“We spend 90,000 hours of our lives at work – this is a topic we should try to get right.” Antenna’s Brendon Schrader opened the first The Way We Work with a compelling, if not sobering statistic. Antenna has partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management to present a seminar series to bring thought leadership, discussion, and programming around future of work topics.
The inaugural event featured Nicholas Whitall, Managing Director within Accenture Strategy’s Talent & Organization practice. Whitall also leads Accenture’s global "Future of Work" community of practice, where he is responsible for shaping Accenture's perspective on the emerging disruptive trends and how the company best partners with clients to shape the future work and workforce in the digital age to drive productivity and growth. His presentation focused on the changes happening across the world of work, and he helped answer questions about how to best take advantage of these rising trends.
Marketplace is changing
“Trends are not just way out in the future,” Whitall reminded the audience, “they’re actually becoming staples now.” It’s easy to think that the future of work is some unreachable distance away, safe for curiosity and examination without ramifications, but the fact is quite the opposite. Consider this: the freelance platform Upwork has generated one billion dollars of revenue and hosts 15 million people – and it didn’t exist five years ago.
Many of the biggest changes are, unsurprisingly, coming as a result of technological advances and the shift towards connectivity. Artificial Intelligence and physical digitization (think: technological wearables) are two major players that have already started transforming our lives. Whitall sees huge possibilities here in accessible and affordable opportunities like “over the shoulder coaching” and being able to support, or manage, employees directly in the moment. Whitall also stressed that as we think about the increasing role of AI and automation, the technology of the future amplifies the role with a human, rather than entirely replacing human to human interactions.
In a more macro way, platforms and big data are still on the rise as well and having major implications for how work happens. Upwork is wildly successful, but not alone. The work market is filled with apps and platforms calling themselves the “UBER for freelancers,” but the users, aim, and rules of engagement are constantly evolving and so we’re seeing this market, like any other, regulate and self-regulate and continue to bloom with creativity and experimentation. The other major player in the marketplace, of course, is big data. Predictable algorhythms not only know where you are and where you’ve been, but are getting wildly accurate at predicting where you might be and what you might like. Who will use this information, and to what end in the workplace, have yet to be seen, but the tide of data is not going out any time soon.
Workers are changing
Accenture surveys graduating college students each year to get a pulse on how the next generation is thinking about work. These findings, alongside other statistics, paint a compelling picture about how our attitudes toward work are changing:
- 80% of 2017 college graduates DO NOT want to work for a Fortune 500 company
- 61% of millennials say that they are “very interested” in freelance work
- 51% of Boomers are interested in freelance work
- 43% of the US workforce is expected to consist of freelancers by 2020 (up from current 36%)
Combine these with two other sobering numbers: 40% of companies are already reporting talent shortages, and the current unemployment rate for the United States of America is 4.1%. Whitall summed this up well when he said, “We’re seeing a war for talent.” Even with the rise of AI and digital transformation, (or perhaps, because of it) 63% of business leaders expect a net increase in jobs in the future.
This all means that workers get to be more choosy and set their own terms, but also that they have to stay sharp to stay competitive. In two years, the most desired skills will be ones we do not yet consider crucial. “Digital disruption is shifting experience from ‘go away and learn’ to ‘learn on the go,’” said Whitall. Formal learning programs are becoming less important as informal learning and workplace learning are on the rise. The winners in this new talent economy will be those who maximize the 70% of learning that happens on the go/on the job, play to their strengths, and work to stand out in the emerging marketplace.
Employers are changing
Organizations are starting to have to think about how to curate their own talent pools and rethink their employment models. More agile arrangement are coming in to play to serve the ever-changing needs of corporations. Whether it’s reskilling loyal employees whose particular job has ended or finding the right flow of freelancers for a specific project, smart employers are managing their workforce in more creative and direct ways than ever before.
Whitall highlights this reimaging with a broad spectrum from fixed-role core team employees to a much more fluid external talent network, and even includes fully automated digital workers. With so many resources, and so many possibilities, companies can find exactly what they need when they need it. “This gives institutions much more flexibility,” explained Whitall. “What you need to start may not be what you need to continue.” The “volatility of demand” is a natural part of any business, and now can be met with a flexible workforce.
Put it to work
The crucial question emerged, in so many words, from various audience members and in the table conversations after the presentation: what does this mean for me? What can I do as a worker to stay ahead in the future, and as an employer, how do I best navigate this exciting but uncertain future? The advice fell into three main categories:
1. Keep learning
Technology does not go backwards, and the skills essential for future workplace success are still unknown at this point. Learning happens on the job, on the go, so make sure that you, as a worker, are taking advantage of opportunities to grow, hone your craft, and push your comfort zone. Being highly adaptive and quick to learn may in fact be more important than any skill or learning in particular.
One other thing is clear: as the ecosystem of talent and teams continues to change and flex, communication and collaboration are only getting more important. Your ability to connect with others, whether it’s about what you can bring to a project or as a contributing member of a team, will be one of your most valuable assets.
2. Self-Regulate for good
Employers have the opportunity to get ahead by re-imagining and self-regulating around a new social contract. “When you have to compete for talent, being good to people is good for business,” Whitall reminded the group. “Let’s think about what we can do versus what we have to do.” When it comes to healthcare, retirement savings, and other benefits traditionally held for vested employees, the best companies are not waiting for employment law and government regulation to catch up.
Flexibility in the workforce is of huge potential benefit to employers who can be flexible in their thinking. High-performing leaders in the future of work will not only be championing digital transformation and building responsive and adaptive teams, but will also be at the front of the social and interpersonal changes necessary to make these models sustainable and attractive to the best and the brightest in the workforce.
3. “There’s still time to be an early adopter.”
The way we work is changing, but Whitall stressed that it’s not too late to be on the cutting edge. “I don’t think anyone’s got it exactly right,” he said. “Big bets lead to growth,” and the successful companies of the future are those who are taking risks towards resourcefulness, responsiveness, and responsibility.