How, where, when and why we'll get the jobs of tomorrow done

Cheryl Duvall, author of Change Is on the Wind: Managing Change for a New Landscape

Before she toured the then-new headquarters of Sydney, Australia-based Commonwealth Bank three years ago, Cheryl Duvall was told that it was among the most innovative office environments in the world. As a 35-year veteran interior designer, Duvall had seen plenty of innovative workspaces and was skeptical of such hyperbole.

But as soon as she entered the building, she was convinced. “What was innovative was not necessarily how the building looked, but how it was designed and how people used it,” says Duvall, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant who works with clients to blend workplace design with principles of organizational development and change management.

The Commonwealth Bank headquarters — which houses 6,000 employees — was constructed according to the philosophy of “activity-based working” (ABW), in which job function drives work environments and creates varied spaces for varied daily tasks. This 55,000-square-meter building (nearly 600,000 square feet) does not have assigned offices, with the exception of one administrative assistant for each floor. 

Instead, “home zones” offer different types of spaces for different kinds of tasks. All employees have an assigned locker for their personal items and take their work to any part of the building that best suits their to-do list for the day.  There are clusters of sitting or standing desks for group collaboration, areas for meetings of various sizes and private nooks when quiet focus is needed. Creating such a workplace has necessitated a corporation-wide commitment to a paperless environment — yes, even HR and legal — and an investment in mobile technology for all employees.

ABW isn’t unique to Commonwealth Bank. Real estate development firm CBRE is using such principles to create its Workplace360 Strategy — currently in place in more than 20 of its worldwide offices, including its global headquarters in Los Angeles. When it opened in 2013, that building became the world’s first WELL Certified office, a wellness-focused standard issued by the International WELL Building Institute. Glaxo Smith Kline’s new 205,000-square foot headquarters in the Philadelphia Navy Yard also adheres to ABW principles, as does the renovated 18F, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service office in Washington, D.C.

“Employees want choices, and if you have a choice about where to work, and have permission to do so, that’s very freeing,” says Duvall, who is a 2006 graduate of the MPOD program at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and the author of the 2014 book Change Is on the Wind: Managing Change for a New Landscape. “That also leads to higher employee engagement. People would rather work in a place that enables choice than one that doesn’t.”

The desire for flexibility. The power of technology. The competition for top talent. The globalization of the workforce. All of these factors and more are changing the face of how, where, when and why we work. But just what will the workplace and workforce of the future look like? 

“Work will be much more fluid in terms of where you work and for whom you work,” says Kalle Lyytinen, department chair for the Department of Design & Innovation at Weatherhead. “It will be much more independent and not as much tied to a specific place. It will also be much more fluid in terms of what the work process and environment is going to be.”

Predicting the nature of our future lives and work has long been the pursuit of academics and pop culture alike, but the speeding up of technological advances in recent years has made this exercise more difficult than ever. Ellen Van Oosten, faculty director of executive education and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Weatherhead, points to the U.S. Army acronym VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — to describe the difficulty of making such predictions today. 

“The idea of trying to figure out the future and prepare leaders and managers, I think of VUCA,” she says. “It’s changing at such a pace that we really don’t know [what the future holds].”

Forces in Play

With such fast-paced change, American workers are already feeling the unsteady ground beneath their feet. According to research conducted by Barbara Mistick and Karie Willyerd for their book STRETCH: How to Future Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, only half of employees believe that the skills they have now are the ones they will need in the workplace of 2020. 

In their book, Mistick and Willyerd lay out seven major factors influencing the changes to work on the horizon. Changing demographics will increase diversity in the workplace — not just in terms of gender, race, creed or sexual orientation, but in diversity of thought, experience and background. Increasing globalization will shift emerging markets in the direction of being established markets. Emerging technologies like driverless cars, additive manufacturing and robotics will change the types of jobs available. Increasing regulatory complexity will further uncertainty and change the way companies operate globally. The very definition of work will change, assert Mistick and Willyerd, evolving into a thing, not a place, while becoming more transactional in nature.

“We went from the machine age to the industrial age, but this is a whole new technology-enhanced period,” says Mistick, who is president of Wilson College and holds a doctorate in management from Weatherhead. “Embracing and understanding that technology’s going to change everything is important for people to stay up with their skills and be confident about their future.”

The Robots Are Coming

Indeed, many discussions about the future of work start with the impact automation will have — for better or worse — on our industries and our jobs. In many industries, the robots are here and growing in numbers, but what will that mean for human workers of the future? 

“A robot is coming into your work life in some way you can’t anticipate today. Hopefully your mindset will be open to that, because if it’s not, the technology will win out,” predicts Mistick. “We humans have this sense that we have a learning brain, but what we are seeing is that computers have a learning brain too. In order for people to stay competitive, you have to keep learning all the time because machines [are too].”

Susan Helper, PhD, Frank Tracy Carlton Professor of Economics
But that doesn’t mean the adjustment period will be smooth. Susan Helper, former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Commerce and current professor of economics at Weatherhead, points to the early years of the Industrial Revolution, when weavers, for instance, lost their jobs at the hands of automated looms and saw their standard of living decline at a time when there was no social safety net for them. 

“These changes can be good in the long term but there can be a long period of real suffering,” Helper says. “This is why we have social choices to make about how we help people get education and how we spread the cost through the tax system. When jobs go away through no fault of their own, is there money for retraining?”

In 2014, the Pew Research Center canvassed nearly 2,000 technology experts to gauge opinions about how artificial intelligence and robotics will impact the economy and employment by 2025. These respondents were split nearly evenly when asked whether AI and robots will displace significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers. 

Those who believed that automation would not have a negative impact on employment pointed to historical examples of how disruptive technology created jobs and expressed hopefulness about how human adaptability will create new types of work we can’t envision today. 

“I disagree that our emerging technologies will permanently displace most of the workforce, though I’d argue that jobs will shift into other sectors,” respondent Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, told Pew researchers. “Now more than ever, an army of talented coders is needed to help our technology advance. But we will still need folks to do packaging, assembly, sales and outreach. The collar of the future is a hoodie.”

Representing the opposite viewpoint, Gigaom Research managing director and futurist Stowe Boyd responded: “The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based’ economy?”

Automation won’t just change the nature of work, it will also impact the preferences and abilities of consumers: “When things are too automated for too long, you can unlearn a skill,” says Mistick. “That’s the danger. You will have to find ways to not lose those basic skills.”

Jobs on the Chopping Block?

But just which jobs will be most susceptible to the advance of future technology? New research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed more than 2,000 work activities across more than 800 occupations to determine which are most likely to be threatened by automation. The researchers focused on 19 industry sectors and seven categories of work types and found that, on average, 78% of the tasks that fall into the category of ‘predictable physical work’ have the potential to be automated based on current technology, followed by data processing (69%), data collection (64%) and unpredictable physical work (25%). 

Combining industry sector with type of work, these researchers found that the jobs most susceptible to the impact of automation are unpredictable physical work in agriculture (51%), predictable physical work in accommodations and food service (48%) and unpredictable physical work in construction (41%). Not surprisingly, the most automation-proof were sectors such as education, management and professional services, and work types like managing others and applying expertise.

“People think that technology somehow determines everything and there’s only one way a job can be done, and it’s really not true,” says Helper. “Automation increases demand. If you have a robot, you don’t need a production worker, but you do need someone to fix the robot. So actually the need for skilled trades can go up with automation.”

Helper has particular expertise in the value of apprenticeships, which she says fell out of favor with some skilled trades a few decades ago but are being revived with the growing rates of retirement of tradesmen in the Baby Boomer generation. Unionized building trades, for example, utilize a system that puts money aside for training of the next generation of workers. Small businesses within trades have a pool of young talent they can draw upon to boost their resources as their business expands or contracts. 

A World Without Work” was the bold headline of an article in the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic, in which author Derek Thompson suggested that the replacement of jobs by automation could lead to a resurgence of artisans: “Before industrialization swept through the U.S. economy, many people who didn’t work on farms were silversmiths, blacksmiths or woodworkers,” he writes. “It would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.” 

This is the potential that Thompson and others see in the rise of today’s makerspaces — like Case Western Reserve University’s Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box] — where individuals can create new products and small businesses to fill the gap that automation could create in the job market. In a time when global corporate consolidation is at its height, we are also seeing the slow food movement, enthusiastic shop-local activists and a celebration of entrepreneurship.

As another respondent to the 2014 Pew Research Center report, Monitor Institute director Tony Siesfeld, wrote, “I anticipate that there will be a backlash and we’ll see a continued growth of artisanal products and small-scale [efforts], done myself or with a small group of others, that reject robotics and digital technology.”

What about the Rest of Us?

For techie types, the workplace of the future is flush with possibility. Coders, app developers, software engineers, data crunchers, cybersecurity, robotics engineers — all job types that experts predict will pose solid long-term job prospects. But what about the rest of us?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics created a 10-year projection of employment changes among a wide range of occupations between 2014 and 2024. Many of the professions likely to decline aren’t surprising; locomotive firers landed dead last with a projected decline of 70% in employment numbers, with telephone operators (down 42%) and postal workers (down 34%) not far behind. 

But the non-tech jobs the BLS predicts will be on the rise will be medical professions like occupational therapy assistants (up 43%), nurse practitioners (up 35%) and genetic counselors (up 29%); jobs in advanced energy like wind turbine service technicians (at the top of the list, up 108%) and solar photovoltaic installers (up 24%); and skilled trades like electricians (up 14%) and pipefitters (12%).

“I don’t think it will be an all-STEM future,” says Mistick. “Relational skills will still be tremendously important — people-to-people dialogue, being able to collaborate, dispute resolution. … You have to have an area of deep functional knowledge but also have emotional competencies that enable you to be effective in the workplace. These are things that computers can’t do.” 

According to Alec Ross, author of The Industries of the Future, 65% of children entering preschool today will graduate from college with job types available to them that don’t exist today. That means today’s educators can’t adequately train children for these unknown jobs, he posits, so instead we must teach kids the kinds of skills that can translate into just about any job that could come their way.

“Today’s youth who will enter tomorrow’s workforce will need to be more nimble and more familiar with the broader workings of the world to be able to find a niche that they can fit into,” Ross writes. “Tomorrow’s labor market will be increasingly characterized by competition between humans and robots. In tomorrow’s workplace, either the human is telling the robot what to do or the robot is telling the human what to do.” 

The Gig Life

The signs of the “episodic work” that The Atlantic’s Thompson describes are already here in the form of the so-called “gig economy” — the growing number of Americans working independently, whether it’s driving for Uber or doing freelance graphic design or running others’ errands through TaskRabbit.

A report issued in October by the McKinsey Global Institute on this trend indicates that 20 to 30 percent of the working population in the U.S. and the EU-15 countries, or as many as 162 million people, engage in the gig economy. Thirty percent are what McKinsey calls “free agents,” who derive their primary income from independent work. Another 40 percent are considered “casual earners” who engage in independent work by choice as a source of supplemental income. “Reluctants” (14 percent) make their primary living from independent work but would prefer a traditional job, and the final 16 percent fall into the category of “financially strapped,” doing supplemental independent work by necessity. 

In the U.S., the report estimates the total number of workers in the gig economy at between 54 and 68 million, split roughly evenly between the primary and supplemental earners. About 24 million of those are using digital platforms like Uber, Etsy, eBay, Upwork or Airbnb for that income. Meanwhile, all signs point toward the gig economy only growing in the future. McKinsey’s survey found that about 14 percent of people in traditional jobs or not working say they are “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to pursue becoming an independent primary earner. 

Scott Shane, PhD, A. Malachi Mixon III Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies
“Companies big and small have found labor costs have risen a great deal so they want to shed employees and replace them with independent contractors,” says Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Weatherhead. “There’s concentration at the top, big companies getting bigger, the freelancers at the bottom … and the middle gets hollowed out with employees and small businesses and you are left with the gig economy.” 

What’s often lost as employees strike out on their own is the camaraderie of the traditional office, which is giving rise to the popularity of co-working spaces, which are often membership organizations that offer a variety of workstations, conference rooms, cafes and even classes and events that encourage social interactions. 

According to deskmag’s 2016 Global Coworking Survey, there are about 10,000 co-working spaces across the country. Who are these co-workers? They’re usually young, for starters — about two-thirds are under the age of 40 — a sign of the preferences for work environment among the Millennial Generation that will continue into the future. They’re also not all members of the gig economy. According to deskmag’s research, only one-third of the members of U.S. co-working spaces are freelancers, down from half in 2011. Today, 50% of co-workers are employees of an outside company, and another 12% are entrepreneurs who have employees. The number of co-workers coming from home offices is also declining, as more co-workers come from traditional offices. 

“They’re missing community,” says Duvall, who has conducted research on the co-working phenomenon. “That’s what co-working provides.”

The co-working standouts she identified include Impact Hub, which originated in London about 10 years ago. Impact Hub bills itself as a co-working space blended with an accelerator. There are now 86 Impact Hubs around the world — including 16 in the United States — with more than 15,000 members. The organization says that about 5,000 new full-time jobs have been created within Impact Hub locations, and that nearly half of all member organizations created at least one paid position in 2014 alone. 

Others include Roam in Atlanta and Indy Hall in Philadelphia, which boasts a community of members that include designers, developers, scientists, educators, telecommuters, game developers and many more. “You walk in and you truly get a sense of community immediately,” Duvall says.

Millennials: Tomorrow's C-Suite?

Presuming that the graduates of today’s business schools will become the C-suite of the future, we can look to the attitudes and characteristics of the Millennial Generation for a glimpse into how corporations will eventually be managed. 

Shane believes that the structure and function of the C-suite in the corporations of the future will remain largely unchanged, “but what will be different is that some of the biases that kept people out of the C-suite will be gone,” he says. “For instance, the idea that a person who is gay can’t be the CEO of a company is already breaking down. Millennials don’t care about things like sexual orientation like the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers did.”

Millennials have different priorities than their predecessor generations too. They have a desire for transparency and simplicity in the workplace and eschew hierarchy. They want feedback and want it more often. They have a greater desire for work-life balance and an expectation that management will support it. They bring a mindset of independence to their work that makes them more likely than their older counterparts to take a risk on a new venture.

“The cost of creating a new business and bringing a product to market has decreased over the past 30 years by orders of magnitude that are unbelievable. In the days of Microsoft it would cost about $20 million to bring a new software to market for the first time … by 2016, the same cost is down to $100,000,” says Shane. “That’s how you get so many accelerators and makerspaces. You get someone who says, ‘I have this idea for software for pet groomers, let me start a company.’ … You get more people engaged in that ‘I should try’ part of the process.

That mindset shift hasn’t just come about as a result of the lower barriers to entry for entrepreneurship and innovation, says Lyytinen, it’s also resulted from shifting notions of loyalty between workers and their employers: “The expectations that you will have a long career in one corporation, that’s gone,” he says. “People are looking at other ways they can [find] beneficial and rewarding work areas, [thinking] ‘I have to rely on myself.’”

Goodbye Time Clock, Hello Trust

Back in an ideal ABW-inspired workplace, Duvall hopes high-walled cubicles and massive formal conference rooms will be outdated notions. Giving employees choices should be the dictum of the day, creating environments that acknowledge individual differences in the way workers can be most productive. She advocates open work spaces but with privacy available when needed, and encourages employers to introduce white noise and sound-absorbing materials as a way of reducing distractions. Employees should have access to the outdoors, natural light and communal spaces like cafes that encourage community.

“Most of us are no longer tethered to one place to work, or if we are, we no longer need to be,” says Duvall,“That’s changing the way offices are being designed and used.”

But Duvall and others agree that a shift toward creating the workplace of the future can’t be accomplished by simply tossing out cubicles, permitting flex time or handing out mobile devices. Employees of the future will have different expectations of their employers and the kind of work environment they should provide. 

“What makes it work is the mindset of the leadership that you don’t always have to see your staff members to know that you’re working,” Duvall says. “Leadership has to be open to understanding what’s at play, developing trust and policies that support employees in word and in deed.”