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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


2018-07-17 20:01

Cathryn Barnard



Here at Working the Future Towers, we assess various reports speculating on the skills of the future. As technology becomes increasingly pervasive at work...


Last month, my piece about creativity made me realise that we hadn’t yet talked about the skills that will be key to success in our future workspaces.

As a topic, the future of work has been grabbed by various journalists as a sensationalist opportunity to paint a dystopian picture.  We need to remember however that we can’t possibly precisely predict the future; indeed, it’s worth remembering what Peter Drucker allegedly said:

"The best way to predict the future is to create it."

Earlier this year, the OECD published a report on Automation, Skills Use and Training.  This working paper outlines research in progress and presents an update to the now much-cited 2013 Frey & Osborne report.  The OECD predicts that across 32 member-countries, up to 66 million jobs will be impacted by automation and AI.

That’s frankly quite stark.  On the flip side, we can use that data to ask another question. What can we do to future-proof our careers? Let’s then take a closer look at the skills we’re told will prove essential in the future of work.

Here at Working the Future Towers, we assess various reports speculating on the skills of the future.  As technology becomes increasingly pervasive at work, it goes without saying that we will all need to keep on top of digital and our ability to learn (at least the basics of) new and emerging business applications. The sought-after skills however will be increasingly human - ones that computers can’t emulate, and one’s that, if we don’t pay attention, we risk diminishing as online contact becomes the prevailing means of communication.  Let’s get started.

1] Critical thinking & complex problem-solving
Complexity is the new normal, transcending socio-cultural, economic, environment and political domains.  Our challenges are complicated, interwoven, and both local and global in tandem. They require evolved systems thinking if we are to overcome them.

Unfortunately, in the Google age, where algorithms provide answers to most questions, we’ve also become mentally indolent.

Ironically, we used Google to find our favourite definition of critical thinking. We like this one:

 "...that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully analysing, assessing, and reconstructing it."  

To us, this means thinking objectively, being open to the multiple approaches and being aware of the inbuilt biases that impact thinking.

Thinking systemically is also key - acknowledging that few of our challenges exist in isolation. Deeper thinking is required to unravel viable and workable solutions.

While this all seems complicated, it’s worth remembering that software can only solve the problems it’s been written to solve. Ultimately, software’s ability to problem solve is contingent on the critical thinking ability of the code developer, and how that ability converts into code.  Context is everything!

2] Creativity
I’m sure it wasn’t just me who was told at school that I was rubbish at art. From tweendom, I spent years believing I was vastly uncreative.  Here’s the thing though. Creativity covers such a wide gamut of activities that we are all creative at something, and our creative streak can and will fuel other creativity. In the future of work, businesses will require many more creative thinkers to retain the attention of their customers, providing innovate, fresh and relevant products and services. Who better to work out what might work for a human than another human being? This is where we have significant advantage over machines as we will always be better placed at figuring out what others like us might like.   

3] Emotional intelligence (EI)
Daniel Goleman is, for us, the EI guru - he argues that it matters more than IQ and as we move into increasingly technological futures, it matters more than ever.

At its simplest, EI is the ability to recognise your own emotions AND recognise the emotions of others, in order to respond in a suitable fashion.  Where technology will drive mass uniformity in business, our human ability to read emotion nuance will provide the leading-edge over a machine. Disgruntled customer? We’re a long way from a machine be able to accurately read and decipher that nuance.

4] Adaptability and flexibility
Future work-scapes will move at lightning speed. Technological efficiencies will accelerate the pace of change, and to an increasing extent, humans will complement technology.  Human contribution will inevitably become more "on-demand". Business schools predict future organisational structures as far more fluid; a core team of niche strategic talent, supported by transient work teams who "roll on - roll off" to deliver commercial objectives tactically. Great amounts of mental and emotional flexibility and resilience will be required in order to succeed in this new landscape. Mutability will become mainstream.

* * * * *

The great news is that these skills can be developed and honed.

The not so great news is that our 24-7 always-on all-digital environments don’t lend themselves to the development of those skills. We need to take time away from our devices and spend time both in reflection, sharpening focus, and also in the company of those others who can stretch our thinking and perspectives. The amazing thing about spending time switched off from digital is that this is when breakthrough moments occur. I can’t explain it, but please trust me when I tell you that it does.

There are many jobs of the future that haven’t evolved yet. They will however undoubtedly require the skills listed above, and those who get ahead of the curve in focusing on and practicing these skills will be the ones who survive and thrive in the future of work. 


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Looking to dive deeper into some of the areas covered in this blog post? Check out our Recruitment and Retention and Foresight Focus reports and products.

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