The Future of Work

Three ways work may be different by 2026

Future of Work

By 2026, the way we work might be completely different from how we do it today – as different as working in a steam powered cloth factory was from being a cottage hand-loom weaver.

What if, by 2026, the way we worked has moved beyond the office, beyond jobs, beyond employees or employers? Here’s what it could be like!

Possible Future 2026: Beyond the office

It’s 2026 and almost no-one rents premises exclusively for their organisation. It costs too much and you miss out on the ability to work easily with others from different organisations. More than anything you miss out on new knowledge and new ideas from outside your sector.

Eighty per cent of workers use shared work hubs. This applies across private sector, government and not-for-profit organisations. There are plenty of shared work hubs in CBDs. Some of them are general work hubs, some have niche tools and equipment used by particular specialists.

There are also small and medium-sized work hubs scattered across almost every suburb in towns and cities. In small settlements, the work hub is the heart of the community. People drop in and use the hubs as they need them, fitting in their work around other community and family commitments. Rush hour doesn’t exist and traffic jams are rare.

Possible Future 2026: Beyond employers

It’s 2026 and most people are ‘networkers’. They are networkers not just in the sense it was meant in 2016 (though people still make sure they are connected to a wide range of people and share information and ideas with others). The networkers have adopted that term because they organise their working lives in a completely fluid, networked way.

Very few people work for just one organisation as an employee any more. Most people work with multiple organisations at once, working flexibly on different tasks and projects. For many people this gives them the freedom to tailor the volume of their work to fit with other aspects of their lives. It also allows them to choose to work with organisations whose values are a good fit with their own.

Because networkers do much of their work digitally, it’s easy for them to move between lots of different organisations – in different sectors, sometimes in different countries – so they are always picking up new knowledge and information that they use and share further in their networks.

These workers have specialist skills, the ability to self-manage, they learn continuously and they construct their own ‘career webs'. People who can’t do this find it very hard to get work.

Possible Future 2026: Beyond jobs

It’s 2026 and almost all routine work has been automated. This includes both routine manual work (like pharmacists counting out pills and accountants recording transactions) and routine cognitive work (like literature searches, risk analysis and medical diagnosis).

At the same time, there is high demand for some technical skills, as well as innovation and creativity. People with those skills command a very high price. Very few organisations can afford to employ these people exclusively or full-time. Instead they purchase ‘micro-contributions’ – anything from a six-minute task, or one conversation, to specific inputs on a large project. Organisations access these contributions from people anywhere in the world.

The old idea of a ‘job’ as a predetermined, specific bundle of tasks that all had to be performed by one person is no longer relevant. Managers are now used to assembling the skills and talents needed to do work from multiple sources. Managers are skilled coordinators – like film producers or impresarios – who understand how to ensure the multiple micro-contributions come together to deliver on the bigger canvas of work.

Sound far-fetched? Parts of this future are already here today!

People are already moving beyond ‘the office’.

Many large employers are already shrinking their offices and encouraging desk sharing. In the United Kingdom’s public sector there are eight desks for every 10 employees. Some private sector companies even have one desk for every ten employees.

Globally, the supply of co-working office spaces is growing rapidly and there is also growth in shared home-office spaces through network platforms like Hoffice. Platforms like Qdesq in Dehli or Spacious in New York allow people to book cafes and restaurants as working spaces in the hours they are not serving food.

After the Christchurch earthquake, the Addington Coffee Co-op café became an impromptu work hub. Working from cafes is an everyday phenomenon.

People are already working in self-organising networks.

In both the United States and Australia over one third of workers are now freelance. (In 2015, 50 per cent of freelance workers in the USA wanted a new definition of work to reflect their practice and a new set of rules to apply to their work). New infrastructure is being created around networkers, with mutual credit associations, insurance and business services tailoring offerings to this growing segment of workers.

The Student Volunteer Army provides a great example of people being self-organising and connected together in networks. They flock to tasks that need doing and then disperse to other work when that need is met.

The automation of work is already well-underway.

Automation of routine manual work is already happening. There are already ‘dispensary bots’ in pharmacies in New Zealand. They free up pharmacists from pill counting to be able to provide more advice. Clerical jobs in New Zealand have dropped 15 per cent in just the last six years, largely due to automation.

In the garment industry sew-bots already cut and stitch clothes faster and more accurately than machinists. From accounts of sports matches to financial quarterly earnings reports, writer bots are taking over routine cognitive work, freeing up the human journalists to think more critically about the bigger picture.

Some professions (e.g. lawyers, accounting consultants) already charge in micro-increments, sometimes as small as six minute units. Many managers already have experience of managing project teams where contributors come from both inside and outside of the organisation.

Can you take advantage of tomorrow today?

We can see the seeds of each of these three futures here today. What advantages would each of them provide for your business? What challenges might they bring? What might you need to start doing differently today to be ready futures like these?

If the new normal for work is going to be beyond the office and beyond jobs as we know them now, how might your business take advantage of these shifts in the nature of work today?

Dr Stephanie Pride

Dr Stephanie Pride leads StratEDGY Strategic Foresight, New Zealand’s leading futures consultancy. StratEDGY provides futures-related advice, training and executive coaching as well as research and keynote presentations.

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