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The future-of-work trends poised to upend your workplace

AI and myriad connected things are key future-of-work trends that will disrupt virtually every aspect of today’s work environments. 

As you sit at your desk at work, you might feel the ground shifting underneath your feet.

That’s because, in just a few years, how we get our jobs done will look quite different. This transition may last through 2025 and beyond, but many changes in our work lives will start to gather momentum in 2019.

“The pace in digital workplace innovation — and disruption — is only gathering energy,” said Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group, in an article on digital workplace trends.

While trends like cloud-based systems and digitization are important, the greatest change will stem from underlying artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics in systems. These intelligent systems will pervade virtually every aspect of the workplace.

But change begets change. Workers will need new skills and to engage in continuous learning to keep pace.

“To succeed in today’s fast-changing labor market, workers are expected to be agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous adaptation,” wrote Edoardo Campanella, a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Kennedy School for a World Economic Forum article on the new requirements for workers in today’s job market.

Let’s look at some of the workplace trends that are shaping up to redefine work in 2019 and beyond.

Future-of-work trends signal change

Most experts agree that technologies will change the workplace dramatically over the next decade.

By 2025, virtual assistants, working with AI, may schedule our meetings; intelligent applications will provide recommendations about how to phrase an email or create a visual presentation; and document-editing programs will enable real-time co-creation of ideas from anywhere. Even our office buildings will be governed by intelligent heating, cooling and other systems that optimize the work environment.

Further, data analytics will underlie work processes to provide insight and help workers of all stripes improve processes. Analytics will identify top sales reps and correlate their performance with certain behaviors. Data will also provide human resource departments with information about employees’ engagement or likelihood to exit a job.

According to KPMG research, various digital technologies will reshape the landscape of knowledge workers, with technology performing the work equivalent of approximately 120 million employees by 2025.

So now, let’s take a look at some of the most influential trends.

Intelligence will pervade the work environment. Workspaces themselves will become intelligent systems: Smart buildings will become connected via beacons, actuators and Internet of Things-connected sensors, enabling enterprises to control electricity, heating and cooling, to optimize conference room space and parking, and to ensure worker safety.

“Business leaders are increasingly interested in creating a strategy for managing their buildings that reflects the digital transformation taking place throughout their business,” wrote Paul Wellener and his co-authors in a Deloitte report on smart buildings in December 2018.

In 2019, smart buildings may house an application portfolio, fueled by connected devices, that enables capabilities such as wayfinding, parking identification, office hoteling and smart badging.

Virtual assistants (VIs). While VIs—applications that understand voice commands rather than requiring typed text instruction—such as Alexa are far more pervasive in homes than offices, they are laying the groundwork for such tools in the workplace.

According to Nielsen survey data in 2018, 24% of U.S. households have a smart speaker, such as Alexa. Experts predict that consumers’ adoption of smart speaker technologies will have major influence on the workplace.

This will become more true as adoption of VI increases and extends further into enterprises. In 2019, enterprises’ adoption of voice technology to interact with customers is set to reach 85%, according to a survey of IT decision-makers by Pindrop.

Consider the impact of these kinds of tools on a salesperson’s productivity. With virtual assistants, a salesperson could ask an application to search LinkedIn for prospects that might make sense to contact. A virtual assistant could also intelligently schedule meetings in a salesperson’s calendar with some of those prospects, after a salesperson vets them for relevance.

In this way, intelligent systems are predicted to work together with human beings to create more optimal results.

Figure 1: Growing and declining occupations, globally. Source: LinkedIn data

AI’s displacement of human work. There is widespread anxiety about the impact of AI on the workforce, as some gloomy reports have prognosticated. Some estimates have suggested that 40% of jobs could be eliminated (see Figure 1 for impact of AI on job growth and decline).

But many experts anticipate that increasing automation will eliminate tasks -- but not necessarily jobs. A report by McKinsey predicts that automation will indeed displace certain tasks: “30% of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030,” the report indicated. “It is important to note, however, that even when some tasks are automated, employment in those occupations may not decline but rather workers may perform new tasks,” the report said.

Employment marketplaces. With cloud-based systems and more flexible work patterns, new employment marketplaces are emerging. With marketplaces, employers can commission services for a variety of tasks online. This shift signals more of a project-oriented approach to work. Companies are moving to platforms with on-demand models where people work on different projects and in different ways, rather than hiring for specific, fixed positions.

While some experts sees talent marketplaces as a boon for engaged employees, talent marketplaces can also make workers more vulnerable, by driving down living wages or favoring contract work over more traditional models of employment.

Mesh organizations displace hierarchical organizational structure. As traditional labor pools and employer-employee contracts break down, so do traditional organizational hierarchies. As data becomes more cloud-based and companies move toward democratizing data analytics, hierarchical structures simply don’t fit. Expect organizational structures to house more “meshlike,” or fluid, chains of command.

Future-of-work trends signal that change will become constant

Ultimately, experts vehemently maintain that companies should embrace these disruptive workplace trends to thrive in an increasingly cutthroat business landscape.

“The changes heralded by the use of new technologies hold the potential to expand labour productivity across industries, and to shift the axis of competition between companies from a focus on automation-based labour cost reduction to an ability to leverage technologies as tools to complement and enhance human labour,” The Future of Jobs 2018 report on the future of work indicated.

The net long-term job impact of automation would likely be neutral or even slightly positive, wrote the authors of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report “Will robots really steal our jobs?”

And while expert consensus suggests that AI, automation and digitization will enhance human work and create new jobs, this is not an eventuality without enterprise investment in workers and reskilling.

Ultimately, support for displaced or new workers will become key to how well economies make the transition. The future-of-work equation not only requires workers to continuously learn new skills but also calls on the private sector and government to provide the foundation for this continuous career learning. [For more on how Cisco helps close the IT skills gap, learn about Cisco Networking Academy.]

The PwC report indicated, “[will] require both business and governments to provide support to workers affected by these technological advances to retrain and start new careers.”

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Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”