What the Future Workforce Looks Like

Organizations need to have a clear integrated technology and people roadmap that links IT investment to workforce capacity

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By Juliet Andrews


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There are many ways to consider the workforce of the future, but the fact is, we don't know for sure what work we will be doing, who will be doing it and how. The fact is, no one knows for sure. But here's what we do know:

Robots are Not Replacing Humans, yet

Contrary to the hype, robots, computers, and software have not reduced organizations' overall headcount, yet. Despite the anxiety about robots taking our jobs, so far the impact of technology on jobs is not significant across our workforce.

But there is lingering apprehension that once this initial phase of the robotics and automation is in place—in which mundane tasks of little value are removed from an overworked worker's plate—the next phase will see technology both augmenting and replacing jobs in large numbers. This could see employers trying to bring in new capability, upskill the existing workforce and managing large-scale transitions into and out of their organizations.

Tech Investments Act as a Signpost

While the future is unpredictable, organizations which plan their technology investment with an aligned workforce plan will be able to provide a decent degree of practical insight for workers trying to figure out which skills will carry a premium in future, and how they should position themselves to capitalize.

Bringing these two plans together will help to highlight which divisions and roles will be affected. With effective planning, organizations can then deduce what capabilities they have, which workers can make the transition with smarter learning and development programs, and which need to be exited from the organization through natural attrition or redundancy. Armed with this insight, they can (in theory) transition in the most cost-effective, least disruptive way—reassign, redeploy, upskill, natural attrition, retrenchment.

Technology is Not the Only "Disruptive' Force in Play

Although technology disruption gets a lot of airtime, the feminisation of the workforce and negative population growth in developed economies are among several stable factors altering the composition of the global workforce, along with changing consumer behaviour, globalization and the rise of virtual teams.

Gig economy is overhyped

Hype surrounding the gig economy and the rise of contingent workers draws heavily on the US experience, overlooking fundamental structural and cultural differences in Australia's industrial relations laws, attitude towards entrepreneurship, and exposure to the global financial crisis which forced US citizens to adopt more innovative ways of working.

That said, technology is a key enabler of the gig economy, it will require a re-write of industrial relations laws and what it means to be an employee. Community expectation will ensure governments provide some level of protection for workers' rights that may not be in place today, covering issues like the minimum wage, superannuation and the need for stability of employment. Some recent examples of this are bubbling to the surface.

Estimates put the size of the gig economy anywhere between 1 to 30 percent of the labour force. There is an awful lot of white space between 1 and 30 percent, but even picking a middle ground of 10 percent points to huge ramifications. With 12 million working adults in the Australian economy, you're talking about roughly one million contingent workers with all the knock-on implications for superannuation savings, capacity to borrow money, etc.

Organizations will have Greater Responsibility around Learning

The concept of "lifelong" learning has been around for decades, but in truth, we have not moved to a mindset for, or engagement with, lifelong learning.

With the speed of change in work, roles, structures, and technology, everyone needs to engage in modular learning to stay relevant with evolving work.

Our institutions and formal education frameworks are slowly changing but they are unlikely to be able to change fast enough to be helpful to the immediate needs of organizations.

So where does that leave employers in relation to learning?

Our people need to be self-directed but we need to provide the environment, tools and time to learn. Organizations that do this well will be leaders in the market for critical skills.

Individuals Need to Take Responsibility to Change

Change is upon us whether we like it or not. Winners will be those who embrace and manage it, not those who defer or resist it. In many cases, individuals who get left behind in the workforce revolution will do so due their own complacency rather than a lack of clear signals and opportunity.

Three things you can do to get ahead

  • Leaders need to align behind a common vision of what the future of the organization looks like. The future is shaped by us, it doesn't just happen to us.
  • An integrated technology and people roadmap for the next three years which links IT investment to workforce capacity.
  • Engage employees so they understand the future vision, the risks of not embracing change, and have a clear pathway to transition.
Juliet Andrews

Partner (People Advisory Services), EY

Based in Sydney, Juliet works with EY’s clients to develop talent strategies and practical initiatives to help them prepare for the future of work. She is a registered psychologist and PhD specializing in workforce reform, organizational research, productivity, well-being and behavioural change.

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