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The Future of Work | Working the Future
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Working the Future blog: our latest insights and future of work sensemaking


2022-12-09 13:18

Cathryn Barnard



For six years now, we’ve advised organisations on the future of work. We’ve completed more than ten thousand hours of analysis to understand the primary...


December is invariably a month of reflection in business, as leaders review the year gone by and finalise objectives for the year ahead. 


This year is no different. But with everything that’s happened in the last 12 months, it’s becoming increasingly hard to plan when the future seems so hard to foresee. 


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy shortages, inflation, labour market instability, extreme temperatures and rainfall… it’s impossible to know when stability might return. For now however, let’s agree – any hopes of a return to normal is entirely wishful thinking. 


Behind the scenes, the convergent forces accelerating change in the way we work continue to disrupt ‘business as usual’. 


Earlier in 2022, global research and advisory firm Gartner outlined three steps to building an effective future of work strategy [1]. Alongside a clear evaluation of its current state and desired future state, Gartner recommends a robust understanding of the underlying trends driving change in the way we work.


Strategic foresight is now a vital component of any business leader’s toolbox. The European Commission defines strategic foresight as "the discipline of exploring, anticipating and shaping the future to help build and use collective intelligence in a structured and systemic way in order to better anticipate developments." [2]


Understanding the key trends transforming work is now an urgent priority for any discerning commercial leader.


For six years now, we’ve advised organisations on the future of work. We’ve completed more than ten thousand hours of analysis to understand the primary risks and opportunities posed by the forces driving change in the way we work. We’ve distilled our research into ten trends, which are outlined in our third annual Foresight Focus trends report.


As understanding the future of work is now a business survival imperative, this article sets out the headlines of the trends we’ve identified as posing most threat to organisations.


Ten trends transforming work in the 2020s


1.    Technology

Exponential increases in computational power, fallings cost of computing hardware and the mobile Internet have combined to deliver game-changing technological possibility.


The pace at which technology is evolving now proffers some of our greatest societal gains, alongside some of our most complex emergent challenges. PWC estimates that AI has the potential to add US$15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030 [3]. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum predicts that 1.1 billion jobs globally will be ‘radically transformed’ by technology by 2030 [4].


The challenge for business leaders is to explore the potential for technology to provide radical innovation opportunity AND in parallel understand the impact continuous technology disruption has on humans. We ALL need to continuously upskill and reskill now. As technology commentator Kevin Kelly has famously documented, from here on in, we’re all perpetual newbies [5]. 


2.    Globalisation

The impact of the Internet and mobile communication technology on the global economy has been extraordinary. The past fifteen years has borne witness to a new era of ‘capitalism-on-steroids’ globalisation.  


Today, every person on the planet with a smart device has, by default, access to information, knowledge, education, and the possibility of economic advancement. Our always-on, digital lives mean we have more access to people and products than at any other time in human history. 


While of course this has led to significant gains in how we live, cooperate and trade with one another, lightning-paced globalisation also poses great threat to organisations still using traditional business and management thinking to navigate the world. COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine have poured rocket fuel on already fragile international supply chains.


Understanding commercial environments and markets through the lens of hyperconnected globalisation and what this means at an organisational level is a now an urgent priority for business leaders. It’s never been more important for a business to understand exactly who it serves and how.


3.    Shifting attitudes towards work

Each new generation entering the labour market brings with it fresh hopes, dreams, aspirations and behaviours.  These arise from the prevailing cultural narrative of the time and are influenced by messages heard in the media, music and entertainment, in education, in our social circles and more.  


Unfortunately, the commercial world has been much slower to update its own attitudes towards employment. Most business operating models in play today were designed in the last century, for economies that skewed far more towards manufacturing and production. 


Today we have four (and occasionally even five) generations interacting and cooperating together at work. It’s no longer viable to adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to employee experience. Forward thinking business leaders must take time to understand the widely diverse attitudes of a very different modern workforce. 

Market complexity demands plurality of perspective for enhanced sensemaking and collective intelligence. How we build connection and community, motivation and engagement at work is crucial to longer term organisational resilience. Understanding what matters to the people around us is vital. 


4.    Next-generation employment models

Every economic cycle subtly reshapes the labour market. The financial crisis of 2008 impacted the labour market far more than many of us realise. It sounded the death knell for both job security and the concept of ‘a job for life’.  


Since 2009, job precarity has been on the rise. In the relentless pursuit of shareholder returns and profit maximisation, many modern workplace have become an endless merry-go-round of organisational restructuring and streamlining as a result.  This shift  has forced workers to revise their thinking about the work they do and to build resilient coping tactics. 


Today, non-permanent work is a rising subsection of the overall labour market. Deloitte defines the ‘alternative workforce’ as including work undertaken by ‘outsourced teams, contractors, freelancers, gig workers…and the crowd…’ [5]


The World Economic Forum has estimated as many as 50% of us could be self-employed by 2030. This has significant bearing on how organisations access talent, and indeed, the strategies they use to engage and motivate non-permanent team members. Ambitious business leaders are already putting plans in place to optimally access the alternative workforce for ‘on-demand’ delivery of outcomes. 


5.    New operating models

As digital transformation gathers pace, ambitious organisations are rethinking, redesigning, testing and measuring new operating and organising models.  


The 2010s saw a range of alternative operating models emerge, including holocracy, decentralised organising and Teal. Each of these came into being to address a growing number of shortfalls in mainstream operating and organising models. While each offers its own set of merits, none has reached the critical mass in adoption required to shift the status quo. They are however a signal that the world is changing.


As work becomes more distributed, asynchronous and context-specific, business leaders must urgently find new ways to optimise connection, engagement, motivation and productivity if they’re to continue to deliver value in a very different global landscape. Continuous experimentation with new organising models will underscore organisational resilience throughout the coming decade.


6.    The reskilling emergency

As already mentioned, technology is changing the nature of how we live and work.  As work becomes ever more fast-paced and location-agnostic, how we learn in the flow of work requires a dramatic rethink. 


Conventional approaches to workplace learning and development assume an organisation knows in advance which skills are needed and provides training accordingly. The scale and speed of technology evolution means it’s increasingly tricky forecast which skills will be required and when.


With such ambiguity, the best solution is to hire people with ‘learning agility’ – the ability to take on board and successfully integrate new techniques and ways of doing, as quickly as the pace of business demands. 


Hiring for attitude demands organisations to redesign recruitment – to seek out and build relationships with individuals who have the mental agility to adapt and evolve in step with market expectation and demand. 


7.    Attention deficit 

The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma highlighted the wilful intent of the FAANG companies to highjack our attention and our time. Time spent scrolling is the oil of the 21st Century. 


Tragically, as we’re fast learning to our detriment, this is having a catastrophic impact on child development, family relationships, education, work, societal function and more. 


The very focus and attention we need at work to deliver both innovation and market resilience are under attack like never before, resulting in a widespread lack of ability to think critically and address complex problems. 


The challenge for all employers is to co-create the right work conditions to ring-fence and protect deep focus. Organisational futureproofing depends on it. 


8.    Intergenerational workplaces

The global workforce is ageing rapidly.  


It’s expected that by 2025, 25% of workers in the UK and US will be over the age of 55. This segment of the workforce is proving to be the fastest-growing in many advanced economies [6]. This demographic shift is set to amplify further – by 2050, it’s predicted there’ll be one person aged 65 and over for every two persons aged 20-64 in developed economies, compared to one for every three today. In parallel, those aged 50 and older will form 45% of the population, versus 37% today [7]. 


These demographic shifts are fuelling a talent shortage, with boomers reaching traditional retirement age at a rate faster than younger cohorts are able to take their place. This meta-trend compounds the skills shortages already accentuated by both Brexit and the COVID-induced ‘Great Resignation’.


Understanding the dynamics of the modern labour market is now a critical priority. Business leaders must understand the lifestyle preferences of all generations at work, accommodate them and nurture working environments that prioritise inclusion. Failure to do so vastly reduces access to talent and the diversity of thinking that’s so essential for making sense of increasingly complex markets. 


9.    The climate crisis

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” 


The 2021 IPCC report sets out the stark reality of the Climate Crisis and leaves no doubt that planet earth faces catastrophic damage, due to mass over-consumption.  


As extreme weather events become ever more commonplace, scientists agree that time is running out to take the action needed to avert a climate disaster. With the (UK) introduction of stealth legislation forcing organisatons to report on carbon emission reduction plans, an entire rethink of how economic value is derived is already an urgent priority. 


As organisations navigate these uncharted landscapes, they must also pay close attention to stakeholder sentiment. As the climate emergency is already showing, shareholder, employee and customer activism is on the rise. There’s no room for greenwashing or passivity with so much at stake. 


10. 21st Century leadership

With so many forces converging to create ambiguity, volatility and market complexity, the key skills required for effective 21st Century leadership are also now under the microscope.  


Modern workers want to work for accessible, transparent, human-focused and inspiring leaders that role-model the positive behaviours required to solve the great challenges of our times.  Leading no longer means having all the answers; it means creating the right conditions for humans to do their best in ever-changing circumstances.


As more ‘digital natives’ enter the workforce, they expect be values-led. They’re not afraid of questioning authority and they want to work for leaders willing to take a stand on social injustices and act as a force for good in the world. As boundaries between consumers and workers blur, so ‘employer brand’ becomes centre stage. 


This demands very different leadership skills that are firmly grounded in connection, relationship, empathy and humility. The future of business depends on it.


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Modern commercial landscapes are complex. They’re increasingly overwhelming as they’re so hard to plan for. Adapting business to effectively navigate the forces driving change is now a full-time job. 


But it’s impossible to transform if you don’t have awareness and understanding of why things are changing. Business futureproofing demands both trend analysis and scenario-planning for experimentation with radically different possible futures. 


This is why we set up Working the Future, and we’re here to help.


Until the end of January, as a ‘thank you’ to our subscribers, we’re offering the chance to purchase Foresight Focus 2023 at the discounted price of £95 (normal price £195). Simply enter voucher code FUTURE2023 at the check out.


If you’d like a no-obligation chat about the challenges you’re facing, please do get in touch.







[5]        Kelly, K. (2016). The Inevitable: Understanding 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. New York: Penguin Random House




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