The Future of Work: Automated, Distributed, and Extremely Productive

This is part two in a series on the future of work, examining a broader landscape view of the technology trends defining how we will work in the coming years. Read part one here, which explores the net effect of collaboration technology.

Work matters. We spend more time working than any other single activity, like relaxing with our families or pursuing adventurous hobbies. Furthermore, work is the driver of progress in our world, from inventing new technologies behind a computer screen to providing people with direly needed services in a chaotic hospital emergency room. Yet many people don’t even like work!

This appears to be one of the greatest levers for us to make progress as society and has to change. We began major shifts like mobile, BYOD, and consumerization of the enterprise more than 10 years ago, but we are far from done. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many companies have emerged to define the future of work to challenge this status quo, whether it’s Slackmaking work communication more fun, Do making meetings not be dreadful, or companies like Zapier automating away mindless tasks that suck the energy out of us at work. And countless more people are taking an interest in such a future — as was evidenced at a recent “Future of Work” discussion hosted by Wired and SherpaFoundry in San Francisco. Here are the trends we see shaping this bright future…

Trend #1: Increasingly sophisticated automation will continue replacing physical, manual work. But moving forward, knowledge work will also be increasingly automated.

Physical, manual tasks have been gradually automated throughout history: the printing press ‘automated’ some aspects of copying text, cross-guards gave way to traffic lights, bank tellers gave way to ATMs, and so on. Through some mixture of superior experiences and cost-savings, this path often seems justified. And while manual-task-automation will continue, the rapid pace of advancement across the technology spectrum is opening up new automation opportunities. Algorithms, machine learning, better software architecture, Internet ubiquity, platform interconnectedness, and new devices allow work automation to move up the stack. We already see this with intelligent automation in traditionally demanding industries like marketing and sales through products like Marketo (marketing automation) and RelateIQ/Salesforce (sales automation), which bring automation to the act of acquiring and servicing your customers. Not to mention platform and activity agnostic products like Zapier and IFTTT that can help you automate away status reports, data entry, and lots more.

Trend #2: Teams and companies will be increasingly distributed in industries with scarce talent in specific geographies

Indeed, face-to-face is hard to beat. But in certain industries, the best person for the job may not be local. In the past, we didn’t have the tools to make the cost-benefit question make sense if someone wasn’t able to work in the office. It was hardly even a consideration and if it were, the refrain would be “How do we know they are working? How am I supposed to communicate with them?” but now with Slack, Google Hangouts, Do, and other tools that enable remote work, it’s more likely we will see distributed teams. Indeed, many teams who are colocated in the same office spend much of the day using digital collaboration tools anyway, sometimes preferring to send a chat message to someone 2 steps away instead of interrupting them with a questions IRL (“in real life”, for the uninitiated).

Trend #3: There will be an increasingly prevalent amount of “micro-work” moments, especially given our high mobile usage and the explosion of information available at our fingertips.

The 9–5 work day will be a relic of the past, if it’s not already. We’re always connected, so an artificial designation of “work time” will be harder to defend than in the past, when a large wired PC or security concerns meant work stayed at work. Now with an always-connected workforce, an idea or a message or a task can pop into our heads or through our iPhone screen at any moment. Be it anxiety about not responding to an email, fear of losing a great idea, or any other feeling that compels us to always be on, we will have lots of quick moments of work compared to the past, complemented by our rapidly shrinking attention spans. What are the implications? Ideally we see more innovation, as employees can suggest and discuss new ideas during the lightbulb moments instead of losing them or waiting until Monday morning. But we may see more stressed out employees who fail to create their own separation between work and life, unable to block out the microwork moments. We may also see a shallowness in our work, if people are unable to dedicate long blocks of time to make progress on a focused issue.

Trend #4: Personal and professional lines will continue to blur.

The concept of “work friends” is not new, but is just a small way in which personal and professional lives would have blended in the past. Now, your coworkers might be Facebook friends, asking you on Monday about your crazy Saturday night. Or your Twitter profile could get you barred from a job interview. The digital world means our identity is more public than ever, so maintaining separate personalities is increasingly difficult. What does it mean when “Stacy, project manager” is now, based on her Twitter profile, “Stacy Livingston, SF native, amateur photographer, marathon runner, currently @BestCompanyEver”. How do we reconcile these identities and how will it affect our workplace dynamics?

Trend #5: We will eliminate the frivolous aspects of work.

Emails. Meetings. Paperwork. The more transparency in organizations and the more competitive industries become, the less room there is for frivolity. With analytics in products like Salesforce Wave, in time, the conversation is becoming more about your performance as an employee rather than red herring metrics like how many emails you responded to or how many meetings you sat in. As author Tim Krieder captured in his 2012 New York Times op-ed, “The Busy Trap, “I could see why people enjoy this complaint“ [about being busy]; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” This egotistical mindset is shifting because of transparency, enterprise analytics, and ever-increasing competition in the business world that doesn’t allow for such self-importance. At some point, we all got really busy, but we’re headed for a correction that focuses more on action and less on activities. Big data combined with data science and cultural shifts will drive this important shift.

We are headed towards an Internet-dependent, human + machine-powered workforce that will have massive implications for work and society at large.

Whether it’s smartphones or smart watches, employees can now work wherever they are, no matter what the job is. They could be sharing a file via Dropbox, asking a question on Slack, crossing off a task on Trello, or running a meeting on Do. And now, with the advent of the Apple Watch, work can literally be done from our wrists with the tap of a button.

We are already an Internet-dependent, human and machine-powered workforce and becoming more so every day. Will we move toward a “leisure economy” as machines take over some jobs? Maybe — only time will tell — and we will have to consider the role of humans in such an economy.

But for now, the future of work is looking bright as we free up to do our most creative work, remove the frivolous, and benefit from living in a golden age of technology.