Workplace trends of the future

Autonomous Autonomous | Apr 24, 2017

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Workplace trends of the future - 1917Picture an office or factory workplace in 1917 in the United States. There are probably machines of some kind, possibly some women working, thanks to World War I, and familiar furniture such as desks and chairs. Amazingly, it’s taken us nearly this long to change anything about desks and chairs, but the point is that very little else in the workplace of a century ago resembles a workplace today.

Workplace trends of the future - 2117Now picture a workplace in 2117. Two centuries is the blink of an eye in human history. We still marvel at the Renaissance, which lasted for three centuries, spanning about nine generations of people, a short while for the transformation from the Middle Ages to modern history to take place. The agricultural and industrial revolutions were even more rapid, spanning only a few generations, and may be the closest historical references we have for what’s happening today. Even, or perhaps not surprisingly to some, our biological evolution has sped up. As Wired put in an article about the acceleration of genetic variation over the last few centuries:

“If you could escape the human time scale for a moment, and regard evolution from the perspective of deep time, in which the last 10,000 years are a short chapter in a long saga, you’d say: Things are pretty wild right now.”

Things are pretty wild right now, but more noticeably in the workplace than many other arenas of life. As generations collide, baby boomers Googling “millennials in the workplace” has spawned a library of articles on how to manage, appease or just deal with them, while professional young people are experiencing unprecedented insecurity in their work lives. The average millennial stays just two years at a job, and values flexibility and work-life fit more than career advancement or higher pay. In hindsight we may definitively call this period of less than half a century the “digital revolution”, the Wikipedia page on our time alive is being updated regularly.

What does this mean for businesses, managers, human resources officers and general employees? Ultimately we can’t really imagine. If you showed Alexa or Siri to a factory worker in 1917, it would be mind bending. And not only because we’re still sitting at the same desks in the same chairs using technology that was unfathomable a century ago…

But we can anticipate certain changes in the workplace from what we know now. They will be rapid, but they will likely be enduring for at least a few generations, which is good news for human resources.

These will be the top priorities and adaptive strategies for successful businesses in the coming decades, culled from research, trend-spotters, business experts and anecdotal experience.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2030. Almost two decades before, in 2013, studies already showed that flexibility is the main priority of this generation of workers. The same Deloitte study offers some practical advice about how to create a flexible structure within a company, recommending that managers assess their employees needs and wants for flexibility through surveys and a transparent environment that encourages open communication about it. At the same time, companies need to be developing managers who are familiar with and adept at handling flexible work environments along with self-directed teams and proper technological infrastructure to support flexibility. Ultimately, the author Tracy Haugen, Director of Deloitte’s Federal Human Capital practice, says: 

“Relinquish control. Some managers may be more invested in traditional management styles, while younger workers often expect more freedom in getting the job done on their own terms. Some leading companies are piloting changes in benefit programs, including eliminating paid time off; employees can choose to work as much or as little time as they want—as long as the job gets done.”

Workplace wellness/employee health

Chief economist at Glassdoor, Andrew Chamberlain, predicted that nontraditional benefits will start to drop in popularity and effectiveness in recruiting new talent in 2017 and beyond. Their research shows that employees are less satisfied by gym memberships and donations to charity than they are with comprehensive health insurance and paid time off. Workplace wellness originally arose due to a cultural shift in seeing healthcare as the responsibility of the government to the responsibility of the employer. Especially in the United States, all indicators point to this increasingly becoming the norm. Being effective at keeping employees well, both mentally and physically, is not a humanitarian or even just a recruiting mission, but a core business strategy to reduce healthcare costs.  

Workplace trends of the future

Superhumans and augmented humanity

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that coffee became a widely-consumed beverage in the United States. Now America runs on it, and it’s completely culturally acceptable to admit in the workplace that we use it to enhance our stamina and brainpower. Futurist Faith Popcorn predicts that nootropics will soon be the new coffee. The future is now, in many places. “Smart pills” are supplements that are purported to increase brain function, ranging from prescription Adderall to aniracetam. Up to a third of university students in the United States, depending on where, have abused Adderall as a study aid. Read more about “unlocking your true brain” from the mind-enhancing Bulletproof coffee company here. Luckily, caffeine has proven to be a relatively benign brain booster, and in moderation even healthy, but prescription drugs and racetams are less researched and already reported to have a host of complications, from serious addiction to liver damage.

At the same time, research is rapidly advancing in how to hack the brain with actual hardware. Mesh electronics which can be inserted through veins in the neck are already real. Not only does this cross the barrier between biology and technology, paving the way to a totally integrated experience, it allows us to get closer to our brain as observers than ever before. At the same that we are accidentally losing control of our AI algorithms, we are reaching new frontiers in understanding the mystery of the human brain. In the workplace this will soon mean both a better understanding of how humans and technology complement each other, and a disintegration of the boundaries between professional and personal. Work will no longer be a place you go, just as your computer will not longer be something you “use”. Work will be what you do and your body will be the computer.

Emotional intelligence

Perhaps the most important theme in all is that EQ will rise over IQ. As AI and automation overtake the functions the human mind and body used to be essential for, and as organizations become increasingly flexible “communities” instead of hierarchical structures, emotional intelligence will be a uniquely human asset. Imagination, human connection, intuition and creativity will become reigning skills in the workplace, especially for effective management.

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