The three biggest trends that will shape our future workplace

By David Smith, - Future Workplace

I introduced the digital workplace session at Fujitsu World Tour 2017 by highlighting a paradox:

We have more tech than ever to help solve problems and make things simpler, yet productivity is slowing down.

Global gross domestic product (GDP) – i.e. the total value of everything produced by all the people and companies in the world – grew just 3.1% in 2016 compared to 3.4% two years earlier. Some economists see this as a part of a longer term trend that’s been running for a few decades, while others debate how you actually measure productivity when so much of our economy comes not from stuff (products) but from services.

Although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has since hinted at an increase in momentum, given the rise of disruptive digital technologies, clearly things aren’t as rosy as they could be.

Perhaps this lackluster performance can be in part attributed to our inability to absorb change and identify and adopt those technologies that really will make a difference.

Keeping up with the pace of evolution in the digital age has caused no shortage of headaches in the past few years.

Our own research found more than half (52%) of business leaders across the world believe their company won’t exist in its current form within five years.

It’s a time that’s as turbulent as it is exciting.

To help make sense of it all, Microsoft’s Mike Eccles joined me on-stage to discuss the three biggest trends affecting the workplace:

  1. Demographic changes
  2. Digital business
  3. Increasing automation and artificial intelligence (AI)

Here’s what he had to say…

1. Demographic changes

Millennials – the workplace word of the moment.

So frequently do we hear this term thrown about that it’s almost beginning to lose value.

And as Mike pointed out, it covers such a broad range of ages – varying studies put millennials roughly between the ages of 18 and 35. Hardly a select group.

Yet these younger workers have been shown to have differing habits to their baby boomer colleagues. And they’re rapidly growing in number.

This generation currently makes up 37% of the working-age population, Mike said. When you combine them with the next generation, generation Z, they’ll make up half of all working-age people within five years.

In short: you can’t afford to ignore the needs of this digitally literate, social and highly connected group.

Mike cited some Microsoft research that asked millennials what they see as important in a future employer.

Aside from obvious desires like high salary and location, the strongest themes were company ethics, autonomy, freedom, environmental impact, fun and flexible hours.

2. Digital business

To kick off this section, Mike quoted a man who knows more than a little about the impact of digital on the world: Bill Gates.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will happen in the next 10.”

It’s hard to argue with that statement.

Within reason, we can all have a fairly good idea of the immediate changes our industry faces.

But if you’d told someone 10 years ago what the workplace would look like today, they’d have struggled to believe you.

Mike cited Microsoft’s own study, which looked at business leaders’ thoughts and fears around digital transformation.

When asked what actions they were taking to change their workplace, the top two answers were ‘new tech to improve employee collaboration’ and ‘new tech to improve external collaboration’.

While these technologies will become increasingly important, however, Mike was keen to stress that technology in itself is not enough to be successful in the age of the digital workplace.

The next most-popular answers in Microsoft’s survey were ‘organization-wide cultural change programme’, ‘more innovation/experimentation’ and ‘hiring people with digital skills’.

Clearly, people and culture will play a massive part in achieving a productive and effective digital workplace in future.

3. Increasing automation and AI

Throughout every major technological revolution in history, the story has always been the same: people concerned about losing their jobs. And naturally so.

Yet none of these revolutions caused the massive fallout people feared.

We can’t guarantee this won’t happen in the case of automation, of course, but Mike did have a suggestion as to how we can make it less likely.

Successful organizations, he said, will not only empower and enable people of all ages to do their best work, but will “recognize that their human workforce will increasingly be their key differentiator.”

That human factor is going to be extremely important as it becomes harder to stand out based on factors like product and price.

The brands that empower their people to provide a brilliant customer experience will be the ones that thrive in the age of automation.

Mike made an interesting point around some of the studies that claim the majority of work could be automated.

Oxford University researchers Frey and Osborne, for example, released a study saying 47% of US jobs are at high risk of being automated, while McKinsey Group suggested 50% of all workplace activities could be automated using tech that’s available now.

The context these studies lack, Mike argued, is the financial cost, social and political resistance or other obstacles that could hold automation back.

In any case, Mike had some advice on how to prepare people coming into the workplace now.

“What traits will help them succeed (in the age of automation)? We need less emphasis on rote learning and more on creative thinking.”

Perhaps from all this we have the solution to our productivity paradox, then. Workplace technology simply needs to be directed at creating an environment that suits the flexibility of the modern workforce, and frees people from time-sucking administrative tasks to dedicate themselves to more complex problem-solving. It should enable people to organise themselves around a shared objective, rather than constraining them within traditional organizational silos and rigid structures and processes.  And, it should enable this empowerment of our employees without sacrificing good governance.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Check out our infographic to learn more about digital trends impacting the workplace


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