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The future of work: What you need to know

Should we fear job automation? Are we heading for a four-day working week? Is online learning the future of education? Read our blog to find out from the experts what the future of work holds.

The future of work depicted by two office workers at a standing table

The workplace has changed immeasurably since the turn of the century. High-speed internet, once a luxury, is now ubiquitous, and has enabled remote working en masse, as we saw when COVID hit.

Personal circumstances such as parenting, redundancy, bereavement or illness – coupled with the newfound acceptance of remote work – have led workers to re-evaluate their work-life balance. Many have chosen to leave their nine-to-five jobs and set up their own businesses.

But what is the future of work? We asked five experts to imagine the workplace of the future. Their answers visualise a range of scenarios – from the expanding role of technology to the end of traditional education – but common to all was a feeling of optimism. Work may be changing beyond recognition – but ultimately, for the better.

The end of the nine-to-five

“The last two years have fundamentally changed the way people approach work,” says Lilac Bar David, co-founder and CEO of Lili.

“With economic shocks like the pandemic, recession, and the great resignation one thing is clear: more people are leaving their jobs.”

Bar David created Lili, a New York-based digital banking platform, in 2018. Lili comes equipped with banking, invoicing and expense-tracking capabilities and was designed to empower small business owners – a demographic Bar David anticipates will increase in the coming years.

“A growing number of workers are choosing to forgo their traditional nine-to-five jobs in favour of a more flexible work schedule on their own terms,” she says.

Indeed, the statistics appear to bear this out. Intuit projects that 17 million small businesses will form in 2022 – partly as a result of pandemic layoffs, and partly out of workers’ desire to be their own boss.

And it’s the younger generations driving this change.

“Around 62% of Gen Z intend to start or have started small businesses this year,” says Bar David.

“The future of work will be dominated by this generation, and the data suggests that they are looking for more flexibility and agency in dictating how they direct their professional energy. For many Gen Z-ers, this means starting a small business and branching out on their own.”

“Young workers have more agency in the workplace than ever before, and are not bound by the restrictively vertical work structures of the past,” she continues.

“More workers are starting their own businesses, managing their work schedules, and leveraging their capabilities to add value beyond the confines of a traditional nine-to-five.”

Putting wellbeing first

“I think ‘the future of work’ will prioritise the employees better, and I expect we’ll see this in a number of different ways,” says Coralee Bechteler, a tech specialist and business writer at Step by Step Business.

Step by Step Business is a free and evergreen resource that aims to be “the Wikipedia of starting and running a business,” and joins the growing number of companies aimed at empowering the individual. But Bechteler believes that even company employees will find themselves better served in the workplace of the future.

“I believe employees’ mental health and wellbeing will be less taboo and more widely acknowledged and respected,” she says. “And by extension, I think we’ll see more companies implementing hybrid work by default, introducing schedule flexibility, and even adopting shorter work weeks.”

Although some workers struggle with remote work, most enjoy the improved flexibility and work-life balance. In February 2022, the Office of National Statistics reported that 8 in 10 workers who had to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic said they planned to hybrid work in future. Since then, the proportion of workers doing hybrid working has risen from 13% in February 2022 to 24% in May 2022.

The report goes on to list further encouraging statistics about the wellbeing of hybrid workers. Over three-quarters (78%) of those who occasionally or permanently worked from home said that it gave them an improved work-life balance. More than half (52%) said that it was quicker to complete work, and 53% reported that they had fewer distractions.

Almost half (47%) reported improved wellbeing. This attitude shift has led employees to demand more flexibility and better treatment from their employers, with many job seekers prioritising hybrid working in their search for a role.

Bechteler believes this change will shift focus to an oft-missing aspect of working life: enjoyment.

“I think that as time and these shifts set in, the joy of working will pick back up again, and it won’t be such a blind grind anymore, so to speak,” she says.

“That’s why I don’t panic over the talent shortage crisis. I don’t think it actually exists. I think people are just gaining the courage to put themselves first and stand up for what they need rather than accept working conditions that will undoubtedly result in burnout.”

Another surprising statistic: in an ongoing four-day working week experiment involving 41 British companies, 39 said that productivity was either the same or had improved.

Combining work and play

Pauline McNulty is the co-founder of Playfilled, which delivers talks, workshops and programmes that encourage play in the workplace.

“The future of work calls for us to dismantle the old distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’,” she says.

“The most forward-thinking organisations will bring playfulness into how they work in order to meet changing expectations of work. We’re seeing younger generations prioritise enjoyment in their job searches. Motivating and retaining talent for the future means that organisations need to design different working environments.”

This goes beyond table football and quirky breakout areas. According to McNulty, the offices of the future will use intelligent design to foster a happy and productive environment.

“Workspaces that encourage playfulness will ​invite curiosity and imagination with texture, space, light and colour. They’ll seamlessly blend indoor and outdoor to connect with nature and invite playful movement.”

She adds that the working day will adapt to workers’ needs, rather than the other way round.

“The future workplace will provide flexible uses on-demand, with the ability to shift between collaboration, relaxation and ideation based on energy levels. There’ll be specific play-work spots to invite and support different play preferences, for example exploring, moving, creating and storytelling.”

What do employers stand to gain by combining work and play? A more creative workforce, for starters.

“Play literally creates new neural networks in the brain,” says McNulty. “It primes individuals to learn new skills, adapt to processes and grow into changing roles.”

According to McNulty, combining work and play fosters better communication and collaboration, with empowered employees that feel confident enough to contribute.

“Without a culture of psychological safety, trust and experimentation, organisations run the risk of employees – and their good ideas – fading into the background, especially if they aren’t physically present during the full working week, as we’re seeing in hybrid working practices.”

For most of the 20th century, efficiency and productivity were the order of the day, which resulted in a work culture and management style fine-tuned to squeeze output from overworked employees. The pandemic, however, has shown up the weaknesses in this approach, with the most inflexible workplaces being the last to adapt to change.

Embracing the mixture of work and play may foster agility and the ability to adapt to change, encouraging managers to let go of outdated practices.

“Sensing and responding to change is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened, and play is key to building up that muscle,” says McNulty.

“Having the courage to bring more play into our work results in greater flexibility, adaptability and knowledge-sharing. Together, these qualities build resilient organisations which, rather than asking people to grit their teeth and ‘get through’ change, create organisations capable of navigating uncertainty and positively coping with – or even embracing – high levels of change.”

Increasing reliance on AI and automation

Currently, humans and technology work side-by-side. As technology becomes more advanced, however, many jobs previously fulfilled by humans will likely be completely replaced by machines and artificial intelligence.

Linda Shaffer is the chief people and operations officer at Checkr, an HR background check solution.

“Automation will continue to change the landscape of work as we know it, with the focus on machines taking over repetitive tasks,” she says. “This will free up workers to do higher-level tasks that require human skills like creativity, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.”

So, which jobs will be replaced by robots?

Shaffer identifies data entry and analysis as two candidate areas for job automation.

“Machines are already far better than humans at quickly and accurately processing large amounts of data,” she says. “Predictive analytics will become more commonplace, using data to anticipate needs and trends. This will help businesses make better decisions about things like product development, inventory management, and marketing.”

Jobs that require arduous physical labour and dangerous situations are also vulnerable to job automation and AI replacement. The automobile industry, for instance, is almost entirely automated – machines carry out tasks once performed by humans, such as welding and painting.

In addition, clunky chatbots and transcription services are in line for an upgrade.

“We’ll see more advances in natural language processing – NLP – which will enable computers to understand human language,” says Shaffer.

“This will have a huge impact on customer service, as NLP will allow customers to get help from chatbots and digital assistants that can understand and respond to their needs.”

A more flexible education

In this age of instability, flexible working and self employment, the value of a traditional degree is diminishing, leaving the future of higher education in doubt. Many young people now attend university simply because it’s what they’re ‘supposed to do’, but leave saddled with debt and ill-prepared for the modern world.

“Universities and educational institutions are severely lacking in providing young aspiring entrepreneurs the infrastructure needed to support this career and lifestyle choice,” says Lilac Bar David.

The vast majority of these young workers are stuck learning about financial independence on their own: how to do their taxes, choose the right insurance, and optimise their social media pages.

“Issues like paying taxes as a business, managing invoices and cash flow, and protecting mental health while optimising work-life balance are all challenges that an increasing amount of young workers have to ‘learn on the job’,” Bar David adds.

Instead of expensive degrees offered by monolithic institutions, it may be that online learning is the future of education, with people taking a selection of short courses as and when they need to. This could mean sector-specific courses – but overall, the focus will be less on traditional academia and more on financial independence and career skills.

“While fluency in one’s academic discipline is certainly required, teaching students the technical steps of applying their respective disciplines will lead to a more confident and empowered generation of young workers,” says Bar David.

Equality for all?

Encouragingly, those who stand to benefit most from the future workplace are those historically excluded from it – women and minorities.

Just as Checkr uses AI to conduct background checks without judgement or preconception, Linda Shaffer believes AI will eventually be used to eliminate bias from job and university application processes, improving equality and diversity in the workplace.

“Automation in the education industry can reduce bias by automating tasks like paper-checking and reviewing,” she says. “It can also help reduce unconscious teacher bias when it comes to checking papers and grading. Automation can help ensure that every student gets a fair assessment.”

Pauline McNulty says that combining work and play will lead to a breakdown in the traditional power dynamic.

“Play is the most natural way to energise people, spark innovation and deepen connection. It allows colleagues to transcend hierarchical structures at work and provides them with a safe place to explore ideas, communicate and reframe normal work routines.”

Ellen Stone is the founder and CEO of the photographic arts consultancy Public Offerings Ltd, which works with women and minorities who are traditionally underrepresented in the art world. She believes that the nature of work is changing to better accommodate women, people with disabilities and those with commitments outside of work, such as carers and volunteers.

“We’ve seen with ‘the great resignation’ that workers are prioritising their personal lives over unreasonable hours and ‘living for your job’,” she says. “For companies to grow and exist in the future, this will need to be taken into account, meaning having workers on flexible contracts or a four-day work week, and companies being open to shifts in work hours to account for things such as childcare and social responsibilities.”

Final thoughts

The old order is changing. The overbearing micromanagers of old are now finding themselves short-staffed, as workers choose self-employment or companies that put their wellbeing first. Power has shifted from the employers to the employees – and that can only be a good thing.

Whether you’re starting a business, changing jobs or simply want to get better at the job you have, lifelong learning is an important part of career growth. FutureLearn’s online courses fit seamlessly around your schedule and range from two-week short courses to part-time degrees. Sign up today and get the career you want.

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