What Does the Future of Work Look Like?

Future of work

The following is adapted from Future Proof.

Globalization, disruption, and longevity are coming together to transform the way we work and the way people see the future of work. Mostly, we see the future of work as bewildering.

The perpetual mention of accelerating change gives us motion sickness. Our eyes glaze over reading the doomsday headlines in the press about the company that transferred all its factory jobs to the Philippines and closed the local plant; the two-hundred-year-old institution that went out of business in what seems like an instant.

The arguments for and against artificial intelligence, robotics, and trade are so complex and abstract it is hard to relate them to our own lives.

What does it really have to do with us?

Where It’s Leading

As seasoned workers, we have travelled the world. We’ve managed remote teams in India or Brazil. Change doesn’t make us quake. We’ve taken that executive MBA course on technology disruption at business school. The new digital strategy was a big win this year. We even have a personal assistant/PR department/intern/niece who set up our Instagram account.

Yet, we wonder in darker moments where it’s all leading. If we all live to one hundred, will we still be sitting at the same desk, slowly withering away as work becomes more tedious and insane? Can we afford to do anything else?

Beyond the headlines, there are the real-life impacts that we experience—the 6 a.m. conference calls (is it so much to ask to have breakfast with our kids or spouse a few times a week?). The to-do list that exceeds the day’s capacity from the first email as we try to operate at full speed on three time zones with competing agendas. Now, there is even Wi-Fi on the plane, so that long flight we used to use for catch-up (or movie binges) is still about work and quelling the latest fire.

The robots may not be banging down the door for most executives. But we’re also not exactly living four-hour workweeks, typing away on our laptop from a café in Paris, or taking time off for the things we said we would do—write a book, road trip down the coast, run a marathon—taking advantage of a longer life and longer career. We are “busy” and “fine” and not looking too far down the road.

Time to wake up. As it says in one of many forecasts about what skills we’ll need in the future, “Highly mobile, digitally savvy, agile adapters will be the new elite.”[1] If we’re ambitious, we want to stay ahead of the curve. For now, the best way to equip ourselves for dealing with all the changes is by seeking to understand them and the effects they may have on us.

The world is changing faster, and most of us have been too busy to realize the cost of the acceleration and the fact that our longer lives require a new approach: a future-proof approach.

First, let’s define what we mean by these key driving forces affecting the future world of work.

Working in a Disruptive World

Between globalization, disruption, and longevity, disruption is the element of change most prevalent in the business media. There’s a lot of talk about automation and its effect on the workplace, startups with lean teams challenging and conquering incumbents, and whole industries being displaced by shifts in consumer demand. Across the world, the lifespan of a corporation has declined. Innovation consulting firm Innosight notes that the average tenure of a firm in the S&P 500 was twenty-four years in 2016 and is forecast to halve by 2027.[2]
In some ways, disruption isn’t new and it’s largely productive. I remember at the age of twenty-one, I astonished the staff in Henry Kissinger’s office when I showed them how to get off the typewriter and do a mail merge on MS-DOS.

In the media industry, I saw firsthand the successful adoption of technology at Time Warner’s electronic publishing unit. We were one of the first to have audiobooks, then CD-ROMs, and CD-ROMs connected to websites. We made electronic games and did author chats online, sometimes with staff sending in the questions to make sure it all looked “live,” but it was cutting-edge at the time.

We even had a guy building a CD-ROM of the human body. Rumor had it, he had somehow gotten ahold of a cadaver and sliced it into millimetre strips to scan into a computer. Now we can be on a beach in Thailand and borrow a digital medical book from a library in Seattle, with no human casualties in the process.

Now there is disruptive innovation everywhere. In the medical field, diagnoses are being done by computers in a much faster, and sometimes better, way than doctors. Doctors certainly won’t go away, but their roles are changing. My father is a highly educated and skilled psychiatrist, and talk therapy is one profession we thought would never be replaced by a robot.

Yet, a study revealed that many people feel more comfortable talking about their problems to a robot than a human doctor, and mental health chatbots are proving effective at meeting people where they are (their phones!).[3] Human empathy has its unique place, of course, but the reality is that people feel less judged by a robot and are more likely to open up in an honest way. Humans and machines together can drive better outcomes and are changing where we add value.

Even the once-staid legal profession has been subject to dramatic changes. Lawyers today have instant access to a wealth of information available electronically, which has contributed to a reduction of law firm associates now replaced by automation. The industry is at a crossroads in how to utilize people and determining how best to fill their clients’ needs.

For example, Eversheds Sutherland law firm started ES Agile, which provides lawyers to in-house legal teams. The lawyers work on a temporary contract basis, allowing them more flexibility in their schedules. As Eversheds partner, Jennifer Van Dale, has said, “Technology is not the future of work, it is the present of work.”[4]

In every industry, companies are under pressure to be agile and competitive, and they don’t always have a technological edge, so the pressure shifts to the employees. People must sometimes work strange hours, and there’s a prevalent, underlying concern for job security. In a cup-half-empty outlook, this all appears to be negatively disrupting the natural order of things.

However, much of the change enhances the human-added value of jobs, and this is what we must realize, accept, and adapt to.


[1] 4IR.org Newsdesk, “Futures of Work: Lifelong Learning is the New Black,” 4IR.org, 2018, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.the4thindustrialrevolution.org/the-world-economic-forums-8-futures-of-work-lifelong-learning-is-the-new-black.

[2] Scott D. Anthony, S. Patrick Viguerie, Evan I. Schwartz and John Van Landeghem, “2018 Corporate Longevity Forecast: Creative Destruction is Accelerating,” Innosite.com, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction.

[3] The Economist, “The computer will see you now,” Economist.com, August 20, 2014, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2014/08/20/the-computer-will-see-you-now.

[4] Jennifer Van Dale (the future of work), interviewed by Diana Wu David of Future Proof, March 28, 2018.