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Perspectives

The Future is Now: COVID-19 Has Accelerated Workplace Trends

2020-07-29


Working in your pajamas. Bidding farewell completely to hardcopy. Using voice commands for darn near everything. We knew these shifts were coming, but the pandemic changed the timetable.

In the summer of 2019, we published a report, “From/To: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Future of Your Work But Were Afraid to Ask,” that examined 42 trends — ranging across technology, demographics, culture, business models and collaboration styles — that should be important to anyone interested in the future of their work.

Fast forward to the summer of 2020. Many of these trends no longer represent the future of work but instead are central to its present. Things that were on the edge of many people’s radars 12 months ago are now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, right bang in the middle of them.

In response, we’ve selected 21 of the 42 ideas (the others remain deeper in the future) from the original report and updated them for these strange times. In the below video, we also share a few of the major tech, business and societal trends covered in the report.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About The Future of Work

 

The Way We Work: How We Do What We Do

 

From 8x5 to 10x4

The 40-hour, five-day work week is a product of the First Industrial Revolution. But in the midst of this grand work-from-home (WFH) experiment, work is everywhere and anywhere and all the time. Yet the 40-hour work week remains embedded in our sense of the contract between employer and employee; abandoning it altogether feels unnatural. The compromise emerging, which recognizes the fluidity of work but also the need to stop it from eating us alive, is the four-day week. Ten hours a day, four days a week.

From PAs to RPAs

Microsoft Office and the like have made office typing pools, secretaries and personal assistants redundant. Individuals do their own scheduling, typing and printing. That’s all well and good, but we should liberate individuals to do more fulfilling, more enjoyable, more lucrative work. In short, your new PA will be an RPA: a robotic personal assistant.

From buying to leasing

Ownership has long been a bedrock of the modern world. House, car, land — ownership is a marker of affluence and success for many. However, the tide has shifted during the lockdown. Why spend $40,000 on a car that sits idle 23 hours a day? Why buy a $1,000 suit to wear four times a year? Increasingly, there are rental options for nearly everything — including those suits.

Tools: The Apps, Systems, Networks and Processes We Use to Work

 

From the thumb to the voice

The graphical user interface innovations of Xerox in the late 1970s gave birth to the mouse, which combined with the keyboard to become the ultimate tag team in computing. We’ve been tapping keys, clicking and scrolling ever since. But the clickable interface is old hat, replaced by voice-activated interactions with devices that listen to us, enabling operations without touching or even looking at them. Fully shifting to a screenless, touchless future will return our attention to things that matter most and reinstate a modicum of safety to activities like driving.

From microscopes to “datascopes”

Invented in 1851, the microscope revolutionized healthcare, among other things, making the world a far better place. Today and in the near future, new artificial intelligence (AI) tools will function as “datascopes” (in medicine and every other industry), allowing businesses to see more data, integrate it with other data, and make decisions faster than ever before.

From insecurity to security

We are on the cusp of a great digital buildout in which technology becomes embedded in, and central to, every aspect of modern society. This wave of development rests, though, on one fundamental assumption: that the underlying technology is safe. Making our connected homes, buildings, planes, operating theaters, parliaments, bank vaults, classrooms and virtual reality (VR) environments safe and secure is the most important (and limitless) job of the future.

From 4G to 5G

The advent of 5G massively accelerates data transmission speeds. 5G networks will be 10 times faster than today’s cable internet and 100 times faster than current 4G phones. 4G connectivity gave the world plenty, but brace for a wave of innovation as 5G data fuses with machine learning (ML) and sparks incredible possibilities.

From centralized to decentralized

Modern technology gave people, businesses and societies tools for greater centralization and (especially) control. But centralized anything — bureaucracies, governments, planning, governance — can be disjointed at best and disruptive at worst. Technology is empowering countervailing innovation and regulation that will render the “middleman/business/government” less relevant. Our future opportunity with decentralized platforms is to keep the best and junk the rest.

Aesthetics: What Work Looks Like; How It Feels

 

From the suit to the hoodie

The suit has long been a signifier, but guess what? In these post-digital disruptor days, Acme doesn’t want to be stuffed with suits but with innovators, mavericks and creatives who are building the future of work. Creative, mold-breaking leaders don’t wrap themselves in the conformity of an idea or a drape. The suit no longer fits.

From the cubicle to the couch

#WFH is transitioning to #WFA (work from anywhere), with a laptop, mobile phone or tablet in the coffee shop, the airport lounge, the hotel room, the TV room. And forward-thinking managers don’t miss our physical presence as long as we deliver the goods.

From glass and steel to bricks and wood

What counts for cool now isn’t glass and steel: It’s reclaimed, reconditioned and rejuvenated. Rather than glass and steel, it’s the West’s once-derelict factories, rail yards and warehouses, left over from a proud industrial era, that act as a magnet for the digital in-crowd, attracting the startups of the 21st century like they did the industrial entrepreneurs from before.

From Originals to Digit-alls

The once homogeneous IT tribe is breaking in two. The first tribe — call them the Originals — tend the servers, databases, compiler code and Ethernet cables that make the world tick. This group provides something we now take for granted, like electricity. The new tribe — the Digit-alls, we’ll call them — matters a lot. They’re the folks writing dating apps, music distribution platforms, accommodation websites, augmented reality filters, e-games and machine learning algorithms. It’s the Digit-alls who are building the future of work, of business, of growth, of society, of human beings.

Issues: When and Why Work Is Work

 

From free WiFi to WiFi free

A few years ago, the first thing we looked for as we walked into a café or a bar or a hotel was the “Free WiFi” sign. We no longer look, because we know it’s there. But this ubiquity is starting to drive us mad. The 24x7, heads-down connectivity (for working or playing) is sucking the life out of us. We’re beginning to recognize the need to detox, to escape never-ending digital distractions. We can imagine WiFi-free cafes, streets, towns and even cities.

From privacy is dead to long live privacy

The simple act of loading a webpage generates information about us, and the result paints a sophisticated picture. Cameras scan crowds at football games, and facial recognition picks out potential troublemakers. But the wheel is turning; and people are beginning to question today’s data-gathering free-for-all. The clarion call for more digital privacy gets louder and louder as proof grows about the downsides of what Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zubof calls “surveillance capitalism.”

Meaning: What Gets Us Out of Bed and Makes Us Proud

 

From mind your language to speak your mind

While traditionalists wring their hands and gnash their teeth over the diminishing seriousness of workplace communication, the shift leads to employees who more comfortably express their ideas. This process enables greater diversity of thought in ideation sessions and drives innovation. The rules of rhetoric are being rewritten; let your inner maverick flourish, because speaking your mind is more valued than ever.

From career to careers

The rise of automation and AI is making the traditional model of education-employment-career inadequate. Skills have become like mobile apps that need frequent upgrades, making multiple careers (rather than just jobs) the norm for a 60-year span of labor. To get the most out of their careers, people are now exploring new ways to broaden their horizons: sabbaticals, secondments (or temporary assignments) and educational time-outs.

From green is red to green is green

In a purely dollar-driven world, renewable energy, recycling and public transit haven’t always made sense. Thankfully, new technologies and shifting public sentiment on sustainability are making green business initiatives more attainable. And the rise of conscious capitalism shifts the narrative from strictly a profit-and-loss discussion to one that considers the broader global community.

From mass-produced to me-produced

Today’s consumers want uber-personalized, one-of-a-kind, perfectly tailored clothing that also fits their budget needs. Nike has started using 3-D printing for customized sport shoes, and Adidas customers can have their measurements taken via an app, send the data to the nearest “sewbot,” and soon receive clothing that fits perfectly. This trend will progress, even bringing the production center into homes with personal 3-D printers.

From retired to "re-tired"

If we quit work in our 60s, have we saved enough money to last a 40-year retirement? For many, the answer is no. Fortunately, the rise of the gig economy and work-from-home/anywhere opportunities offer a potential lifeline. With flexible work setups that suit shorter term projects, occasional hours or ones requiring specific skills, we never need to fully retire.    

From CEO to She-EO

2020 should not, cannot, be the year that equality took a back seat just because a different crisis hit. When our daughters enter the workforce, we demand that they be allowed to be themselves. We need loads of powerful women in leadership roles for those daughters to emulate and look up to. We want their jaws to drop when we tell them stories about being a woman at work in 2019, just as ours drop when we consider a time that maternity leave was called “disability leave.”

From diversity to belonging

Diversity and inclusion. It’s top of mind. It’s tip of the tongue. But for women and underrepresented communities, the hype and excitement too often fizzle out. In short, a diverse workforce isn’t enough; organizations must strive to instill a culture of belonging among all members. Belonging is that sense that you can bring your authentic self to work — a feeling of comfort in contributing your opinion and individual perspective, even if it doesn’t tightly hew to the cultural norms of the organization. Many businesses continue to flounder in diversity efforts, but true leaders must take the next step by establishing programs for diversity, inclusion and belonging.

For a deeper dive on these trends, see our e-book, The Future of Work Is Now the Present of Work. To learn more, visit the Center for the Future of Work.

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The Future is Now: COVID-19 Has Accelerated Workplace Trends