The future of work and the digital workplace

Every January, 2500 of the world’s politicians, business leaders, academics and high-net-worth individuals descend on the Swiss town of Davos, a couple of hours drive away from our Infocentric offices in Baden.

In a white paper presented recently at the World Economic Forum, the three variables — technology, learning and talent mobility — were mapped into 8 different work future scenarios.

In my last post, we discussed these three variables and the implications for the digital workplace (DW). Today, we’ll review these 8 workplace scenarios in greater depth and consider the implications of our digital workplace industry.

#1 Workplace Autarkies (Tech — steady; Learning — slow; mobility — low)

This first scenario sees a maintenance of current trends with no acceleration in technology, learning or mobility. We’ll continue to see low-skill jobs replaced by automation but with many workers displaced, governments will seek to reduce mobility to ensure that local workers are employed as the first priority. The low pace of learning means that low-skilled workers fight for low-skill roles. Businesses may seek to move to where the talent resides.

DW impact: We would likely see the same continuation in the development of, and need for, digital workplace technologies. Cloud-based solutions will provide greater agility to those businesses that need to physically move to meet talent needs.

#2 Mass Movement (Tech — steady; Learning — slow; mobility — high)

Similar to scenario 1, but critically the high levels of talent mobility means that there is significant movement of people to fill workplace opportunities. Displaced workers in advanced economies may head to low cost economies and high-skilled workers will have their pick of roles.

DW impact: Cultural cohesion, language and engagement become greater challenges for businesses. Communication and HR teams will look for ways in which technology can bring people together.

#3 Robot Replacement (Tech — accelerated; Learning — slow; mobility — low)

An acceleration of the role of technology in the workplace sees more and more jobs replaced by machines, including those considered medium and high skill jobs. Slow evolution of learning leads to very high demand for new workplace skills such as programming, data and processes development, ironically leading to increasing demand for technology to replace people. McKinsey believe that by 2030, as many as 800million workers (30% of the workforce) could be potentially displaced by technology.

DW impact: Data is an increasing important commodity as it provides feedback loops and informs improved automation, and the DW will need data gateways. With a highly-skilled workforce, collaboration — particularly remote collaboration — is a key feature of the digital workplace.

#4 Polarized World (tech — accelerated; learning — slow; mobility — high)

Automation continues to perform routine and non-routine tasks with robotics, machine learning and other algorithms doing most of the world’s production. Low learning evolution means that people are ill-equipped to keep up with the pace of change resulting in high competition for very few jobs in the low-skills market and very high demand for the advanced skills driving automation. High mobility means that highly-skilled workers migrateto the jobs to the detriment of the local workforce.

DW impact: This is the scenario in which the high-skilled, highly mobile worker wins through. The digital workplace will have to facilitate this employment type, characterised by rapid on-boarding and remote and/or flexible working. Tenures are likely to be short as skills shortages mean incredible competition for the right employees so the digital workplace will have to be the organisation’s knowledge repository to ensure organisational intelligence is not lost when people leave.

#5 Empowered entrepreneur (tech — steady; learning — fast; mobility — low)

At last, a scenario that doesn’t feel like doomsday! The pace of evolution of technology matches that of learning due to governments and businesses predicting and reacting to likely skills shortages. With a buoyant talent market, there is a dynamism to the workplace with workers creating opportunities for themselves as entrepreneurs and businesses developing start-ups to take advantage of the zeitgeist.

DW impact: Businesses will benefit from highly scalable digital workplace technologies that can flex to meet dynamic business needs. Large organisations will develop agile spin-offs and will need the ability to share cross-organisations. Learning technologies will need to be enhanced as businesses invest in up-skilling and re-skilling employees.

#6 Skilled Flows (tech — steady; learning — fast; mobility — high)

With workers upskilled and mobile, minor differences in technology development will make huge differences to a company’s, city’s or country’s ability to compete. Online working is still a marginal occupation (as it is now).

DW impact: Those with the technology will outcompete those without. Companies that invest in a workers ability to remote work, in processing, in networks and in on-the-job education facilities will succeed in this scenario.

#7 Productive locals (tech — accelerated, learning — fast; mobility — low)

Technology has replaced a great deal of manual and non-manual job roles, but with reforms in education, workers desire for life-long learning and business investment in skills, there is a strong equilibrium between automation and employment. The luddites are not going to rise again. The lack of mobility does mean a growth in online human resources such as off-shoring and remote workers.

DW impact: Online communities, learning academies and facilities for remote working — as individuals or whole functions — will be business critical in this scenario.

#8 Agile Adapters (tech — accelerated; learning — fast; mobility — high)

Technology replaces many commonplace worker roles, but commitment to education in schools, workplaces and in personal lives, leads to shifts to new high-tech roles to complement machines. High mobility, widespread work opportunities, including online working, leads to a truly agile, globalised workforce.

DW impact: Online working likely to be a new normal, with co-workers often never meeting nor operating in the same time zone. Work is a 24-hour event, passed from person to person across the globe. Your digital workplace will be the only commonality for co-workers and may define the employee experience.

Summary

When enterprises — be that companies, cities or countries — invest in technology without the allied investment in people, the pen-picture scenarios that develop feel more cataclysmic than utopic. Regardless of the scenario that you choose, there are some important conclusions that we can draw that have implications for the digital workplace.

  • Workforce reskilling: The ability for a worker to continue to learn while in role so that they can meet the future needs of their organisation is a common theme. Companies that invest in upskilling and reskilling employees will see returns. The digital workplace will likely be one of the critical education channels. The Foundation for Young Australians forecast that young people will have 17 jobs over 5 careers in a lifetime so reskilling — and the ability to learn — will be critical. Some are calling for a reskilling revolution.
  • Enhanced digital access: Expanding access to communication and collaboration channels will provide for learning opportunities, drive cohesion and engagement and create opportunities for virtual work.
  • Channelling entrepreneurism: Giving employees the mechanisms to be entrepreneurial within organisations can lead to innovation and growth. Flexible, scalable work processes will facilitate this.
  • Remote working: With potential skills gaps ahead, businesses and employees will both need to find ways to be productive that don’t necessarily mean moving. The digital workplace should be the ubiquitous enabler: a common platform for all workers regardless of their geography.
  • Flexibility of work: Employees will not be available 09:00–17:00 daily with many choosing their hours to suit. This will have a productivity bonus enabling round the clock work but also a downside while workers wait for responses from others. Workflows, presence awareness and mobile communications will be critical to maximising productivity.
  • Employee Experience: The digital workplace may be the only commonality across future, diverse, dispersed workforce. When employees never visit an office or other company facility, the digital workplace is the only thing that physically and metaphorically connects. Investment in the online employee experience will critical.

About the author

Jonathan Phillips is a digital strategy consultant, focusing on communication, collaboration and digital workplace technologies. With 20 years blue chip experience, he is a regular keynote speaker, contributor to the digital community and a recognised global expert. He is a communication advisor to UK government and the University of Bristol, charity chairman, non-exec director and co-founder of Intranetizen.com and associate of Infocentric where he works in the role of Senior Principal.

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