By Christina Jaremus and William Hampshire

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw recently hosted a webinar entitled The Future of the World of Work. During part one of this special two-part series, Futurist Ross Dawson, who is one of the world’s leading thinkers on the future of work, discussed the big trends shaping the future of workforces. As a conclusion to the webinar, we compiled the highlights of Ross’s presentation—undoubtedly, the concept of flexibility was a thread throughout.

  1. Accelerating to the future of work

The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed society and the working world as we know it.  While discussions about the future of work were already taking place, the pandemic has significantly accelerated the timeframes and has shifted the assumptions of work that we had in the past.

While limitations still remain and cannot be fixed overnight, according to Dawson, the pandemic has presented an opportunity for every organization to “create their own future of work, which is unique to their organization, their industry, and whatever it is they aspire to.”

  1. Technology will compliment human interaction

Leveraging technology can help companies create a collaborative culture while still allowing employees the flexibility to work outside of a traditional office space. Virtual video conferencing platforms allowed companies to survive during the pandemic, and the technology is continuously improving.

Dawson emphasizes the importance of data and explains that just as babies learn, machines learn from data. Now that we can gather more and more data from individuals everywhere, AI can exceed human performance, and in areas such as customer service, machines have already successfully taken on the role of humanlike representatives.

  1. Power shifting to individuals

As Dawson puts it, “society is fundamentally changing,” that is “power is shifting from institutions to individuals.” In evaluating what makes a company a valuable place to work, more than ever, workers have greater expectations of flexibility, autonomy, diversity, and privacy.

To draw talent, companies must balance the benefits necessary to make workers feel engaged, while simultaneously demanding and measuring high performance, especially for remote workers.

  1. Changes in the structure of business and the nature of work

Dawson explains, “the structure of business is changing, and this has come from the rise of the network economy.” In the past, businesses created and sold products and services, but now value is created by platforms connecting others outside the organization—whether that is arranging transportation, streaming movies and music, or more recently providing digital freelance work, management consulting, forensic analysis, and crowdsourcing innovation research and development. Rather than the work drawing in the talent, we are seeing a shift to the work going to wherever the talent is. All of this drives social change and shapes the economy.

A “negative” often associated with AI is that it will lead to mass unemployment. As Dawson points out, however, new technologies have always in the past created more jobs than they’ve destroyed, and as workplaces take advantage, humans have to leverage the three things that machines cannot offer: creativity, expertise, and relationships. We need to design work in a way that plays on these points.

  1. Distributed work is the new normal

Recent studies suggest only 10% of companies foresee a return to the 5-day, in-office model. While there is value created in people being physically present in the same place to engage and collaborate, Dawson says companies should embrace “distributed work.” This term is preferred to “remote work” as it suggests a greater level of inclusion—all employees, and not just those in the office, should be heard.

  1. Leadership steps to realize the potential benefits

Dawson identified four steps leaders should be taking:

  • Design a clear vision of your future of work.
  • Choose how you will integrate in-person and distributed work.
  • Evolve fluid, flexible structures.
  • Develop uniquely human capabilities in symbiosis with AI.

A lot of what happened with the pandemic was thrust upon companies. The real benefits will come through employers thinking carefully about what they want their own future of work to look like. The most successful organizations will take lessons learned by the pandemic and the availability of advanced technology to achieve a workplace “nirvana” of sorts—leveraging machine learning and automation to embrace a shift from rigid to fluid work—leaving humans with the role of exercising creativity, applying expertise, and building relationships.

This will not be an overnight change, and will need planning, not least around the legal  challenges this will present. However, what is clear is that employers that have the capability to offer this flexibility and autonomy, but nevertheless refuse to provide it, will be left behind.

A recording of the full presentation, The Future of the World of Work, is available here. Part two, which will be held in October, will focus on the legal implications and issues that organizations should consider as workplaces evolve.