The last few years have marked a unique period of turbulence and uncertainty. The landscape of the world of work is changing as the world adjusts to the lasting effects of the pandemic alongside longer-term, large-scale drivers of change.
In such a period of rapid and dramatic change, it is more important than ever to keep a weather eye on the longer perspective to ensure that business models and strategies are developed to survive and thrive in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world.
Eight drivers of change
Eight drivers of change are collectively propelling change in the world of work at an unprecedented rate. Covid-19 was unexpected (for most) and is acting as a catalyst for immediate and significant change. Advances in technology and concerns about sustainability are accelerating change. Other longer-term drivers - demographics, the role of the state, globalisation, migration and social trends - are meanwhile continuing to generate profound upheavals in the world of work.
These drivers combine to impact all facets of work – the type of work and jobs; the location from which work is undertaken; the sources of work; the times at which the tasks are undertaken; the way in which work is done and the relationship between worker and employer; the number of jobs and the amount of time each person spends working; the personal characteristics of the individuals who fill the jobs; and even why people work for a particular organisation, or indeed at all.
Various themes emerge from these eight drivers of change which are characterising the evolving world of work. These include: significant changes to the way the labour market works (highlighted currently by skill shortages but also likely to feature increased unemployment and underemployment in the years ahead); reforms of the way in which employment is regulated (in recognition of the adaptions needed to accommodate the new world of work); an increased focus on flexibility and resilience (not least to reflect the developing labour market); and appreciation of the importance of the socialisation of work and a sense of belonging among a more fragmented workforce.
Attitudes are changing and employers are under greater scrutiny than ever from stakeholders including customers, investors and employees. This is contributing to greater attention on organisations’ record on inequality and diversity, at the same time as employers recognise the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce. Finally, the drivers of change are pushing employers to innovate as a means of building resilience and meeting headlong the challenges ahead.
While these significant drivers of change are transforming society and work at an extraordinary pace, it may be that unforeseen and even unimaginable developments over the next thirty years will have the most profound impact on the world of work - just as developments inconceivable thirty years ago have transformed workplaces in the intervening years. The future of work is notoriously difficult to predict but, drawing from the report’s emerging themes, it is likely to be more automated, diverse, flexible, inclusive, innovative, regulated, resilient and sustainable.
In this context, the report identifies eight predictions for the years ahead: people will, on average, work less than now; there will be a repurposing of the office with an emphasis on time spent there being directed at purposeful activities that cannot be done as effectively at home; it will be much more common to work beyond 70; worker rights to control their own and their employer’s impact on the environment will become as accepted as family rights, anti-discrimination laws and rights to privacy; and the myriad categories of employment status will be simplified with a view to fairness and flexibility. In the years ahead, the UK and many other Western democracies will see a leftward shift in politics and greater state intervention, leading to extended employment rights and an increased role for social partnership. Greater scrutiny will be applied by organisations to their supply chains in response to increased regulation and stakeholder expectations. Finally, the UK will re-join the Single Market (though not the EU and probably not the Customs Union).
Governments, businesses and workforces are at a pivotal point in time – a juncture that brings a unique opportunity to reflect and prepare to meet the challenges ahead. Few people wish to revert to the world as it used to be, as society begins to chart a fresh path to a sustainable future. But the big question is: will this opportunity be fully embraced as a watershed for reimagining work, workplaces and workforces? Or will the New Normal end up uncannily resembling the Old Normal?