Predicting the workplace of 2022 (and beyond)

Predicting the workplace of 2022 (and beyond)

photo of informal workspace

At the EMCC UK day conference, Future proofing your practice, Nicola Millard gave the keynote on ‘What does the future hold for coaching and mentoring?’ In this blog post, she looks into the future of the workplace, moving beyond technological change to consider the human element.

When it comes to predicting the future of the workplace, it’s easy to start with the technology. But looking at technology can blind people to the most disruptive part of innovation – namely ‘us’. This is why I want to take a broader view. The trends I’m describing below are all underpinned and enabled by technologies such as smartphones, unified comms, connectivity and cloud. Mysteriously, they all begin with the letter ‘D’!

The future is Digital – technology is transforming the way we work and collaborate. Pretty much every customer I am working with has ‘digital workplace’ initiatives in place. But what is a digital workplace? It is clearly more than throwing technology into an organisation and hoping it will transform the ways we work. If we are going to reinvent work, we need to reinvent it to make us more, not less, productive.

However, productivity in organisations which have a service oriented knowledge worker base is extremely difficult to measure. Old proxy measures of productivity, such as number of hours worked, do not equate to real productivity, especially since long hours cultures are often the least productive. We may need to reinvent how we measure organisations in the future in order to make the transition to digital working successful.

The future is Diverse – from age to gender, personality type to culture, workforces need to be endlessly diverse – especially if you value innovation. Diversity can have its challenges, though. One size does not fit all in a diverse organisation, and leaders need to be able to manage conflict, create purpose and bring people together on common ground (both physical and digital).

Dr No is dead – because of the diversity of the workforce, many people will adapt tools and technologies to suit their way of working. Some of those technologies, such as WhatsApp, are consumer and not enterprise tools. This started with trends such as bring your own device (BYOD) but now extends to bring your own software, apps and office. Of course, much of this gives IT people sleepless nights, as we don’t think about auditability or security as users. Saying ‘no’ drives these behaviours underground. Saying ‘yes’, but bounding it and making security a priority, is a more sensible approach.

The Desk is dead – or is it? Technology has untethered us from our desks and our offices. We can work anytime, anyplace and anywhere – but culture can anchor us back. Agile and flexible working should be a no-brainer. For recruiting and retaining valuable skills, it ranks as number one, but it still isn’t the norm in many cultures and organisations. This is more to do with trust and leadership than technology.

Offices have become collaboration tools in themselves, rather than being about desks and capacity. Using data to understand how people are using physical spaces is vital to improving productivity in these spaces. But the office is simply one choice in a number of others for working. Working from home can be very effective, but it does require people to have a home, which often excludes younger workers. Co-working spaces (or ‘coffices’) are a massive growth area, not least because they are often a local solution to social isolation between the home and the office.

Distance still matters – our inner caveman still behaves tribally. Despite many of our everyday interactions occurring in the digital world, trust is still a prerequisite for effective collaboration. Trust is most easily built in close proximity – but with virtualised, distributed teams and a climate crisis, this is not always a practical or desirable solution. This means that we need to embrace and develop tools which help us build trust digitally as well as physically. Rich collaboration tools such as video are growing, underpinned by collaboration tools such as chat.

Dolly is dead – or at least the 9 to 5 is (Ms Parton definitely is not). The problem of the future, according to Wired’s Kevin Kelly, is not connection but disconnection. An unwritten expectation to be ‘always on’ can damage both productivity and wellbeing. Learning to turn off, have downtime and ditch the constant multitasking are all challenges we face into the future.

The Droid rises – although artificial intelligence has yet to reach the sophistication of R2D2 or C3PO, there is no doubt that automation will impact us all in the future. I don’t predict the Terminator style Robo-Armageddon that some have forecast, mainly because many uniquely human skills are extremely difficult to automate (try having a profound conversation with Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, for a start). Augmented Intelligence, where humans and machines exploit each other’s strengths, is likely to become an increasingly common way of working. 

However, bringing things back to productivity, because the machines will be dealing with the rules-based, predictable, data-driven elements of work, the human component will be increasingly difficult to measure. The last thing you want employees to be is robotic, but an inability to quantify their contribution means that they may well look worthless. Yet being human is possibly the most valuable skill for employees to have in a world of automation.

Dr Nicola J Millard is Principal Innovation Partner at BT. 

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash