The Future of Work – Oct 2021

October 27, 2021

Work is changing.  I mean really changing – a shift as big as the Industrial Revolution.  In fact, many have called this current shift the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a label first used by Klaus Schwab in 2016 to describe the rapid advancement of technology into human knowledge work.

But technology is only one factor that’s driving changes in how and where (and when) work gets done, and the pandemic the last 19 months has only caused it to accelerate.  Staffing shortages are forcing organizations to re-evaluate their work environments and business models; the Great Resignation is putting even more pressure on organizational capacity (as well as causing a great brain drain); demographics continue to trend toward an older, more diverse, more female workforce; and an accelerating number of labor strikes may indicate a shift in power from corporations to workers.  Combined, all these factors may foretell (actually, they may compel) seismic shifts in the future of work.

The closing keynote at last week’s Baldrige Fall Conference was Heather McGowan, a future-of-work strategist that – as her bio says – “helps leaders prepare their people and organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”  Heather explored the forces that are causing work to change: who is doing the work; what is the actual work; how we work; where we work; and why we work.  Let me elaborate on each of McGowan’s powerful hypotheses, and then share my own thoughts on the implications these trends have on tomorrow’s organizations.

Who Does the Work

McGowan shared some fascinating data on the changing demographics in our workforce.  According to the US Department of Labor, over the last 20 years, the US workforce has gotten older (we now have five generations in the workforce, with nearly half – up from about a quarter – over the age of 45); more diverse (40% are now non-white, up from 24%); and includes more female talent (nearly half of the workforce is now female, where 40-50 years ago it was only 30%).  These shifts aren’t a surprise: we’ve been heading that way for decades.  But consider some of the shifts beyond changes in demographics:

  • According to IBM CEO Study, 100% of jobs today will change.  Yes, 100%.  And 50% of today’s jobs will be automated within five years, according to the World Economic Forum.  That will radically change who does (and how they do) the work.
  • The Federal Reserve Bank of NY estimates that only about 27% of college graduates are working in their majors.  Gone are the days that you picked a career and stuck with it for 30-40 years. In fact…
  • An Australian study estimated that the average professional worker will have 17 jobs across five industries over their careers.

So not only are the actual workers changing, but also their work preferences and what type of work is available in society.  What are the implications for today’s (and tomorrow’s) organizations?  My reaction:

  • The demographic shifts should cause organizations to think differently about who and where they recruit: an organization should ensure that its workforce represents the diversity of ideas, cultures, and thinking of the communities it serves.
  • Training and development systems will need a complete overhaul.  If jobs and tasks are changing as rapidly as predicted, workers will need to acquire, develop, and practice new skills almost continuously.  The old systems of classroom workshops (even the new systems of online modules) are slow and outdated.
  • Workforce policies, benefits, and practices need to shift to accommodate the diverse needs of various workforce segments.  Examples: workforce materials should be written in different languages; new services like daycare and alternative work hours or shifts for working mothers; different considerations for different religions, cultures, rituals – both in workspace and work policies.
  • Organizational cultures should embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, not just as concepts but as key components that are integrated into workforce systems – hiring decisions, onboarding processes, workplace environment and climate, performance management and career progression systems, training and development processes, and overall culture. Diversity is not a burden, but a real opportunity.

What is Work

McGowan offered some really interesting insights about what work is becoming, as a result of changes forced by the pandemic.  For one, she speculates that the pandemic is facilitating human behavior transformation to finally catch up to technology transformation.  Consider that WebEx was created in 1995, Skype 2003, FaceTime in 2010, and Zoom in 2011, but it really wasn’t until the pandemic that we widely accepted these tools – because we were forced to. McGowan shared McKinsey research that showed “normal” adoption of a digital platform takes five years, but last year we transitioned most activities to digital within 60 days.

Citing studies from Accenture and the World Economic Forum, she also illustrated how the pandemic has rapidly accelerated (or compressed) timelines.  For example, the speed of our migration to the cloud has doubled (now expected to be complete by 2026, where the original forecasts were early 2030s); as many as 50% of our tasks will be automated by 2025 (previous forecasts were 2030); vaccine development took only 10 months (where an average vaccine before this pandemic took four to 13 years).

Finally, McGowan explored how career paths are changing, from the traditional model of “educate, work, then retire” – pretty much in discrete life phases – to more continuous learning and engagement loops throughout your life.  Work and learning are becoming more integrated, and organizations are placing increasing value in skills that focus on discovery, innovation, and exploration over the more traditional skills that focus on repetitive tasks and predictable operations.

My sense of the implications for our organizations:

  • Organizations need to further leverage technology to enable human collaboration.  Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence will become more widely used; cross-organization partnerships to solve highly complex problems will become more standard.
  • Organizations will need to reconsider how it defines “work,” as the value added by humans becomes more focused on creative problem solving, innovation, and value creation (while the more repetitive tasks become more and more automated).  In short, we need to rethink our processes.
  • If 50% of work tasks will be automated within five years, organizations will need to consider massive reskilling (or upskilling) of the workforce to handle new, different, and automated tasks.
  • Workforce development and career paths will need to blend learning and doing – learning, adapting, discovering, and creating new value will become more common.
  • And on a personal level, we’re all going to have to be comfortable with “reinventing ourselves,” applying our knowledge in different ways, unlearning, adapting.  Curiosity, purpose, and passion will be the beacons that guide most of us through our careers, motivating us to learn and unlearn.

How We Work

McGowan explores three pretty significant shifts in how we work.  First, according to McGowan’s hypothesis, the challenges we face in today’s society are growing more complex, requiring more collaborative problem solving, more collective intelligence.  Take, for instance, the pandemic itself: no one person, no one organization or governmental entity can solve it.  Rather, it requires collaboration across organizations, governments, and communities.  Same with climate change, space exploration, income inequality, and a number of other global challenges.  McGowan asserts that we are moving from a world that is complicated (where problems breakdown into subcomponents fairly easily, so that you can design solutions and so that workforce talent can be organized into hierarchies) to one that is more complex (highly challenging, integrated problems that don’t lend themselves to simple solutions).  This shift has pretty major implications for how work gets done.

Second, McGowan also questions the traditional eight-hour workday, first adopted by Ford over 100 years ago (as a way of reducing fatigue-related safety events on the production line).  In a UK survey, McGowan shares that the average worker spends about two hours and 53 minutes productive time a day “working,” which really calls into question the traditional eight-hour workday – especially for roles that involve more creative or cognitive input.  Many recent studies (including an experiment by Microsoft) show that reducing the work week from five to four days (same pay, same benefits) actually increased human productivity.  And I think our live worldwide “experiment” the last 19 months has proven, more or less, that flexible work schedules can support diverse employee needs.

Third, McGowan shared data from the CDC that shows Americans are experiencing more depression and/or anxiety: over 40% today versus 6-8% before the pandemic.  We have an emerging mental health crisis that is (or certainly will) impact our organizations.

Separate – but possibly related – people are checking out: over 4 million people resigned in August alone (nearly 3% of the workforce), and Microsoft estimates that up to 40% of US workers may resign in the next 12 months. Whether it’s stress, burnout, “pandemic epiphanies,” employer dissatisfaction, or for other reasons, the “Great Resignation” as it’s now called is causing workforce shortages in most if not all sectors and industries, causing severe capacity constraints, service disruptions, and impact to profitability.  Many predict that this situation may last a decade.


  • Leaders must now reconsider how they process information and make decisions, appreciating diverse perspectives and leveraging the collective knowledge of their teams. 
  • Organizations need to value collaboration over competition: the collective intelligence – the blending of skills is what will create future success.  Therefore, performance management and career advancement systems need to reward collaboration and discovery over a competitive zero-sum game.
  • In other words, leaders need to create what Dr. Amy Edmonson of Harvard has called “psychologically safe” work environments – those that focus on dependability/accountability, clarity, meaning, and purpose.  Workers need to feel safe to speak up, challenge assumptions, and take risks without the fear of reprisal.
  • Organizations need to be more comfortable in allowing employees to focus on outputs, not input (time, or punching the clock).  Allow your team to work wherever, whenever they prefer to, so long as they are achieving their goals and producing value.
  • Organizational structures will continue to change, shifting from rigid hierarchies to more fluid teams, task forces, and even “free agents” (those temporary 1099 employees who come in temporarily to help solve problems by lending specific expertise to the organization).
  • Organizations should invest in more services that support their workforce’s mental health.  In addition, if humans are organizations’ greatest assets, they should start viewing mental health services as a benefit to the organization as much as it is to the individual employee.
  • Organizations should shift to valuing human wellness and human potential as much (or more so) than valuing products and tangible assets.

Where We Work

McGowan didn’t have a great deal to share about where work gets done.  In fact, she says the transition we’re currently in will take a few years to sort out.  But she did declare that virtual (or hybrid) work models are here to stay – that working from home (or quite possibly some sort of technology-enabled metaverse, though that certainly remains to be seen) will likely forever change where work gets done.

For those who may be skeptical, arguing that it is difficult to establish/cultivate human relationships virtually, McGowan offered two simple counterarguments:

  1. eight of the top 10 populations in the world are social media networks (only two – China and India – are actual places), so it’s clear that we can establish fully online communities and build human relationships virtually, and
  2. a growing number of singles are meeting their future partners online (now 25% of heterosexuals and 70% of LGBTQ).

Her point: if humans are comfortable establishing personal relationships through social media and virtual networks, then we’re likely to be able to establish and maintain professional relationships virtually.

The implications:

  • Hybrid work environments are not the problem, they are the solution.  Leaders and organizations need to reconsider how and where work gets done, allowing their teams a much larger say in work environments and work models moving forward.
  • Leaders need to re-evaluate – and perhaps redesign – many core leadership processes, such as communication, coaching and performance management, culture maintenance, team building and even fun.
  • Organizations should (re)focus on work processes – of how workers create value from turning inputs into valuable outputs – over work places.

Why We Work

The last part of McGowan’s talk focused on why we all work – the centuries-long transition from viewing work as a means of survival to the more modern phase of working for status and identity to what seems to be the current phase of working for purpose and engagement.  Gallup indicates that to lure an engaged worker away today, you’d have to pay 20% more in compensation, which McGowan thinks indicates that other factors have become more important than just pay.  Her hypothesis: factors such as workplace safety; the alignment of personal and organizational values; the ability to make an impact; lifestyle and balance; and the ability to advance in your career are all now far more important than compensation for most people.

The implication, quite simply is:†

  • Leaders need to focus more on the why – of creating an organizational environment that focuses on mission and purpose; of aligning and rewarding behaviors that are consistent with core values; and of striving for true workforce engagement so that their teams are emotionally and intellectually committed to accomplishing the organization’s work, mission, and vision.

In Summary

McGowan left us with a powerful, multi-point closing thought:

  • Our most precious resource is our time – it’s finite, non-renewable, and we all must mindfully manage it.
  • Our most valuable asset is trust – it’s what people buy or buy into.  And we’re always either building or burning trust.
  • Our most essential investment is in our capacity – and not necessarily the ability to do more, but the ability to meet the moment, which means it includes your intellectual and learning capacity, your wellness capacity, your adaptability and resilience.

Certainly those principles – of time, trust, and capacity – apply to us as individuals and as leaders, but they also apply to our organizations.  Work has been evolving and changing for many years, probably many decades.  But the events of the last two years – along with the now obvious visible shifts in demographics, the powerful potential of advanced technology, the compelling challenge of workforce shortages and changing workforce philosophies – only mean that changes in the future of work are not only inevitable but will likely accelerate.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the future of work?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987! Photo credit