Through a Mirror Darkly: Five Predictions About the Near-Future Workplace

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. “ — Niels Bohr, Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner.

Knowledge workers have experienced enormous change in the past 50 years. We’ve transitioned from typewriters, landlines, and snail mail to computers, cell phones, and email. These advances have profoundly changed both our personal and professional lives, skyrocketing productivity and capacity.

Right up until the mid-1970s, few prognosticators anticipated the computer revolution; even science fiction writers who had people colonizing space by the 1990s had them using slide rules. (If you need to look up “slide rule,” you must be a child of the Electronic Era.) Not until the mid-1980s did everyone realize home computers were the Next Big Thing, and only after Y2K did futurists stop insisting the Internet was just a fad, as in this 1995 Newsweek article that got almost everything wrong.

So, clearly, predicting the future more than a few years out is tricky. That said, short of unexpected breakthroughs, it’s easier to predict what’s likely to happen in workplaces within the next few years. Let’s look at a few predictions.

  1. Increased automation of everyday tasks. This has already started, though mostly in subtle ways. Either free-ranging robotic assistants are much harder to implement than expected, or the Terminator possibility has scientists dragging their feet! Experts expect the advances to come in the form of Artificial Intelligences (AI) that integrate data many companies already collect but don’t use well. Companies can also use these digital platforms to handle tasks like scheduling, benefits, and time-off requests automatically, flagging tougher decision for human review. Clearer data flow may also result in better decision-making by human managers.

  2. The expansion of the gig economy as many workers elect to become independent entrepreneurs (and possibly as automation eliminates some jobs). Musicians have worked gigs for centuries, but now other creatives like writers, artists, and coders can do it too — and many have in fact done so, for about 20 years now. The options and platforms, however, will continue to grow, with more organizations preferring to hire freelancers for specific tasks rather than keeping specialists on hand.

  3. Further decentralization of businesses. I’ve written about this trend in the past, comparing the existing workplace model to a hive of honeybees, and the decentralized model to mason bees, top pollinators who work alone. This trend may result in people working from anywhere they want and can afford, furthering the evolution of what some observers have called digital nomads, i.e., workers who travel when and as they please. At the very least, we’re all likely to have the opportunity to work as we like, keeping our jobs as long as we can produce.

  4. More virtual workers, despite the relatively recent backlash of executives who felt workers were taking advantage of telecommuting. The former CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, started this trend when she put an end to it upon taking the reins in 2012… even as she had a nursery built onto her office for her own child. Rank hath its privileges, but her actions showed not only an indifference to her employees’ concerns, but also a lack of trust. This can result in disengagement and tempt talent to go elsewhere. Virtual work is going to increase in importance in the future, especially for smaller businesses, since they now have a global reach that allows them to find and retain good workers. If the tight labor market in the U.S. continues, this may also force companies that have abandoned telecommuting and virtual work to allow it again.

  5. Email’s end? This would be nice, but I’m not sure it’ll ever happen. However, some observers suggest, optimistically, that automation, AI platforms, and other digital platforms will increase efficiency, preclude timewasting meetings, and cut way back on office email… if not replace it altogether. We’ll see.

A Peaceful, Easy Feeling

The predictions outlined above stem mostly from the increased simplicity of data access and transfer, which continues to revolutionize all aspects of business. Combined with younger workers’ disdain for the way some businesses have treated their elders, this has triggered a social revolution as well. Such workers may be great at what they do, but they often focus on their own improvement rather than their company’s. For better or worse, with near-ubiquitous access to the “technosphere,” they can have their employment cake, and eat it too.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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