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What Will the Workplace of the Future Look Like?

In recent years, disruptive technologies have exploded from the scripts of sci-fi films into everyday life. So what does the future have in store for you and your career?

Don’t panic, but the robots are coming. In recent years disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) have exploded from the scripts of sci-fi films into everyday life. So what does the future have in store for you and your career? We asked the experts to tell us more.

The Rise of AI

While there’s no doubt that machines can outperform humans in many manual and routine tasks, plenty of experts now predict that AI will actually create rather than replace jobs. Provided workers are given adequate support and training to manage the transition, automation can free up time for more creative and important tasks that are less suited to robots.

“Organisations could shave 30% off operational costs by automating low-skill tasks with algorithms,” says Dave Coplin, founder of The Envisioners consultancy and former chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK. “However, rather than being about humans versus machines, the future is humans plus machines. A robot can beat a chess grandmaster but it can’t make music like Mozart.”

Retraining the human workforce will be vital as the robots rise, says futurist Matthew Cain, a vice-president at research and advisory company Gartner. “We will need more technical acumen than we have today,” he says. “Jobs and duties will keep changing as AI creeps into everything that we do.”

The Workforce of the Future

Businesses of the future will give us freedom in more ways than one. “I think, in the tech industry especially, the future of business is that people will be more authentic at work,” says Bradford Shellhammer, vice-president for buyer experience at eBay. “In my early career we often acted like someone else at work. We used to hide things about our personal lives from our co-workers, whether sexuality or goofiness – a culture of not being yourself,” he says. “I think now people aren’t hiding who they are at work, they are being sincere human beings and being honest.”

And, with the right approach to diversity as well, Shellhammer believes savvy businesses won’t just survive – they’ll thrive. “More diversity – whether by sexuality, gender or race – is good for business as we will better relate to our customers, who come from all walks of life,” he says.

The Death of the Commute?

Another potentially seismic technology is augmented reality (AR), which overlays digital images on to the real world. It is perhaps best known for the wildly popular smartphone game Pokémon Go, but AR could fundamentally change the way we work. Technicians at General Electric, for example, have used AR glasses to see digitised directions for assembling wind turbines. It improved their productivity by 34%.

As Paul Armstrong, author of Disruptive Technologies, says: “AR is really coming into its own. The potential for AR to improve learning and remote work is huge. We won’t need as many physical offices to go into and the work we do at the office will be transformed.”

New Ways of Working

Provided technology can support our health and wellbeing, we can expect to have longer working lives, says Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School and co-author of The 100-Year Life.

“The three-stage life of full-time education, work and retirement will become obsolete as we live longer – 70 is the new 60,” says Gratton. “We will move to a multi-stage life of continuous learning and flexible working.” Indeed, half of pensioners plan to work past retirement age, according to research by Prudential, with some working beyond 70, often because of financial pressure.

Careers won’t just be longer, they’ll also look very different, according to Catherine Mulligan, a research fellow in the innovation and entrepreneurship group at Imperial College London. “Technology could further empower and decentralise people, as it has done with the gig economy of freelance workers at Uber or Deliveroo,” she says. Mulligan predicts a return to a “Victorian-era workforce” in which employees will bring their own tools to contractual work, while noting the insecurity this can bring.

Smarter Working, Shorter Weeks

It’s easy to feel that technology has done anything but curb our workload – smartphones, for example have helped significantly to create an “always-on” working culture, in which many of us now check work emails at night, on holidays and weekends, likely contributing to the almost 10m working days lost to stress in the UK every year.

“There’s been a bloating of working hours in the UK, but many of us don’t feel satisfied,” says Bruce Daisley, vice-president for EMEA at Twitter and author of The Joy of Work. “The progressive firms will push back against the incursion of work in home life.” It’s already happened in Sweden, which experimented with six-hour days, while companies including KPMG and Deloitte have reportedly explored four-day working weeks.

The benefits could be manifold – a study published in medical journal the Lancet, found that working long hours might increase the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Other research links long hours with depression, poor productivity and a negative impact on employee motivation, absence and turnover.

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