Preparing for the Future of Work

Over the last few decades, the way people work has been evolving and changing, fueled by technological advancements in automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and innovations around the way we receive goods and services — all of which has only been accelerated by the pandemic.  

These new innovations have forced companies to rethink the way they operate and how they structure their work, creating new opportunities for some, and unfortunately, eliminating jobs for others. 

While change can be messy (and often frustrating when you’re in the thick of it), it can also lead to exciting new opportunities and personal growth. It’s up to today’s business leaders to focus on getting people the education and training they need for this new future of work, and it’s up to all of us to keep learning and developing new skills so we can meet the moment.

Disruptions & trends

According to research by McKinsey & Company, three major trends are currently disrupting work as we know it:

  1. The shift to remote work and virtual collaboration. Most companies are planning to continue some level of remote work or move to a hybrid model. Additionally, McKinsey estimates that 20% of business travel may be permanently replaced by virtual meetings.
  2. Digital transactions and delivery services. Digital trends in e-commerce and service businesses — from restaurant delivery to telemedicine — surged in 2020, and it looks as though these conveniences will be sticking around.
  3. Automation and AI. Companies using new and more advanced technologies to adapt to the future of work will continue to innovate and implement even more technologies in the future.

Moving from urban to suburban 

Another trend in the United States and Europe that McKinsey identified is that a significant number of working professionals are moving out of large cities and putting down roots in suburbs and small towns. This is showing up in office-vacancy rates and decreasing residential rents — which reverses a trend that has been going in the exact opposite direction over the past ten years. It seems people are taking advantage of the ability to work remotely while enjoying the more affordable small-town life. (Or maybe, they just want to see what John Mellencamp’s been singing about all these years.)

Healthcare & STEM job market growth

With more of the baby boomer generation now entering retirement age, it’s no surprise that the need for healthcare workers continues to grow. STEM fields (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are also part of a growing category, especially for jobs in design and technology maintenance. These are all excellent fields to pursue for anyone looking for a lucrative career that offers plenty of job security.  

Industries in decline

McKinsey found that the job categories most in decline are customer service and sales professions. Factory and warehouse jobs are also disappearing, as advancements in automation continue to eliminate tasks that used to be done by humans. 

Food service is another industry seeing a significant decline in demand, due in large part to the pandemic. People not going into the office are eating at home more and the decrease in business travel means fewer meals on the road — which is a big driver of business for many restaurants, especially in metro areas. 

Leading through change

Changing workplace conditions, the emergence of new processes and innovations, and the evolution of industry in our country are all converging to create completely new fields and new skill-set needs. The successful business leaders of today (and tomorrow) must be prepared to lead us into this new future of work.

Today’s business leaders must learn how to navigate unpredictable and often turbulent waters. As Jeff Schwartz, the U.S. Leader for the Future of Work at Deloitte Consulting, writes: “Like a whitewater kayaker, business leaders must learn to skillfully read the currents and disturbances of the context around them… interpreting the surface flows, ripples, and rapids for what they reveal about what lies beneath the surface.”

Key mindset shifts for business leaders

According to Schwartz, creating value and moving beyond cost reduction and efficiency to instead focus on meaning and impact should be the main goal for organizations today. He recommends leaders:

  • Make work outcomes less about efficiency and more about the value and impact delivered to customers, employees, and their communities.
  • Redefine work from executing routine tasks to creatively addressing problems and identifying new growth opportunities.
  • Build personal relationships and cultivate work that emphasizes what makes us human.
  • Focus on output and impact, rather than just workflows and tactics. 
  • Normalize a culture that embraces outside-the-box thinking and risk-taking.

Upskilling & reskilling

In their study, McKinsey found that 25% more workers than previously estimated may need to switch occupations, as the need for certain skills disappear and the need for new and different skills emerge. And according to the World Economic Forum (the Forum), nearly 50% of companies expect automation will lead to some reduction in their full-time workforce, and more than half of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling. 

Being forced to make a career change or learn new skills can be frustrating or intimidating for some — especially those who have been doing the same job for years. Luckily, many large employers are creating upward career paths in the form of manager or digital training, to keep employees from getting left behind. Educational institutions and governments can also step in to provide programs for upskilling and reskilling workers. 

The Forum has developed a “Preparing for the Future of Work” initiative aimed at promoting “a positive and proactive approach to navigating the future employment and skills landscape.” With this program, they’re focused on bringing together businesses, civil society, and education partners to develop reskilling and upskilling initiatives — building new talent pipelines and providing better jobs, education, and skills to one billion people by 2030.

Unlock the next level

Whether your job is at risk of disruption or you just want to learn a new skill, there are resources available for all kinds of training and upskilling programs. The Aspen Institute’s Upskill America website has many helpful resources for business leaders and anyone who wants to learn more about upskilling and the types of programs that different companies offer. 

For individuals looking to develop a new skill — or sharpen an existing one — there are also several online learning platforms (some free and some that require a paid subscription) that cater to a wide variety of disciplines, like Udemy, Coursera, and Skillshare.