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The Workplace of the Future Is Here. Are You Ready?

We’re experiencing a fundamental shift in the way that we work. Times have changed and our approach to business and the workplace needs to change with it. Rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have the potential to significantly disrupt labor markets, and will likely transform almost all occupations to some degree.¹

This technological shift, along with globalization, social values, demographics, and the changing personal expectations of today’s workforce has had a tremendous impact on the business landscape, disrupting models and radically changing where, when, and how work is done.² An ability to improve the effectiveness of the workforce, develop and move talent around the business, and manage human capital risks is crucial in the digital age. As a result, companies who want to grow and remain competitive need to focus on harnessing and adapting the talents of their workers, and their uniquely ‘human’ skills.

Navigating change: The Future of Work Is Here report

Much has been written about the future of work and the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on the workforce. The scenario is often played out as if we, the human race, have no control over the outcome. But this is simply not true. The changes that we’re currently experiencing, including the shifting landscape as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, are ultimately driven by humans.

In light of this, GetSmarter, a 2U, Inc. brand, has produced ‘The Future of Work Is Here’ report with the aim to help professionals and organizations navigate this change. The research unpacks findings from over 106 countries and 8,000 respondents. With insights gathered from more than 100,000 students over the past 12 years, the report provides a deep understanding of how the workplace is changing as attitudes and values shift. It also explores the rise in remote work and what it means for the future.

The 21st-century employer meets the 4IR

Humanity continues to embark on a period of unparalleled technological advancement, offering significant challenges and opportunities in the coming five, 10, and 20 years. According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, ‘’We are at the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unlike the previous industrial revolutions­, the current one is not changing what we do, but rather, is changing us.’’³

In the 4IR, lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds are blurred. Owed to advances in AI, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other intelligent technologies,4 the 4IR is paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and work, radically disrupting almost every business sector. As AI and increased automation takes control of more repetitive tasks, the discovery of entirely new categories of jobs are emerging.5

From an employer’s perspective, retention of skilled employees becomes increasingly important as a strategic priority. Organizations need to recognize their current employees’ strengths and focus on upskilling to fill skills gaps and remain agile in an ever-changing workplace. As highlighted in the report, HR professionals and talent managers have both turned to reskilling and upskilling their teams to respond to the significant changes catalyzed by the 4IR.

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Anticipate the workplace of the future

Empowered by universal primary education, marked progress in adult literacy, improved healthcare, global access to social networks, and mobile money, the workplace is changing so fast that it’s hard for many organizations to keep up.

Digital technology has changed the way employees work with each other and their employer: teams are more matrixed, more remote, and more flexible than ever. This has upended the traditional worker-manager relationship, and has reshaped how employers and employees see one another. We are also living longer and navigating change at a more rapid rate, which means that we will need to master a variety of skills to keep up with the evolving workplace.

Despite emerging technologies being the most radical driver of change, other global trends are proving to be just as impactful.

Other important factors that will shape the future workplace include:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion

In the age of intelligent technology, focusing on innate human needs is imperative to maintaining growth and remaining competitive. The demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is more than just another target to meet. Companies are called on to make meaningful cultural change in order to foster inclusivity.

There are many benefits to having multi-generational teams working together. Research shows that age diversity can improve cognitive performance,6 and can also lead to more creative thinking and innovation.7 By viewing age and generational differences as an opportunity, organizations can shift focus to the abilities, experiences, and knowledge of individuals, leading to innovation and productivity.

Over and above generational differences and gender and race parity, DEI also includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures, and disabilities. Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a DEI workplace, they’re gaining benefits such as innovation, creativity, and agility that homogeneous environments seldom do.8

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  • Freedom and flexibility

Previously, being able to work from home was rare and considered a ‘perk.’ As the population demographic and way of life changes, flexible and remote work is proliferating.9 Used to describe any role that breaks the traditional norm of a rigid 9-to-5, five-day week structure, flexibility offers more freedom over when, where, or how employees can fulfil their particular roles.10 Organizations are starting to recognize this and act on it – since 2016, there’s been a 78 percent increase in job posts that provide work flexibility.11

Technology is partly responsible for this shift in work flexibility, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. Emails, conference calls, instant messaging, and video chats have enabled employees to stay in touch with their co-workers from anywhere. It might seem that this development is in favor of employees, and may not be attractive to employers who benefit from the controls of a conventional job environment. However, by offering flexible or remote working conditions, companies can also improve their competitive edge by attracting and retaining top talent.

  • Work-life balance

The demands and desires of today’s employees have changed. GetSmarter found extensive evidence that people are choosing to move jobs in order to improve their work-life balance. Flexibility can be offered by the employer, but work-life balance can be created by the employee. No longer does a large salary bring satisfaction to employees with sought-after skills; rather, they recognize that time is as valuable an asset as money.

Essentially, people are looking for more than just a paycheck. They want purpose and meaning from their work, and want to be recognized for what makes them unique. Relationships also play an important role, particularly with a manager who can coach them to the next level.

  • Lifelong learning culture

“Give people instructions and they will simply follow them. Give people responsibility and they will be motivated to achieve more in their work.”12Peter Thomson, Future Work Forum, Hampshire, UK

When it comes to workplace culture, there’s a large gap between what business leaders think is going on and what employees say is happening on the ground. Two thirds of leaders (68 percent) feel they create empowering environments – in which employees can be themselves, raise concerns, and innovate without fear of failure – but just one third (36 percent) of employees agree.13 In addition, employees care increasingly about workplace culture and believe it’s important to help them thrive (reported by 77 percent of women and 67 percent of men).14 They want purpose and meaning from their work, and want to be recognized for what makes them unique. Relationships also play an important role, particularly with a manager who can coach them to the next level.

Though technology and the workplace are changing, human nature isn’t. In GetSmarter’s studies of the world’s most successful organizations, we’ve learned that a culture of high employee development is the most productive environment for both businesses and employees. Gallup research shows that Millennials more than ever “want to be known for what makes them unique”, and demand that workplaces put their personal development first.15 GetSmarter predicts that companies will increasingly acknowledge the importance of culture as context for performance and employee engagement, with a focus on monitoring, managing, and curating a lifelong learning culture.

  • Agility to change management

To grow a suitable candidate pool and foster a workforce that can adapt to change and innovate, it’s critical for human resources (HR) and learning and development (L&D) professionals to prioritize a culture of continued learning in their organizations. This will allow them to remain agile in the face of disruption and create a more engaged workforce that has the collaborative tools to drive innovation for the future. If employees are taught how to build a learning mindset, it will help prepare them for dealing with a constantly, even abruptly, changing environment.

In short:

  • Over 70 percent of businesses believe their employees aren’t properly prepared for the future of work16
  • There’s a shrinking availability of suitable skilled workers17
  • It’s less expensive to reskill than to hire externally18
  • The future of work is becoming very ‘human’ and harder to automate19

Whose responsibility is continuous learning?

Most respondents agree that continued learning should be a joint responsibility between the business and the individual. Our survey found that employees feel individually accountable for continuous learning whereas talent management and HR view it as being more of a business or joint responsibility. This misalignment may mean that employees are unaware that their employer is willing to support them to learn. On the other hand, HR and talent management may view continuous learning as too important for business to have no responsibility for. Refer to the graph below:

From an employee’s perspective, adopting an approach of ongoing learning is critical to adapt.

“We should remember that intellectual complacency is not our friend and that learning – not just new things but new ways of thinking – is a life-long endeavor.”20

Blair Sheppard, Global Leader, Strategy and Leadership Development, PwC

Discover the alternative workforce

According to research conducted by Upwork, nearly two-thirds of companies have remote workers, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic increasing this figure, with possible permanent effects.21 This has given rise to what can be known as the ‘alternative workforce’.

As defined in ‘The Future of Work Is Here’ report, a remote worker is someone who is employed by a company, but works outside of a traditional office environment. Post-COVID-19, GetSmarter predicts that companies will expand the acceptability of remote work, and will provide more choice and flexibility to full-time contract employees to work wherever they can get their best work done, including away from the office.

A gig worker, defined in the report as someone who works part-time, on contract, and has no long-term employer-employee relationship, could work anywhere from a local co-working space, a coffee shop, or in a city across the world. While this is becoming an increasingly attractive option for those looking for more flexibility, GetSmarter predicts that the rate at which remote work is adopted will outpace the rate at which companies adopt the gig economy, with only nine percent of HR and people managers indicating that they hire ‘giggers’ to fill skills gaps that exist within their teams and organizations.

Overall, a recent Gartner survey of HR leaders found that 41 percent of employees are likely to work outside the office at least some of the time post-pandemic, up from 30 percent before the virus struck.22

What will the workplace look like in 2030?

Technology will play an even more important role in the workplace of 2030. Traditional work models will give way to more collaborative, horizontal structures as companies seek to tap into the power of technology to drive innovation and growth.

The participation rate of the workforce is projected to fall to 60% by 2030.23 This increase, combined with the retirement of baby boomers, will result in a shortage of skilled workers in many industries. To address this issue, companies will need to focus on attracting and retaining top talent.

The future is now: Creating opportunity for sustainable business performance

In a time of rapid change and uncertainty, people have become the most valuable asset to companies. Being able to develop employees is viewed as a source of competitive advantage in the marketplace. Since this, in turn, is also a motivational element that keeps employees feeling engaged, it’s meaningful for organizations to implement a learning culture.

The ability to balance work and purpose, aided by technology, will be a key factor in shaping people’s lives over the next decade. If employers don’t keep up with this trend they’re likely to lose their best people, either to more agile organizations or to some form of self-employment. Companies can prepare for the future of work by aligning their purpose, culture, vision, and values to the needs of the changing workplace, and prepare for a new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.

To navigate change and the future of the workforce, it’s vital to rethink learning and development in the workplace. Explore why learning and work is the new organizational ecosystem here.


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