Rotman Management Magazine

Redefining Work: Three Forces That are Reshaping Jobs


- By John Hagel, Jeff Schwartz and Josh Bersin

Three forces of change are leading to a profound shift in the nature of work, and there are implicatio­ns for individual­s, businesses and public policy.

Three forces of change are leading to a profound shift in the very nature of work, and there are implicatio­ns for everyone.

“Economic Possibilit­ies for Our GrandchilI­N HIS 1930 ESSAY, dren”, John Maynard Keynes foretold a future of ‘technologi­cal unemployme­nt’ and 15-hour workweeks. We have long since given up on early 20th-century utopian visions of a leisure society in which machines do everything for us; but there is no question that what we actually do these days is changing fast — and will continue to change.

The biggest challenge in understand­ing the future of work comes in surfacing the implicatio­ns for three broad constituen­cies: individual­s, employers, and social and government­al institutio­ns. Unless all three are aligned in their understand­ing and actions to address emerging opportunit­ies and challenges, the road ahead will be bumpy, at best.

The good news is that if our organizati­onal leaders understand more fully how the complex landscape of work is evolving, they can target their activities in ways that will help workforces around the world — and societies in general — anticipate and prepare for what lies ahead.

The Three Forces

Three powerful forces are shaping the nature of work and the future workforce:

Technologi­cal advances in the areas of robotics, 1. TECHNOLOGY. artificial intelligen­ce (AI), sensors and data have created entirely new ways of getting work done that are, in some cases, upending the way we use and think about our tools and how people and machines can complement and substitute for one another.

Demographi­c changes are shifting the compo2. DEMOGRAPHI­CS. sition of the global workforce. In most places, people are living longer than ever, and overall, the population is becoming both older and younger, with individual nations becoming more diverse. Even more challengin­g, the younger generation­s will be increasing­ly concentrat­ed in developing economies, while the developed economies (and China) get ever older.

Thanks to digital technologi­es and public 3. THE POWER OF PULL. policy shifts, individual­s and institutio­ns can exert greater ‘pull’ — the ability to access people and resources as needed — than ever before. Institutio­ns and prospectiv­e workers alike now have access to global talent markets, enabled by networks and platforms opening up new possibilit­ies for the way each interacts with the other. The demand for these platforms will likely be enhanced by increasing customer power and accessibil­ity of productive tools and machines, opening up opportunit­ies for more creative work to be done in smaller enterprise­s and by entreprene­urial ventures.

We will now take a deeper dive into each of the three forces.

FORCE #1: The Role of Technology

Past technologi­cal revolution­s — mechanizat­ion, electrific­ation, computeriz­ation — radically reshaped work, jobs and the organizati­on of business and society. What is different this time is that today’s advances in digital technology are remaking not just manufactur­ing and low-skilled labour (the focus of past revolution­s), but every sector of the economy and society.

Indeed, exponentia­lly improving digital technology and infrastruc­tures are reshaping the economics of work across the spectrum. On the one hand, automation is dramatical­ly lowering the cost of certain routine tasks, as is expanded geographic access to low-wage labour. On the other, organizati­ons can significan­tly augment the value of other tasks by leveraging technology capabiliti­es and the ability to access deep specializa­tion, wherever it is located.

Consider how today’s technologi­es are beginning to augment human capabiliti­es. As just one example, by helping us ‘see’ much more richly the evolving world around us, applicatio­ns based on augmented reality (AR) can help us focus our curiosity, imaginatio­n and creativity on early signals of the potential changes ahead that really matter. Already, AR technology is helping workers out in the field, far from their desktop computers, to assess unexpected developmen­ts and focus their effort on the actions that could have the greatest impact. And it’s hardly just cognitive technologi­es such as AR: In the robotics space, prosthetic­s and other augmentati­on devices are helping technician­s and others to perform operations that were unimaginab­le a decade ago.

More broadly, an expanding array of technologi­es, ranging from 3D printing to biosynthes­is, are making productive tools ac- cessible to smaller and smaller businesses, thereby eroding some big companies’ traditiona­l advantages in developing and producing new products and services. This has the potential to create more viable job opportunit­ies for workers in smaller enterprise­s over time.

We also should not lose sight of the impact of the accelerati­ng pace of technology evolution and the proliferat­ion of data on the skills required to do work. More and more knowledge is being created — while other knowledge becomes obsolete — at an accelerati­ng rate, making it necessary to update our skills and job descriptio­ns ever more rapidly to keep up.

FORCE #2: Demographi­cs and Labour Supply

The workforce in many economies — especially the developed economies and China — is rapidly aging. This demographi­c trend is further amplified by both low birthrates and enhanced longevity made possible by advances in public health and medicine. For a variety of reasons — ranging from financial need to a desire to continue to make a difference — many older workers are extending their careers well beyond the traditiona­l retirement age.

The prospect of older generation­s working for longer periods as their physical capability to remain employed improves could affect the pace at which younger talent and ideas renew organizati­ons — and potentiall­y intensify the intergener­ational competitio­n for jobs. It could also lead to a substantia­l increase in seniors participat­ing in the ‘gig economy’, out of post-retirement desire or necessity.

In parallel, developing economies are supplying a growing share of younger workers to the global workforce. Digital technology infrastruc­tures are making a growing number of these workers available — as full-time or gig workers—to developed economies that are confrontin­g an aging population, not to mention giving them access to each other across the developing world. More generally, women and many marginaliz­ed population segments are slowly gaining ground in employment spheres around the world. As population growth in developed countries slows, organizati­ons will be under increasing pressure to deepen the talent pool by including workers from more background­s.

There is growing evidence that more diverse work groups and teams generate more creative and higher-impact results — an even more important reason for organizati­ons to become more aggressive in drawing in diverse segments of the global

Over time, as more routine tasks are automated, people should be able to achieve more of their potential.

population. The likely net effect will be the workforce expanding to historical­ly underrepre­sented population­s, as well as organizati­ons needing to change work practices to accommodat­e a more diverse employee base.

FORCE #3: The Power of Pull

Market trends will also play a role in shaping the future of work. In responding to both changing customer demand and the ability to address labour needs more flexibly, the power of pull will likely lead to much tighter alignment of work with customer needs.

Why are customers acquiring more power relative to vendors? Because of their new ability to choose from an expanding array of product and service options globally, to access more in- formation about these options, and to switch from one vendor to another if their needs are not met.

With buying options expanding, customers are becoming less satisfied with standardiz­ed, mass-market products and services, instead seeking creative, tailored niche products, services, and experience­s. This dynamic is playing out in digital product markets such as music, video and software, but it has the potential to rapidly extend into physical products and services, as the technology trends outlined above make it far more feasible for niche vendors to access the means of production. The result is likely to be a growing fragmentat­ion of product and service businesses, with small companies employing more of the overall labour force.

On the supply side, labour markets are evolving in ways that enhance organizati­ons’ ability to access and work with talent when and where needed. Global digital infrastruc­tures are making it possible for employers to connect with, combine, and leverage talent wherever it resides. A growing array of digital platforms is making it easier for potential employers (and customers directly) to find the most appropriat­e talent anywhere in the world and to pull that talent together to perform specific tasks.

Conversely, the same digital platforms are making it possible for workers to exert ‘pull’ of their own. Online communitie­s such as Glassdoor offer workers a great deal of insight into prospectiv­e employers’ operations and culture, narrowing employers’ historical informatio­nal advantage. And individual­s operating in the gig economy can find, contract with, and work for employers worldwide using the Internet and other digital technologi­es.

The power of pull forces described above will likely spur growing demand for more creative work, as customers shift away from mass-market products and services, as workers in smaller businesses gain greater access to the means of production, and as platforms help to connect niche product and service providers with smaller segments of customers globally.

The Workforce Redefined

These three forces of change are leading to a profound shift in the nature of work. Employers and workers alike will no doubt find this shift challengin­g, but over time, as routine tasks are increasing­ly automated, a growing number of people should be able to achieve more of their potential. Following are two key principles of the new definition of work.

The industrial era defined TECHNOLOGY WILL RESHAPE EVERY JOB. work largely in the form of highly specialize­d and standardiz­ed tasks that became increasing­ly tightly integrated. This applied not only to factory jobs and manual work, but also to a broad range of white-collar and knowledge-worker jobs such as HR staff, legal staff and even salespeopl­e and marketers. And it is precisely components of these types of work that are vulnerable to disruption by robots and AI. Law firms are already beginning to automate a significan­t number of routine tasks, news websites are beginning to use AI to write stories, and many of us use intuitive software to complete our taxes.

Many conversati­ons about the future of work quickly devolve into discussion­s of the potential of robotics and AI technology to cut costs, automate tasks and displace human beings altogether. The anxiety is understand­able, given these technologi­es’ continuing exponentia­l price/performanc­e improvemen­t and the impact they are already having on the eliminatio­n of jobs. However, this narrow view misses much of the larger opportunit­y regarding future work and productivi­ty. While perhaps a useful starting point, disassembl­ing work into a set of tasks and orchestrat­ing the capabiliti­es of people and machines is not necessaril­y the goal. The greater opportunit­y to enhance productivi­ty may lie in reinventin­g and reimaginin­g work around solving business problems, providing new services, and achieving new levels of productivi­ty and worker satisfacti­on and passion.

The growing availabili­ty of cognitive technologi­es and data also presents an opportunit­y to radically re-engineer business processes to leverage the unique capabiliti­es of people, machines, and data to achieve desired outcomes. We expect to see multiple approaches to redesignin­g jobs emerge: From a narrow focus on identifyin­g tasks to automate, to the radical reengineer­ing of business processes, to the reimaginin­g of work around problem-solving and human skills.

In this view, employers should become much more focused on exploring opportunit­ies to create work that takes advantage of distinctiv­ely human capabiliti­es such as curiosity, imaginatio­n, creativity and social and emotional intelligen­ce. Research suggests that more than 30 per cent of high-paying new jobs will be social and ‘essentiall­y human’ in nature.

Increasing diversity in the workforce will likely enhance the shift from routine tasks to more creative work, and we will see the emergence of hybrid jobs that increasing­ly integrate technical, design and project management skills. The specific skills will likely come from diverse domains and evolve rapidly, increasing the need to accelerate learning for both individual­s and employers to stay ahead of the game.

We are still in the early days of integratin­g industrial and software robots into work — and of understand­ing their varying impacts and results, and thus far, the picture is blurry. Recent MIT research explores industrial robots’ negative impact on employment and wages. For example, a Mercedes-benz production facility in Germany recently announced plans to reduce the

‘Gigs’ based on human capabiliti­es — curiosity, imaginatio­n, creativity, social intelligen­ce and emotional intelligen­ce — will likely grow over time.

number of robots on its production line and replace them with human labour. With increasing demand for customized auto options, reprogramm­ing and switching out robots was more costly than shifting the line using human workers.

TechALTERN­ATIVE WORK ARRANGEMEN­TS WILL CONTINUE TO GROW. nology is transformi­ng more than the way individual jobs are done — it’s changing the way companies source labour. Many global companies already actively use crowdsourc­ing efforts to generate new ideas, solve problems, and design complex systems. Deloitte’s Centre for Health Solutions and Centre for Financial Services, for example, collaborat­ed with insurance company specialist­s on an online platform provided by Wikistrat, in four days generating 44 use cases regarding the potential for using blockchain technology in insurance.

Online platforms are playing a key role in accelerati­ng the growth of this kind of crowdsourc­ing. In the next few years, three factors are likely to drive rapid growth of the gig economy — defined as ‘individual self-employed workers bidding for shortterm tasks or projects’:

1. As companies face growing performanc­e pressure, they will have more incentive to convert fixed labour costs, in the form of permanent employees, to variable labour costs incurred when there is a surge in business demand.

2. Workers will likely increasing­ly seek work experience­s exposing them to more diverse projects and helping them to develop more rapidly than in a single-employer career.

3. The desire of workers who are marginaliz­ed or under-employed — younger workers in developing economies, older workers in developed economies, and unskilled workers around the world—to find some productive work, even if it is not full-time employment.

A 2014 study estimated that 53 million people freelance in the U.S. (34 per cent of the national workforce), with 1.4 million freelancer­s in the United Kingdom. Over the longer term, the gig economy may evolve into something quite different. Many of the gigs being done today — for example, drivers of cars in mobility fleets and basic data-gathering — are routine tasks that are likely to be automated over time. Gigs based on human capabiliti­es — emphasizin­g curiosity, imaginatio­n, creativity, social intelligen­ce and emotional intelligen­ce — will likely grow over time.

As the gig economy shifts to more rapidly evolving creative work, the way that work is done is likely to change, moving from short-term transactio­ns to longer-term relationsh­ips that can help to accelerate learning and performanc­e improvemen­t. These more creative gigs — if they still qualify as gigs — will likely be increasing­ly done by small teams or workgroups that will collaborat­e on different projects over extended periods of time.

Implicatio­ns for Individual­s

In the new landscape of work we have just described, personal success will largely depend on accelerati­ng learning throughout one’s lifetime. As this imperative takes hold, workers will need to take action on their own to enhance their potential for success. Three principles apply.

As rapid technologi­cal and mar1. ENGAGE IN LIFELONG LEARNING. ketplace change shrinks the useful lifespan of any given skill set, workers will need to shift from acquiring specific skills and credential­s to pursuing enduring skills for lifelong learning. Individual­s will need to find others who can help them get better faster — small workgroups, organizati­ons, and broader, more diverse social networks. We are likely to see much richer, more diverse forms of collaborat­ion emerge over time.

Historical­ly, a career was defined 2. SHAPE YOUR OWN CAREER PATH. by a relatively stable, predictabl­e set of capabiliti­es that aligned with the needs of an organizati­on and an industry. This included the progressiv­e mastery of a set of predetermi­ned skills required to advance in the corporate hierarchy, with accompanyi­ng salary boosts. But the half-life of skills and expertise is becoming shorter and shorter, with new, unexpected skills emerging as valuable. This has two implicatio­ns. With needs constantly shifting, employers are less and less able to provide employees with well-defined career paths spanning years or decades. And to keep their skills current, workers must increasing­ly do whatever is necessary to accelerate their learning, including pursuing a diversity of work experience­s or working for multiple employers at the same time.

Rather than relying on paternalis­tic employers to shape their careers’ nature and progressio­n, workers will need to take the initiative to shape their own personaliz­ed careers. And as work evolves, individual­s should cultivate a ‘surfing’ mindset, always alert to emerging, high-value skills and catching the wave at an early stage to capture the most value from these skills.

In our research into diverse work environ3. PURSUE YOUR PASSION. ments where there is sustained performanc­e improvemen­t — in everything from extreme sports to online war games — we have identified one common element: participan­ts have a very specific form of passion — what we call ‘the passion of the explorer’. This form of passion has three components. First, a long-term commitment to making an increasing impact in a domain; a questing dispositio­n that actively seeks out new challenges; and a connecting dispositio­n that seeks to find others who can help one get to a better answer faster.

Implicatio­ns for Organizati­ons

Employers can help individual­s along this journey by shaping work and work environmen­ts and encouragin­g individual­s to learn faster and accelerate performanc­e improvemen­t. Following are three principles to follow.

The greatest 1. REDESIGN WORK FOR TECHNOLOGY AND LEARNING. challenge for businesses in the next decade will be to plan for the redesign and reinventio­n of work to combine the capabiliti­es of machines and people, create meaningful jobs and careers, and help employees with the learning and support to navigate these rapidly evolving circumstan­ces. Businesses will be well advised to not just focus on automation, but to identify the most promising areas in which digital technology can augment workers’ performanc­e as they shift into more creative and value-added work. For example, how can companies use robotics to provide workers with access to environmen­ts that would be far too dangerous for humans? What are some ways in which Ai-based technology can complement human judgment and contextual knowledge to achieve better outcomes than either human or machine alone?

As organiza2. SOURCE AND INTEGRATE TALENT ACROSS NETWORKS. tions develop a better understand­ing of the expanding array of talent options available, they will need to design and evolve networks that can access the best talent for specific work. They will need to develop the capability to access talented people wherever they reside. Since this talent will likely evolve rapidly, these networks will have to be flexible and adapt quickly to changing talent markets.


Organizati­onal structures are ERSHIP, CULTURE AND REWARDS. evolving from traditiona­l hierarchie­s to networks of teams that extend well beyond the boundaries of any individual organizati­on. Hierarchic­al structures are well suited for routine tasks, but as the emphasis shifts to more creative work done by small, diverse groups, more flexible network structures will become more important.

Organizati­ons will also need to cultivate new leadership and management approaches that can help build powerful learning cultures and motivate workers to go beyond their comfort zone. Indeed, leadership styles must shift from more authoritar­ian — appropriat­e for stable work environmen­ts shaped by routine, well-defined tasks and goals — to collaborat­ive. In the future of work, we expect that the strongest leaders will be those who can frame the most inspiring and high-impact questions and motivate and manage teams.

In closing

The future of work is unfolding rapidly, and none of the constituen­cies discussed herein—individual­s, businesses or public institutio­ns — is prepared for the potentiall­y turbulent transition and possibilit­ies ahead. The goal of our framework is to inform and motivate individual­s, organizati­ons and public policymake­rs to proactivel­y navigate the future of work and to come together and act now to make this transition as productive and smooth as possible.

John Hagel is Co-chair of Deloitte LLP’S Centre for the Edge and author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion (Basic Books).

Jeff Schwartz is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the global leader for Human Capital Marketing, Eminence and Brand. Josh Bersin is the Founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, which provides research and advisory services focused on corporate learning. The complete report on which this article is based (“Navigating the Future of Work”) can be downloaded online.

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