People really love to work. For example, in Adobe’s research report, “Work in Progress,”1 80 percent said they would keep their jobs even if they won the lottery. Seventy-six percent favor working more hours on jobs they enjoy over fewer hours at occupations they dislike. And people actively think about work 78 percent of the time on workdays and 41 percent of the time on days off.
Data like this underscores the massive changes taking place in the workplace today. The technological and cultural shifts ushered in by the digital revolution have drastically changed the way employees approach their work opportunities, and that means the employers need to change the way they think about their employees as well.
“There's this new generation of workers that are causing companies to reevaluate what they can offer in exchange for work,” explains Matt Dorey, CEO of Factory, a top tier innovation network. “These workers value lifestyle, causes, and flexibility over traditional salaries and even trendy perks.”2
Understanding these new expectations is crucial to a healthy and productive workforce, so let’s take a look at what work looks like today and how it’s changing for the future.
What a difference a century makes. Since the start of the 2000s, employees and employers have increasingly become less loyal to each other. Over the last two years alone, temp workers have nearly doubled, according to the Federal Reserve Economic Data.3 The Bureau of Labor Statistics similarly reports that long-term employment hit an all-time low this year at just 63% of workers.4
This shift isn’t just taking place in America. The short-term or “1099 economy” phenomenon is also widely felt in Canada, Europe, India, Japan, and Brazil. This is especially pronounced in technology-related work, which increasingly touches every aspect of every business in every industry. In fact, over 70% of global employers now use contractors to help fill skills shortages, reports TechRepublic.
Experts expect that shift to continue. Not to the point of rendering traditional or permanent employees obsolete. But rather to the point where half or more of all work will be performed by freelance contractors in some way.
Why? Efficiency for one. The so-called “gig” or short-term employment economy allows workers and employers to meet tight-deadlines as demand and personal passions fluctuate. That’s the biggest reason.
But Dorey cites a deeper reason—the return of the solo entrepreneur. “Big business is a relatively new phenomenon,” he says of companies with headcounts in the tens and hundreds of thousands. “Although Ford and the industrial revolution managed to unify large numbers of people under a single roof, people were solo entrepreneurs for most of history.”6
Think farmers, craftsmen, service workers, and the salesman or distributors that dispersed those goods. In exchange for financial security and guaranteed income that the industrial revolution promised, these workers relinquished some of their freedom and even limited their earning potential in some cases, Dorey says.
That’s changing, however. “Today’s workers saw their parents or grandparents put in 30, 40, or 50 years with a single company only to be filled with regret later in retirement,” Dorey adds. “They're sort of like, ‘Do I want the same?’”
The collective response appears to be “no,” especially when it comes to making your own time and schedule as solo entrepreneurs previously did. “The ability to balance your personal and professional life in a way that a lot of folks have not been able to do in the past is the most appealing part of the gig economy,” says Elizabeth Kim, executive director at IDEO, a global design firm.7
To accomplish this, sometimes you don’t even need to run your own business because there’s an Uber, AirBNB, Elance, Shopify, or Amazon Associate platform for that. “They give you all the tools to operate as if it were your own business, and you get the benefits of having your own business,” Dorey says.8
As such, leading companies are increasingly treating employees as guests rather than indentured servants. Walk around any corporate office building today and you’ll notice a stark difference from the pack ‘em in, cubicle-filled, drab offices of the not-so-distant past where the only free amenities were coffee and water. “Instead of people working for companies, companies are having to work for people,” says Dorey. “That’s a pretty significant shift.”
From a company perspective, “The perk proliferation has sort of gotten out of hand,” admits Kim. “So I think organizations are going to have to better understand what truly matters to employees and how to deliver those things in a way that is aligned with business needs.”9
Understanding worker values requires tough questions. Why would an employee want to work for us? What are the advantages and disadvantages? How can we objectively compare our employment package against competing organizations? What can we offer beyond money and personal health benefits? What amount of freedom are we prepared to give in exchange for the deliverables we need? How can we align this open position with the passions of prospective candidates?
In addition to more freedom, Dorey predicts that companies will ultimately need to raise the earning potential of ambitious working candidates. Incorporating commissions in more departments than just sales, if you will.
“People need to be incentivized based on their contribution,” he says. “They want to be rewarded proportionally to their output. Yes, we're all equal from a humanitarian perspective. But in terms of our creativity, grit, and output, we're all different. Companies operating in the post-industrial age must respect that truth and reward accordingly.”10
Either that or become a platform, he says. Instead of selling things, Uber-like organizations could empower workers with tools, structure, and support in place to let them complete tasks on their own as their time allows.
Remember, the future of work won’t always be full-time. In fact, more than half of the respondents of our survey predict that multiple jobs will be the norm.11 One in three U.S. workers are already moonlighting, according to Adobe’s think tank report. And moonlighters report higher levels of happiness and optimism than their peers, the survey found—something that is sure to rub off on all the projects they touch.
If it feels like power has shifted to workers it’s because it has. But the good thing about the gig economy is that it lets companies quickly expand their offer and capabilities while partnering with readily available talent. It also lets them quickly offload that cost in times of “famine” and reduces the total investment in talent when it comes to managing churn, training, and liability costs.
“I actually don’t see this shift as a threat to most organizations,” says Kim. “I think it's an amazing supplement and even improves the quality of work by traditional employees.”12 In this new economy, both workers and organizations can fail faster and more often, she says—two important things that make both parties smarter.
This isn’t to say big companies will go away, Dorey says. But their incentives and policies will need to open up if they wish to attract, retain, and inspire the world’s best talent.
Workspaces that encourage unconscious thought, smart coffee machines that know when and what to brew, chatbot assistants, fully distributed workforces, do-everything dashboards, and conference rooms that awake and revert to your personal settings whenever you and your employee badge enter. Those are just a few of the exciting things our think tank participants expect from the future.
Along with fancy technology, workspace is one of the most important things to employees. There are three types of work spaces. “Work” and “home” are respectively where much of our professional and personal work gets done, mostly in isolation. But sociologist Ray Oldenburg argues that some of our most inspired ideas take place in what he calls neutral and public “third places.”13 Think watering holes, city parks, cafes, street corners, and other free-form gathering places that are the foundation of vitality and democracy,” he argues in his book.
Indeed, some of Einstein’s greatest discoveries reportedly took place while smoking a cigar and looking at the clouds. That being the case, organizations are redesigning internal workspaces and increasingly turning to communal design, more commons areas, and even co-working spaces to maximize the output and creativity of employees.
“Companies are now actually building spaces that mimic the comforts and neutrality of the third space,” says Jason Kinney, CMO of LiquidSpace. “By creating spaces that feel like the local coffee shop or park, employers are enabling more natural interactions and opportunities to get out from behind the cube wall.”14
Over the next 5–10 years, Kinney predicts that more companies will embrace flexible workspace solutions, office childcare, BYOD policies, and co-working memberships. “In the future, I think our workplace will consist of a variety of places,” he says. “Ultimately, I think the mindset of working 8–5 in a cube has changed.”
No one’s complaining about that. But as people and companies have begun to spread their time between work, home, and public third space offices, the boundaries between work and social have begun to blur, making it difficult for workers to compartmentalize their lives. In fact, 77 percent of U.S. workers believe that public health will worsen as people become more attached to their devices, our survey found. Seventy-nine percent believe both professional and personal relationships will suffer as people become fixated on devices.15
“We have airplane mode for our phones,” says Jon Perera, vice president of product management, Adobe Document Cloud. “Maybe it’s time we have airplane mode for our work.”16
Others argue that work-life balance is a false dichotomy. “It’s just life,” says Natalie Engels, design director at Gensler, a corporate building designer. “Nevertheless, work is the invader of all three areas,” she says.17 That obviously goes for “work,” but increasingly into “home” and “third spaces.”
Rather than fight it, however, Engels and her team are trying to make the most of it. That goes for more deliberately communal and experimental office designs. Anything that encourages the figurative rubbing of shoulders really between employees off all kinds—not just ones grouped by department. And letting workers design their own workspaces.
“We're also starting to play with the concept of anticipatory design,” she says. For example, your office or conference room might open the blinds when you enter depending on the time of day or what your previous settings were. “The environment knows your patterns and tries to maintain congruence with your work preferences,” she says. “In the future, office space is going to be very manipulated by the present users.”
As the world becomes more global, Engels stresses the importance of embracing and investing in local artists, design motifs, and stores to create a sense of local pride and identity. When motivating employees, “this makes a big difference,” she says.
While space is important to people when it comes to getting work done, so are the tools of the trade. Alan Lepofsky,18 principal analyst at Constellation Research, expects those to change in a big, big way, even though they didn’t change much over the last two decades.
“Over the last 20 years, all we have done is layered on top of what we already have,” he argues. “Email, chat, blogs, wikis, social networks, and iterative group chats like Slack. We’ve gone far more mobile than we ever were and far more cloud than before. But these haven’t fundamentally changed the way discover, create, and share ideas.”
For that to happen, Lepofsky hopes for a single dashboard that ties together and automates much of the things we do individually. Take scheduling a meeting for example. There are emails, calendar invites, calls, documents, and chats exchanged with no way of tying them all together or archiving them by instance.
“I think that is something that fundamentally has to change,” he says. “I think we have to have some universal taxonomy across all of the different tools that we use.”
“We’re starting to see things like Gmail proposing contextual responses and CRMs reminding us to contact someone we haven’t spoken to in a while,” Leposfsky says. “This kind of machine learning assisted collaboration will do wonders to free our time and improve the work that we do.”
More than just making recommendations, however, our computers might soon take the initiative. For example, they might say, “I’m seeing a lot of things about this company in the media these days. Maybe you should reach out to them.” Or maybe they might encourage us to hold an important meeting on a less stressful day of the week as opposed to the current one.
“Imagine if my inbox was filtered to only show messages from people that don’t raise my anxiety level,” Lepofsky foretells. “Maybe I’m behind on a project and wouldn’t benefit from seeing an email from my boss right now. But if my computer knew which actions might cause me stress, it could prioritize what I see to my productive benefit. I’m not predicting this tomorrow. But I am predicting that we are going to see it. That’s a huge change in the future of work.”
As for the application of augmented reality in work settings, Lepofsky says we needn’t look any further than Pokémon Go, a game which overlays highly-interactive apparitions onto the real-world. It does this so well that millions of people got in on the fun in fewer than 48 hours and continue to do so with impressive regularity.
“Today we live in a square box, flat screen world,” he says of popular graphical interfaces. “Instead of a Skype call being in a little square on your screen, however, imagine if those little squares were floating above the head of the person you’re facing. Imagine what kind of connections and convenience that could create?”
In looking at the future of work, three themes emerged again and again—people, workspaces, and technology. Those are the three big focal points. How you approach those three areas, then, will ultimately determine how well prepared you are for the future.
In terms of attracting and retaining people, it all comes back to the flex worker, whether employed or contracted. In either case, the flex worker is different than yesterday’s employee. They value lifestyle, convenient perks, collaborate technology, the ability to work remotely, the freedom to cut out in the middle of the day for an important appointment, and access to a workspace that encourages “third space” energy and expression.
Furthermore, they are interested in having a variety of experiences, assignments, or “gigs” and in moving from job to job and department to department on a more accelerated timeline. Is your company prepared to facilitate that? Are they willing to at least try it?
Some more questions: Is competitive salary, generous health benefits, and casual Friday’s your biggest selling point? Are you more concerned with revenue per employee than happiness per employee? Do you encourage time off and believe in research showing that it increases productivity? Are you motivating your workers with short-term quarterly rewards or long-term cause-related ones?19 You say you believe in risk but do you really allow your workers to take them and learn from their poorly placed bets?
Whatever your immediate or eventual response to those questions, your employee relationship will be reported, publicized, and shared on social media, Glassdoor, and other information sharing sites to your own benefit or detriment.
In terms of workspaces, have you evaluated yours against award-winning and performance-driven ones at leading companies? Obviously, some companies must have a central location where people come to work every day. But others can function and even thrive on remote workers or a mix of the two. Either way, understanding your people and what they value will help you craft the right work space.
In order to make sure you’re building the right environment, it’s also important to understand what people want out of their workplace. According to our survey, collaborative technology is the biggest thing people want from their workspace. Food, beverages, and other amenities are high on the list. But the best workspaces are those that treat employees like guests while trying to provide them with the most supportive occupational experience.
That said, it’s important to note that a workspace should reflect the company’s culture. While many large companies have decked out offices with toys and primary colors, it’s okay to have an adult looking workspace. Just find what works for your people, brand, and culture.
Whatever it is, it likely includes doing away with traditional office structures, closed cubicles, and mandatory office hours. It might also include telecommuters and designated meeting spots for said commuters. For those already with a fully distributed workforce, consensus research proves that people need regular human interaction to optimize motivation, individual productivity, and team building.20 Do your company policies allow for that?
Additionally, what technologies are you using or considering to automate, encourage, and advise your workers with? If you’re not using technology to make your employees’ lives easier, you may be falling behind. For example, if your sales team is still using paper contracts and scanners, they’re not going to be as happy and productive as they could be if you had an electronic signature solution in place. Whatever the case, what menial processes are taking time away from your employees and what are you doing to ease those burdens?
Lastly, do you really care about the well-being of your workforce? If so, what are you doing to help them manage the powerful but compulsory allure of their devices, alerts, notifications, and need for constant attention?
Yes, this all costs money. Sometimes lots of it. But depending on the priority, size, and timing of your investment, it is undeniably worth it. If you need more convincing, consider how today’s leading companies treat, house, and encourage their workers.
People are risking the financial stability of the past afforded by the industrial revolution in favor of more flexible income, scheduling, and cause-related benefits. This increasingly gives employees the upper-hand in the employer relationships. Thus, recruiting and retention of talent are more important than before.
So when talking about workspaces, we’re not just referring to physical locations where people come to work. We are also concerned with a company’s philosophy and culture about how they believe employees can and should work. Since no two people are alike, neither should their workspaces be. To get the most out of your employees, give them an environment they work best in.
And keep in mind that technology is the most important perk you can give your employees. They want to contribute and do their best but often their tools are holding them back. Help them help you. Minimize the busy work your employees must do so they can maximize the creative work on your behalf.
We learned a lot in researching, interviewing, and publishing this report. If you only walk away with a few simple truths, make it these:
Flexible and in-demand talent increasingly have the upper-hand in the employer relationships. Thus, recruiting and retention of talent are more important than before.
Desirable workspaces include more than just physical locations. They also include philosophical and cultural policies that motivate workers in an individual and meaningful way.
Technology is the most important perk you can give your employees. To help them help you, minimize employee “busy work” so they can maximize their creative output on your behalf.
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