commuting does not happen.  Perhaps the time has arrived for work and workers to contribute directly to all three aspects of the ‘triple bottom line’: Contribute to increased financial profits by leveraging resources, decrease commuting, leading to increased environmental dividends and increased integration of work-life, giving workers more opportunities to invest in social capital. 

About Chris Whelan

Whelan is an organisational transformation and change practitioner and former inaugural CE of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.  His work includes engaging in city and regional growth and differentiation and helping leaders in the private- and public-sector to understand and navigate complex change.  Whelan calls Wellington home and can regularly be found hiking in its hills and valleys!

What is the future of work?

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