Future of Work: What 2016 and Beyond Hold

future of workInnovation in the workplace is moving at breakneck speed.

Indeed, major changes in the U.S. economy are altering the way we think about work and the meaning and value of employment, and that’s prompting thought leaders to start asking the harder questions about the future of work for 2016 and beyond.

In many ways, these changes are good and offer new and innovative ways to create value for employers, workers and customers/clients. However, each one creates new challenges to well-established ways of working based on the 40-hour, single employer model that emerged out of the industrial period of the 1950s.

If organizations and people are to shape the economy to serve our mutual needs, we’ll need to work together to come up with answers to the challenges posed by these changes.

Five of the changes discussed at the Department of Labor’s #FutureofWork Symposium on December 10, 2015 that everyone should be keeping their eye on for 2016 are:

  1. The “gig” economy includes a growing number of people who do work on a project basis rather than have a full-time employer. For those who enjoy the freedom of running their own brand and being on the lookout for new work, it can be a boon to creativity and freedom. To those who place greater value in continuity and depth of employment, it can be a nightmare. Yet, as industries like the tech sector embrace the gig economy, employees have less choice about what kind of career they will have. The gig economy also breaks down long-standing norms around the provision of basic benefits like health insurance, vacation, and the seniority and accrual systems under which these benefits are managed. It also demands that employers think about how they will maintain institutional knowledge and leadership pipelines when much of their staff are transitional contractors. It also raises questions about how workers might organize to negotiate baseline conditions for their employers and industries.
  2. Longer working lives that require self-directed, life-long learning requires that people continually reinvent themselves and their skill sets to remain employable throughout their lives. For many, the physical jobs they did in their youth are no longer reasonable as they age, and they need to make a shift to other lines of work. However, mechanisms to gain those skills are difficult to access. Degrees and certifications require time and money that adults well into their careers and family lives may not have available. Even for those in working gigs, there is the need to balance investments in their ongoing development vs. focusing on the work they are developing themselves to get. For those who do manage to continually develop their skills through self-directed methods (like Massive Open Online Courses), how do they prove they actually have those skills to employers expecting to see degrees and certifications from accredited institutions?
  3. People still don’t live forever and organizations, especially small businesses, need to plan on how they will manage talent pipelines and transition of ownership. This may be a particularly acute problem with the upcoming Baby Boomer retirement wave. Experts at the symposium noted that many small businesses headed by an individual owner or family are unprepared for when the current leader will leave. What happens if a child doesn’t want to inherit the business? Does it get sold to another company, bought out by the employees or liquidated by the family? The Boomer retirement wave may rebound to shrink the size of the economy as many small businesses consolidate or fade away.
  4. The search for the ideal “Customer Experience” can have unintended effects on the employee experience. Similar to the mantra of “Shareholder Value” — selecting a single aspect of organizational operations to serve as a litmus test for all decisions and activities — can create changes to the nature of work. For example, application interfaces can be designed in ways that change customer behavior, for example, changing whether customers tip more or less (ultimately affecting employee earnings). However, it is probably easier to simply delete the tip option than to design an effective interface that has low “friction” for the customer. How organizations will maintain a clear picture of how their customer experience efforts affect their employee outcomes is another major challenge for innovative companies that are creating new ways for working and serving their customers.
  5. The increasing ability to replace people with technology means employers will be weighing the relative value of a predictable piece of machinery that needs no benefits and has no concerns about culture, but cannot innovate, improve nor lead any activities; and an unpredictable human who can become ill, quit or even rebel, but can also design new products, convince a customer to take a chance on the company, and take the initiative to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Increases in technology do result in the destruction of some jobs and the creation of others. In the past, there have been many more new and higher quality jobs created by technology.

However, not everyone is prepared to take advantage of those new jobs which often take more education to master. Even if technology increases the number of jobs, will those jobs be accessible to everyone?

Not all of us are meant to be computer programmers and engineers. How employers choose to allocate their resources to technology and human resources will determine whether technology increases leisure time or merely unemployment.

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