At its best, it gives your life purpose. At its worst, it keeps you fed and alive. Work. It takes up a third of your life and its future is set to change drastically in our lifetime.
From the changing social contract to the death of the full-time job, the rise of the robot labor force, and our future post-employment economy, this series on the Future of Work will explore the trends shaping employment today and into the future.
To begin, this chapter will examine the physical workplaces many of us will one day work within, as well as the emerging social contract that corporations are starting to adopt worldwide.
A quick note about robots
When talking about your future office or workplace, or work in general, the topic of computers and robots stealing away human jobs invariably comes up. Technology replacing human labor has been a recurring headache for centuries—the only difference we’re experiencing now is the rate at which our jobs are disappearing. This will be a central and recurring theme throughout this series and we’ll devote an entire chapter to it near the end.
Data and tech-baked workplaces
For the purposes of this chapter, we’re going to focus on the sunset decades between 2015-2035, the decades before the robot takeover. During this period, where and how we work will see some pretty noticeable changes. We’ll break it down using short bullet lists under three categories.
Working outdoors. Whether you’re a contractor, a construction worker, a lumberjack, or a farmer, working outdoors can be some of the most grueling and rewarding work you can do. These jobs are last on the list to be replaced by robots. They also won’t change excessively over the next two decades. That said, these jobs will become physically easier, safer, and will begin to involve the use of ever-larger machines.
- Construction. The biggest change inside this industry, aside from stricter, environmentally-friendly building codes, will be the introduction of giant 3D printers. Now in development in both the US and China, these printers will build houses and buildings one layer at a time, at a fraction of the time and costs now standard with traditional construction.
- Farming. The age of the family farm is dying, soon to be replaced by farmer collectives and massive, corporate-owned farm networks. Future farmers will manage smart or (and) vertical farms operated by autonomous farming vehicles and drones. (Read more in our Future of Food series.)
- Forestry. New satellite networks will come online by 2025 making real-time monitoring of forests possible, and allowing for earlier detection of forest fires, infestations, and illegal logging.
Factory work. Of all the job types out there, factory work is the most primed for automation, with some exceptions.
- Factory line. Around the world, factory lines for consumer goods are seeing their human workers replaced with large machines. Soon, smaller machines, robots like Baxter, will join the factory floor to help with the less structured work duties, like packaging products and loading items into trucks. From there, driverless trucks will deliver the goods to their final destinations.
- Automated managers. The humans that do keep their factory jobs, likely generalists whose skills are too costly to mechanize (for a time), will see their daily work monitored and managed by algorithms designed to assign human labor to tasks in the most efficient way possible.
- Exoskeletons. In shrinking labor markets (like Japan), aging workers will be kept active longer through the use of Iron Man-like suits that provide its wearers with superior strength and endurance.
- Constant authentication. Future smartphones and wearables will verify your identity constantly and passively (i.e. without you needing to enter a login password). Once this authentication is synced with your office, locked doors will open for you instantly, and no matter what workstation or computing device you access in the office building, it will instantly load your personal workstation home screen. Downside: Management may use these wearables to track your in-office activity and performance.
- Health conscious furniture. Already gaining traction in younger offices, ergonomic office furniture and software are being introduced to keep workers active and healthy—these include standing desks, yoga balls, smart office chairs, and computer screen locking apps that force you to take walking breaks.
- Corporate virtual assistants (VAs). Discussed in our Future of the Internet series, corporate provided VAs (think super-powered Siris or Google Nows) will help office workers by managing their schedules and assisting them with basic tasks and correspondence, so they can work more productively.
- Telecommuting. In order to attract top talent within the Millennial and Gen Z ranks, flexible schedules and telecommuting will become more widely available among employers—especially as new technologies (example one and two) permit the safe sharing of data between the office and home. Such technologies also open up the employer’s recruitment options to international employees.
- Transforming offices. As a design perk in advertising and startup offices, we’ll see the introduction of walls that change color or present images/videos via smart paint, hi-def projections, or giant display screens. But by the late 2030s, tactile holograms will be introduced as an office design feature with serious cost saving and business applications, as explained in our Future of Computers series.
For example, imagine you work in an advertising agency and your schedule for the day is broken down into a team brainstorming session, boardroom meeting, and a client demo. Normally, these activities would require separate rooms, but with tactile holographic projections and Minority Report-like open-air gesture interface, you’ll be able to transform a single workspace on a whim based on the current purpose of your work.
Explained another way: your team starts the day in a room with digital whiteboards holographically projected on all four walls that you can scribble on with your fingers; then you voice command the room to save your brainstorming session and transform the wall decor and ornamental furniture into a formal boardroom layout; then you voice command the room to transform again into a multimedia presentation showroom to present your latest advertising plans to your visiting clients. The only real objects in the room will be weight-bearing objects like chairs and a table.
Evolving views towards work-life balance
The conflict between work and life is a relatively modern invention. It’s also a conflict that’s disproportionately debated by upper-middle-class, white-collar workers. That's because if you're a single mother working two jobs to provide for her three children, the concept of work-life balance is a luxury. Meanwhile, for the well employed, work-life balance is more an option between pursuing your career goals and leading a meaningful life.
Studies have shown working more than 40 to 50 hours a week produces marginal benefits in terms of productivity and can lead to negative health and business outcomes. And yet, the trend for people to opt into longer hours is likely to grow for the next two decades for a number of reasons.
Money. For those who need the money, working more hours to generate extra cash is a no brainer. This is true today and will be in the future.
Job security. The average worker bee employed in a job that a machine can easily replace, in a region suffering from high unemployment, or in a company that’s struggling financially doesn’t have much leverage to decline management’s demands to work longer hours. This situation is already true in much of the developing world’s factories, and will only grow with time due to the growing use of robots and computers.
Self-worth. Largely a concern of the upwardly mobile—and partially a response to the lost lifetime employment social contract between corporations and employees—workers view the accumulation of employment experience and employable skills as both an investment in their future earning potential, as well as a reflection of their self-worth.
By working longer hours, being more visible in the workplace, and producing a substantial body of work, workers can differentiate or brand themselves to their coworkers, employer, and industry as an individual worth investing in. As the quantity of jobs shrinks over the coming years along with the possible scrapping of the retirement age during the 2020s, the need to stand out and prove your self worth will only intensify, further incentivizing the need to work longer hours.
Cutthroat management styles
Related to this continued decline in work-life balance is the rise of new management philosophies that discredit working hard on one hand while promoting the end of the social contract and ownership over one’s career on the other.
Zappos. A recent example of this shift came from Zappos, a popular online shoe store known for its wacky office culture. A recent 2015 shakeup turned its management structure on its head (and led to 14 percent of its workforce quitting).
Referred to as “Holacracy,” this new management style promotes stripping everyone of titles, removing all management, and encouraging employees to operate within self-managed, task-specific teams (or circles). Within these circles, team members collaborate to assign each other clear roles and goals (think of it as distributed authority). Meetings are held only when needed to refocus the group’s objectives and decide on the next steps autonomously.
While this management style isn’t appropriate for all industries, its emphasis on autonomy, performance, and minimized management is very much in vogue with future office trends.
Netflix. A more universal and high profile example is a performance-over-effort, meritocratic management style born within the nouveau riche, streaming media behemoth, Netflix. Currently sweeping Silicon Valley, this management philosophy emphasizes the idea that: “We’re a team, not a family. We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop, and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”
Under this management style, the number of hours worked and the number of vacation days taken is meaningless; what matters is the quality of the work performed. Results, not effort, is what's rewarded. Poor performers (even ones who put in the time and effort) are quickly dismissed to make way for top performing recruits who can do the job more effectively.
Finally, this management style doesn’t expect its employees to stay with the company for life. Instead, it only expects them to stay as long as they feel value from their work, and as long as the company needs their services. In this context, loyalty becomes a transactional relationship.
Over time, the management principles described above will eventually seep into most industries and work settings, with the exception of the military and emergency services. And while these management styles may seem aggressively individualistic and decentralized, they reflect the changing demographics of the workplace.
Being involved in the decision-making process, having more control over one’s career, shirking the need for employer loyalty, treating employment as an opportunity for self-growth and advancement—these are all very much in line with Millennial values, far more so than the Boomer generation. It’s these same values that will ultimately be the death knell of the original corporate social contract.
Sadly, these values may also lead to the death of the full-time job.
Read more in chapter two of this series below.