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Working in a constantly changing world

What will the workplace of the future look like? Global trends are providing clues

“It will be those who can think ahead and who can figure out what their customers will do next” that will thrive. Photograph: iStock

“It will be those who can think ahead and who can figure out what their customers will do next” that will thrive. Photograph: iStock

 

Ask most school-leavers what they want to do when they leave school and they’ll name a particular job or profession. Increasingly, however, workplace guru Charles Handy’s predictions of three decades ago are finally coming to pass. For a growing number of school-leavers, a portfolio career awaits.

As automation takes over routine work, what will be required of humans will be those – so far – intrinsically human characteristics such as creativity, empathy and collaboration, says Valarie Daunt, human capital leader and partner at Deloitte.

What a colleague of hers refers to as the “creators, composers and coaches” will be those most in demand. “It will be those who can think ahead and who can figure out what their customers will do next” that will thrive.

Social policy is not tracking technological change quickly enough, however, she cautions. In particular how we educate our children, to cultivate their innate creativity, will be increasingly important for tomorrow’s workforce.

Coaching will extend this into the workplace, and encompass not just training but overall well-being too. Already in Ireland, forward-thinking employers are investing in holistic wellness programmes that help employees achieve, among other things, a better work-life balance.

Supporting staff in this way has a commercial imperative if workers are to maintain optimum productivity in a world of work characterised by continuous change. “No amazing sports person would be without a coach, why would work be different?” Daunt asks.

Increasingly, employers will seek out those with a wider range of life experiences to draw from. Skills can be learned, what employers will want are people who are quick studies, as well as resilient and resourceful.

The old model where education and training is front-loaded is changing. To succeed into the future “people will have to put effort into continuing their learning, and employers will have to facilitate that”, says Daunt.

Large employers are leading the way in this, according to Paul Healy of Skillnet Ireland, the national agency responsible for the promotion of workforce learning in Ireland.

Small employers are not keeping up, however, a dangerous divergence in a country like Ireland in which micro businesses – of fewer than 10 employees – dominate.

Skillnet Ireland offers a cost-effective solution whereby employers pool together to select bespoke training programmes at a subsidised rate.

Flexibility

Flexibility is increasingly a feature of the workplace, even in traditionally conservative sectors. “In the legal profession, we are experiencing a sea-change in the working environment,” says Dennis Agnew, partner with Pinsent Masons, a legal firm.

“How employees want to work is changing and how clients want that work to be delivered is changing. We have embraced workplace flexibility by moving to an agile workplace and in Pinsent Masons, rather than fearing how technology is changing our profession, we have embraced it and looked to take the lead on it.”

It is actively fostering diversity too. “In a profession where the competition for talent has never been greater, it makes no sense whatsoever to exclude a whole swathe of really good people due to long-outdated attitudes and bias. We are very proud that we have been repeatedly recognised as a leading LGBT+ employer and it’s something that we very much focus on,” he says.

Changes have, of course, been a feature of work since before the invention of the wheel. “It’s not a case of ‘the robots are coming, the end of the jobs world is nigh’, because changes tend to come incrementally,” says Daryl Hanberry, partner in Deloitte’s tax department and leader of its Global Employer Services team.

Even the radical new departures provided by augmented and virtual reality impact the workplace in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary way. “Things tend to start by seeping into your personal life before they do your work life, like the move from Blackberries to iPhones,” he says.

Workforce changes aren’t all or nothing either. “In 1950s USA, there were 400,000 locomotion engineers, and 100,000 aircraft engineers,” says Hanberry. “They crossed, becoming evenly split in 1980, and have now done a direct swap.” The robots are coming, it seems, but slowly.