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The future of work

To see the future of work we only need to look at what is already changing. The workplace and workforce of the future are already here, just in their nascent form

Employees are looking for more flexibility to cater to their personal life events and it makes sense for an employer to listen to those demands. Photograph: iStock

Employees are looking for more flexibility to cater to their personal life events and it makes sense for an employer to listen to those demands. Photograph: iStock

 

Data-driven

One of the key areas in which work is changing is in how organisations are analysing data.

“Data has traditionally been used to assess productivity retrospectively,” says Ger McDonough, partner, people and organisation, at PwC.

“You could look back and see what went well, and what didn’t. But predictive analytics, forecasting using data and AI, can give an organisation a critical edge in planning for the future.”

A PwC report from November 2018, which surveyed more than 1,200 businesses and HR leaders from 79 countries, showed a majority of organisations recognise the importance of data analytics in their future.

“People may think data and analytics is about moving into the territory of AI taking over human jobs,” says McDonough, “but really it is about using this data for better decision-making, to predict and mitigate potential risks for the organisation. With predictive analysis, you may be able to see that in a specific department there is a higher rate of attrition among employees in certain age ranges, because they leave to travel. The response might be to develop opportunities to relocate and work abroad within the organisation. Predictive analysis will be an essential tool to prepare for the future and keep the talent in your organisation rather than losing it.”

Another finding in PwC’s survey was the rise in demand for people to be in roles where they feel they have autonomy, and the necessity for organisations to support this. That means employers that encourage ‘intrapreneurship’, by providing time and space for idea generation, encourage risk-taking, and give recognition for attempts that don’t succeed.

“It is becoming increasingly important for organisations to encourage a sense of autonomy,” says McDonough, “and partly this is about facilitating flexibility for people, but the answer isn’t just remote working. There is a limit to that, because we are social animals and there is a fine line between autonomy and isolation. People also need support, structure, and connection and they will be drawn to organisations that recognise that.”

A new workplace

Many companies are already feeling these shifts in the workplace and actively trying to roll with them.

“Our way of working is changing, and especially so in the technology sector,” says David Kenny, vice-president software development Ireland at Overstock. The US-based online retailer opened its European headquarters in Sligo in 2013 with Kenny as the site lead.

“Employees are looking for more flexibility to cater to their personal life events and it makes sense for an employer to listen to those demands and if possible factor them into the routine of work for a more harmonious, happier, and ultimately more productive workspace,” he says.

In his role as site lead, Kenny has tried to offer an environment that facilitates the needs of employees.

“In modern open-plan offices, people need spaces that are away from their desks where they can find some focus time alone or join others in collaborative sessions, getting their creative juices flowing,” he says.

“A small change in styling and form can have a profound effect in the way people feel and think. We are seeing the transparency and open communication that open-plan office designs are aimed to encourage actually being hindered by the very same design. It’s obvious when all conversations can be heard by everyone that people will be less inclined to speak freely and worry, quite rightly, about distracting others. Also, for tasks that need long periods of concentration like software development, small distractions can have large productivity hits.”

Overstock bucked the trend of many major US firms settling in Ireland by choosing Sligo as a base. It is a move that allows the company to offer better flexibility and facilities to people working there, according to Kenny.

“Being in a cost-effective, non-congested, regional coastal location affords our employees ample room to find that real life-work balance. The inversion of order of these two words is deliberate – at times life has to come before work and we need harmony between the two.”

This shift in focus from the organisation’s needs to the employee’s needs is something that can be seen globally, reflected in surveys from both PwC and Deloitte.

“There is growing evidence to support the idea that wellbeing drives performance,” says Andrea Fouche, consulting manager at Deloitte. “As the line between work and life blurs, providing a robust suite of wellbeing programmes focused on physical, mental, financial, and spiritual health is becoming a corporate responsibility and a strategy to drive employee productivity, engagement, and retention.”

A new workforce

While organisations are seeing the benefit of providing more support and benefits to employees, that trend is rising in tandem with a growing ‘gig-economy’, which sees organisations outsourcing to freelance agents and providing shorter contracts.

“The standard employment model previously included regular working hours, as well as a fixed place of work, and within a set role, but all of that will change in the future with a move to much more fluid, project-based organisations, leveraging the gig economy,” says Fouche. “While currently the majority of people taking advantage of the gig economy are doing so out of personal preference, we could find ourselves in a situation in the future where this is no longer worker-driven, impacting on job security.”

The future of work may depend on bridging the gap and extending some of the person-centred benefits seen to boost and maintain productivity to a more contingent workforce. “While the move to a more fluid business model and workforce is difficult,” says Fouche, “ companies who do not do so will be left behind in the war for talent, skills and the ability to future-proof their organisation.”

While the shape of the workforce and workforce is changing, so too are the types of skills that employers value.

“The future of work is people, and so people must be empowered to do what they do best: thinking creatively; using emotional intelligence; making value judgements; communicating; sharing wisdom; teaching; collaborating cross-culturally,” says Fouche.

Maeve Houlihan, an associate dean and director at UCD Lochlann Quinn School of Business, works closely with the generation who will go on to enter and shape the workplace of the future. “Today’s new-generation workforces are savvy consumers that are sceptical, if not pessimistic, about what they’re being promised,” she says. “We need knowledgeable, informed, critical thinkers and complex problem-solvers.

“Consider that all the new technologies involve complex strategic and ethical decisions about what and how data is used, and choices about security, privacy and control,” says Houlihan.

“There is enormous need and opportunity for finely tuned ethical, managerial, and communication specialists who are prepared to learn about the issues, to join this work.”

If the future of work leans more heavily on AI-driven data and technology, to balance that it needs people who are supported and valued to fulfil the duties that technology can not.

“Robots may out-plan us, out-drive us, out-smart us” says Houlihan, “but it is the human capacity for caring, feeling, dreaming and relating that remains the most precious resource.”