The workforce of the future

“We are experiencing a fundamental shift in the way we work. As technology begins to shape people’s jobs and change the skills that organizations look for in prospective employees, now’s the time to ask: What will the workforce of the future look like? And how can we prepare for it?”

- David Cuckow, Associate Director for Digital Standards, BSI

It’s no secret that the world of work is changing. Technological breakthroughs in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, promise to reshape every corner of society as we know it.

On the frontline of these changes is the global workforce, with almost all jobs expecting to change. Some will be lost, but more will be created. We’re witnessing the finale in what has been a decades-long decline in the traditional office space thanks to a shift in favour of remote, flexible ways of working.

The transformation of the working world is a radical one, and it’s also come to fruition much sooner than forecasted. As new generations enter the workplace, organizations that have not planned sustainably are finding themselves on the backfoot – hard on the heels of their employees' ever-growing expectations. 

The rise of the remote workforce

Forward-thinking organizations were already adopting more agile working practices; however, the pandemic can be credited with accelerating a rapid transition to remote working. We’ve seen the universal scaling of digital communications and emerging new tools to enable remote working by thousands of previously office-based workers – across all ages, demographics and levels of seniority.

Technology has both facilitated and normalized working from home, making it the default position. Mckinsey Global Institute researched 2,000 activities, in more than 800 occupations, to determine which had the greatest potential to be carried out remotely. Unsurprisingly it was found that job roles where the primary activities included elements like knowledge, learning or interacting with computers could largely be done remotely without productivity loss.

Employees that can work from home – typically in professional occupations – have more autonomy over their working lives than ever before. The term ‘hybrid working’ has been used to describe this new norm, essentially meaning a permanent, workforce-wide blend of flexible home and office-based work schedules.

Those in the know had forecast that modern software and cloud-based tools would herald the rise of the dispersed workforce. Asynchronous communication platforms and software tools like Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams have proven to be invaluable as means of maintaining business continuity.

“Apps have, and will continue to be, core drivers of communication,” says Lee Butz, CEO & co-founder of workplace experience platform District Technologies. “It's no longer that important if your workspace is physical or virtual, because you still feel connected with the rest of the team.”

 “However, keeping your remote staff engaged has proven to be a real challenge for a lot of companies. At home, there’s more distractions, and not everyone has the luxury of a comfortable office or designated workspace. Businesses need to harness technology and data to deliver an employee-centered experience, one that optimizes each individual’s productivity, as well as their overall happiness and wellbeing,” adds Butz.

As a result, many organizations are tasked with combining the best of two worlds for staff – from both a technological and systemic perspective. Productivity has increased with hybrid working, yet innovation, often sparked by group brainstorming or in-person discussions, has largely been on the decline.

How to retain the connection, creative spark and camaraderie of the office, while integrating the uninterrupted focus of a quiet home workspace is proving to be a real challenge for business leaders.

Furthermore, working in isolation is proven to affect stress levels and mental health, and businesses need to develop a home working strategy that supports employees both in and out of the office.

That said, organizations that do not embrace hybrid working do so at their peril. Up to a third of office workers say they’ll quit their jobs if they can’t work remotely at least some of the time.

How the hybrid model performs over the coming decade is still to be determined. It rests on business leaders’ shoulders to ensure that the hybrid future is equitable for all.      

Technology and the smart workplace 

 The remote working phenomenon has undoubtedly challenged our ties to the traditional bricks and mortar workspace. A report by Growmotely found that 74 per cent of professionals expect remote work to become standard, and 97 per cent don’t wish to return to the office full time.

This has had a profound effect on urban economies. Most cities are already seeing a massive downsizing of office real estate as this hybrid model kicks in across many sectors. A high-profile example of this is HSBC, who are reducing their global office space by 40% over the next few years as part of their new hybrid working model post-pandemic.

With less predictability around the number of employees in an office on any given day, the way offices are designed, built and operated needs to be reevaluated. According to research by Leesman, the world’s leading employee workplace experience database, employees’ desire to return to the office is based on the experience they had in the workplace pre-pandemic, and the experience they’ve had at home the past 18 months. If organizations create a great experience that supports employees in doing their best work, they’ll be more inclined to return to that space.

The teams who are responsible for buildings, and the people in them, need to be empowered. Real estate teams are going to need a higher level of soft skills in the new world of work – they need to work on their aptitude for curatorial experience and they’re going to need data scientists and even traditional mathematicians to make the most of the technology and the data it provides. With employees working in a hybrid way the breadth of data and variety of experience is wider than ever before, across the board. These things cannot be overlooked now,” says Tim Oldman, Founder & CEO at Leesman.

Smart buildings and the Internet of Things (IoT) are key drivers here, each using information technology and real-time data to automate various functions in a space. Initially, the excitement around smart technology in c-suite executive boardrooms was due to its cost-saving potential. Enhanced energy savings, efficiency and overall productivity benefits are a welcome boost to the bottom line.

Smart building technology also goes hand in hand with sustainability – something that’s of increasing importance to prospective employees as younger, environmentally-minded generations join the workforce.

The scope of IoT is extraordinary. Its most recognizable iteration is the use of occupancy sensors to manage office capacity and alter environmental factors like temperature and air quality. Other examples include smart lighting, touchless building access and voice assistants. A survey by Gartner found that, despite the increase in popularity of remote working, 47 per cent of businesses still plan to increase their investment in IoT technology.

There’s no one-size fits all approach to technology. Take sensors, for example. Typically, sensors are static, fixed to one location; therefore, they only serve the needs of the space they’re in. Which raises the question: how do they serve the needs of the individual? People experience temperature in different ways. Utility company Engie expects that smart wearable devices could gather data on body temperature, heart rate and even the perspiration levels from individuals within a building, thus creating a tailor-made user experience for each employee.

By taking a human-centric approach first and foremost, and considering elements such as energy usage second, businesses will naturally roll out a smart building strategy that benefits the employee experience. This in turn will improve health, wellbeing and productivity at work.

Oldman adds: “Intelligent buildings need intelligent teams and data intelligence to operate. We are going to see a complete upskilling and new breed of people and place teams for a new approach to work, and to make the most of the opportunity ahead. The question should be ‘how can we fully automate our buildings to respond to its users?’.”

Cultivating a digitally empowered workforce

Innovative new technologies are a vital part of the future of work, yet speed of adoption relies on user trust. Business leaders must approach implementation with user experience front and centre if they’re to encourage employees to return to the office and feel secure when working remotely.

The World Economic Forum forecasts that by 2025, machines will perform more current work tasks than humans. Understandably, a third of workers are anxious about the future and  job security due to AI and automation. Dubbed ‘automation anxiety’, this fear threatens to kill confidence and the willingness to innovate. Technology is redundant without employee buy-in, so building trust will be a defining feature of the future workplace.

There’s an urgent need to prepare employees for their digital futures as demand for skilled talent continues to grow. Businesses can pivot their workforce to create new forms of value, called ‘new skilling’, meaning continuous learning that’s keeping initiatives relevant to future business objectives.

Reportedly few organizations are reskilling systematically. However, routinely training employees to fill digital knowledge gaps is a method to boost morale and show employees that they’re valued, which in turn will build trust.

Organizations must take steps to safeguard their staff’s digital wellbeing while working remotely. It was well reported that employee monitoring increased during the pandemic. Trust and integrity between teams and managers remain crucially important, with performance measurement focused on contribution and outcomes.

Data security is also an enduring cause for concern; employees working from home need to trust that they will not reveal sensitive company information through accessing servers remotely – particularly younger recruits in urban environments – who share an internet connection without a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to work from home. Communication and education will help mitigate cybersecurity risks when working remotely, so now’s the time to review and update cybersecurity policies with standards that can help organizations of every size and type manage information integrity and increase resilience.

Lastly, the way people consume standards and compliance is evolving to become more accessible in the digital era. The introduction of BSI’s SMART standards heralds an increasingly digital approach to standardization, a shift away from static documentation to a dynamic format that can be easily transferred into a machine-readable format.

Welcoming Gen Z into the workplace

“I think that the fight for talent will be the core driver of the future of work,” says Butz. “We’re moving towards an era where employees will expect autonomy and freedom over their working lives. Employers need to offer that choice or risk losing out to their competitors.”

Savvy business owners will be looking ahead to the next generation of employees, considering how they might reshape the workplace, and how to attract and retain future talent.

By 2029, those born since the early 1980s will make up around 80 per cent of the workforce, compared with just over half currently. What will drive the typical ‘Generation Z’ employee and how does that differ to previous cohorts?

Gen Zers make little distinction between their online and real lives, often forming communities around shared interests, rather than shared backgrounds. Their expectations in the workplace are values-driven and aligned with their personal views, and for younger job seekers, diversity and inclusion in the workplace aren’t a preference – they’re a requirement.    

Standards that exist today centered around company culture and values, such as diversity and inclusion, are becoming vital components of organizations’ compliance and best practice strategies.

A study found that 88 per cent of Gen Zers agreed it was important for recruiters or potential employers to ask people about their preferred gender pronouns, with a quarter indicating they’d decline a job offer if this courtesy was not extended.

Most importantly, Gen Z are true digital natives - raised with the internet and social media at their fingertips. According to a research study from Dell Inc., four out of five Gen Z students aspire to work with cutting-edge technology. And when it comes to choosing employment, almost all of those surveyed (91%) said technology would influence job choice among similar employment offers.

This experience is not formed in the classroom, rather it’s a part of their digital lifestyles. The consequence of an “Xbox Generation”, workplace strategists predict that the workplace will be gamified – constantly connected, always ‘on’, with continuous transparent communication. Our current experience of remote working and the subsequent blurring between professional and personal boundaries is just the tip of the iceberg. The future workforce will expect to work from any location, be it office, home or local cafe.

Organizations should invest time now in researching and preparing for what’s to come. For example, facilitating cross-platform friendly technology that allows work to be a free-flowing activity spanning multiple devices.

Meeting sky-high digital expectations, and sustainability values, businesses can stand out in the pending war for talent.

Prepare for the future workforce, today

The office as we know it, is over – and largely, that’s considered to be a good thing. Organizations of all sizes and sectors can use this period as an opportunity for reevaluation and growth.

“To improve the employee experience, you must know the employee experience. Understand the spaces your employees work from, how supported they are in the tasks they do and how satisfied they are. Use this to create participatory environments with a truly user-centric approach – and make sure your strategy adapts with your organization,” advises Oldman.

With standards used as guidance, organizations must work hard to ensure that remote work does not accentuate inequalities at a social level, while also ensuring that productivity benefits are not to the detriment of people’s wellbeing. BSI’s new Flex approach will see the development of many more agile standards that support workplace innovation and resilience, and keep pace with fast-changing markets.

If businesses are to flourish and attract the next generation of talent, the adoption of technology must always be informed by the human experience. Future-ready standards will help in establishing systems and processes to cope with the unexpected and respond to the needs of future employees. 

Increasing a focus on consensus, best practice and formal standards is a means to achieving these goals, while supporting the transition to potentially a new way of working driven by a demand for rapid growth. Standardization is more than writing standards; it is creating common, repeatable approaches and leveraging knowledge to work more efficiently, driving benefits across key areas of relevance for industry, users and consumers. This thinking should become a culture, built into the procurement DNA of our workforce of the future.