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The state of work as we know it is in flux. In this era of lightning-fast change and economic volatility, there’s only so long before familiar concepts begin to evolve on their own.
It’s little wonder, then, that the workplace has become subject to some very dramatic changes since the turn of the century. Technological advances have pushed the nature of work beyond traditional concepts such as the office, the meeting, the nine-to-five and even human workers.
These innovations, coupled with the rapid rate of change, have created a fog of uncertainty that permeates the business world and makes the future hard to see, at least from a certain level.
Those further up the corporate ladder often have a vantage point from which the view tends to look a little clearer, and many leading business executives are sharing their own thoughts on what work will look like tomorrow.
At YPO, the largest global community of chief executives, the future of work has become a hot topic among its 33,000 members. Even if such a change of direction is inevitable, that doesn’t mean it should be indiscriminate. In fact, change should be driven from the top.
“I think the future of work is an interesting thing,” Harry Sanders says.
As Founder and Director of StudioHawk, Australia’s largest dedicated SEO agency, Sanders is used to being at the forefront of change, but he believes the next phase of work will be all about making a difference.
“Everyone has a desire to feel important,” he says. “Given we work for a large part of our lives, as humans we want to contribute, we want to feel like what we do can make an impact.”
– Harry Sanders
The future, Sanders says, must divest itself from monotonous jobs lacking in worker satisfaction – a change already underway.
“AI will replace a lot of those jobs, so that the future of work will be more around strategizing, consulting and the kind of person-to-person experiences where communication skills are super important.”
Indeed, an expanded role for automation and digitization is a foregone conclusion in the minds of many YPO members.
“I can see a world where most of our meetings will become virtual,” says Afea Care Services Founder and CEO Esha Oberoi.
“And not just like now, where I have a virtual office in Gather Town, but 3D virtual and holographic connections, really playing out to make our interactions immersive.”
Embracing these developments is essential to surviving and thriving as the future arrives, says Collar Group Founder and CEO Ephram Stephenson.
“To me, the future of work means integrating automation, AI and digital technologies into workplaces to change the nature of jobs and tasks,” he says.
“The increasing prevalence of remote and flexible work arrangements, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, will also be better enabled by technology.”
The dramatic arrival of transformative technology such as AI has been met with as much concern as excitement, but Sanders believes a greater understanding can do much to mitigate those fears.
– Esha Oberoi
“The largest misconception is that it thinks for itself. It does not. It’s a very clever parrot,” he says.
“It parrots a lot of information we have online, but it’s not necessarily good at solving things. The next hurdle is making it think more like a human, and that means a complete rethink of the whole system.”
Stephenson says AI is designed to augment human capabilities, not replace humans entirely.
“So while many jobs will undergo transformation as AI is integrated, new roles will emerge to design, maintain and oversee AI systems.”
As this occurs, Oberoi believes the concept of intelligence in the workplace will become diluted.
“Over the next decade, we’ll be working with AI agents or robots far more ‘intelligent’ than the average human being,” she says.
“As a result, creativity and innovation will become the next frontiers. We already see a natural inclination from gen X and gen Y to prioritize purpose over paycheck.”
– Ephram Stephenson
Another benefit: by burdening AI with menial tasks, humans are freed up to reach their full potential.
“From a utilitarian viewpoint, AI will allow many people to get much greater fulfillment from their work,” Sanders says.
“They’ll be able to focus on tasks that really move the needle creatively.”
Redefining what it means to be human will be an essential part of work going forward, particularly when it comes to the work–life balance.
“I think we’re moving away from the old concept of work–life balance to work–life blend,” Oberoi says.
“People are seeking more fulfilling and sustainable work arrangements, so there’s a growing emphasis on employee wellbeing,” Stephenson adds.
Achieving any kind of effective blend means greater action and introspection from business leaders.
– Esha Oberoi
“Leaders need to check in with themselves before trying to set an example,” Oberoi says.
“They have to understand how their own professional aspirations are aligned to their work and any limitations. They have to introduce self-care concepts that are lasting, nourishing and enrich their personal wellbeing.”
The hybrid working model that rose to prominence during the pandemic has gone a long way toward helping that kind of personal nourishment to flourish, Sanders says.
“It’s not for every role, but most can be done in a hybrid setting. I’ve seen great merit in the flexibility of people working on the Monday or Friday to get stuff done, while the middle of the week sees connections and chats taking place. That’s got long-term feasibility.”
– Harry Sanders
Stephenson warns that a total absence of in-person interaction can lead to an erosion of company culture and impede team building.
“Yes, it can reduce the stress of commuting and help with the work–life balance, but it can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness,” he says.
“I think the future of the office lies in giving employees the flexibility to choose when and where they work, while office spaces will evolve to become more collaborative and focused on providing value-added experiences for employees.”
“We’re long past the days of white wall, dead offices. I don’t think anybody gets excited about that. People want to come to an open, collaborative space that makes them feel like an important part of the team.”
While the future of work remains unclear, it’s not for a lack of vision. When, where and how we work, and who’s doing what, are all set for a shakeup, but the why – prompted by a purpose-driven, impact-led culture – should be stronger than ever.
“The pandemic made us realize how short life is, how much we’ve taken for granted and how important it is to work on things we enjoy,” Oberoi says.
“A great working culture with a high level of values reflected by leaders and within business decisions is the baseline requirement that employees want from their jobs.”
– Ephram Stephenson
Stephenson says such a culture ticks just about every box today’s employee can have. “There’s a sense of meaning and fulfillment in their work, leading to higher levels of engagement, motivation and job satisfaction.”
Sanders believes that excitement, not worry, should be at the heart of any business’ future strategy.
“AI is net positive, overall. It will make things much easier and will allow workers to be more creative, therefore making them feel more important and more fulfilled in their work,” he says.
“I’m very excited about the future of work.”