Five Trends Shaping the Future of Work

November 8, 2016


Charles Lamb was an English writer and essayist who lived from 1775 until 1834. In a recent BBC article about the history of the office he was quoted as saying: "Thirty years have I served the Philistines, and my neck is not subdued to the yoke. You don't know how wearisome it is to breathe the air of four pent walls without relief day after day."

Although Lamb lived nearly 200 years ago, many employees today can still relate to his comments. That's because for many of us around the world, the typical office is still focused on utility—that is, the basic elements and resources required for an employee to do their jobs. Today this is usually a desk, chair, computer, and phone.

This focus on utility means there has been no emphasis on creating a beautiful, engaging workplace—especially not one that took into consideration the health and well-being of the employees. Most of what we are seeing today around new office designs, flexible work schedules, catered meals, unlimited vacation time, abolishment of annual reviews and the like, are relatively new phenomena.

Many offices still feel like what Charles Lamb described – and they resemble a cubicle farm. In fact, a recent article by The Economist titled "Inside the Box" states that around 40 million employees in North America are still working in cubicles. Yet, we are seeing progress from organizations that are investing in multiple floor plan options ranging from open spaces to café-like work spaces.

Organizations are starting to accept the fact that if they want to be able to attract and retain top talent, they must focus on their employees' physical work space. But why are these conversations happening now and not a few decades ago? I see five current trends that are shaping the future of work. Let's review them in detail.

While there may be some people who believe millennials are weird creatures from another planet who are unfit for today's workplace, millennials are actually quite similar to other generations, according to a 2014 report by Oxford Economics called, "Workforce 2020, Millennial Misunderstanding." So what's all the fuss about?

The reason this is such a hot topic is because of how large this workplace demographic is and will become. Millennials are already the largest workplace demographic. By 2020 they will comprise 50 percent of the workforce, and that figure will rise to 75 percent by 2025. This cohort is the one that is pushing many of the changes we are seeing inside of our organizations. This is because, unlike previous generations, millennials now have a very powerful voice to actually drive organizational change.

Many organizations are realizing that to attract and retain this new generation of worker, they need to create contemporary (even progressive) office environments. It's no wonder that so many of the famous technology companies out there with "cool" office designs are able to bring in the best and the brightest. Offices aren't dying; they are reemerging as employee experience centers.

Still, it's important for us to realize that the future employee isn't just someone who is young. Instead, we should think of the future employee as anyone whose attitudes, values, and expectations have changed. That person can be 22 or 52.

Being connected anytime, anywhere, and on any device means that we can rethink what it means to "work." It's no longer a place where we need to be physically. Think about how powerful this is. For the first time in the history of business, work comes with us in our pockets whether we are in a cab, airplane, remote part of the world, or at home—assuming, of course, that your organization is enabling this.

So clearly, it is mobile technology that has spawned the flexible work environment. But it doesn't stop there. Mobility also refers to mobile talent and being able to solve business challenges with a dispersed workforce.  Given that managers don't need to see employees to know they are working, the distinction between our work lives and personal lives has blurred. Now, rather than the elusive "work-life balance," employees are focused on effective "work-life blending."

The world itself is becoming like one giant city. The language you speak, the currency you use, and your physical location now matter less and less. This means the barriers to working with, hiring, attracting, and retaining top talent have all but disappeared. No longer are you confined to a certain radius of your office building come hiring time. Today you can find talent anywhere in the world for virtually any industry. Globalization is allowing organizations to become more decentralized and distributed, which means employees are able to work and have an impact from any location in any corner of the world.

Technology acts as the central nervous system inside of our organizations in that it enables many common workplace patterns and behaviors, such as real-time feedback and recognition and flexible work environments.

But in addition, video conferencing, wearable devices, big data, the Internet of Things, collaboration platforms and the like, have rapidly made their way inside of our organizations. The biggest challenge now is to figure out how to use these technologies to empower employees to find new ways of getting work done.

Because technology changes so rapidly, it's what organizations around the world care the most about. Technology not only impacts how we work but also the overall workforce landscape. Computers and robots are doing more of our routine, transactional work, while employees are transitioning to creative and strategic work.

We share ideas on blogs, post reviews on Yelp, share our professional history on LinkedIn, and engage in public conversations on Twitter. Clearly, in general, we have become more comfortable with large portions of our life in public view. Amazingly, this shift in behavior has been wide-sweeping—affecting all demographic groups—and global within a very short amount of time. The ways we communicate, collaborate, buy things, teach, learn, and even consume information have all changed.

We control our lives with our smartphones! Now, organizations must adapt to all of these new behavior changes while bridging the gap between how we work and how we live. For example, why is it easy for us to find information on Google, yet hard to do so internally? Why is it easy to send someone a message on Facebook, yet tedious to find and communicate with people inside of our organizations?

  1. Millennials and Changing Demographics
  2. Mobility
  3. Globalization
  4. Technology
  5. New Behaviors


These five trends—along with a fierce hiring climate—create a perfect storm for organizational change. Certainly, office space is seeing the impact of these trends. Employees want to work in a progressive environment that reflects the time that we live in. If there's significant disparity between an employee's home and workplace in terms of its design and technological sophistication, an organization risks fostering disengagement and even resentment.

While there has been a lot of debate around open or closed office floor plans and whether one is superior to the other, these discussions miss the crucial point. The future of work isn't about either one; it's about giving employees the flexibility they want and need to get their jobs done. We must think of our organizations like our homes, where each room serves a unique purpose.

Most homes in industrialized countries have multiple rooms, each with a specific function. You have a kitchen where you cook, maybe a separate dining room where you eat, a living room where you can relax, a bedroom where you sleep, a bathroom where you can shower, and perhaps a yard where you can get some fresh air. Your house was designed with all of this in mind. You don't shower in the kitchen and you don't cook in the bedroom. Why then would we restrict our employees to just two types of environments: a cube and a conference room?

During a typical day an employee will have multiple types of work to conduct, some requiring collaboration and others requiring intense focus. Depending on the nature of the business at hand, an open floor plan could be well-suited for collaborative work, and quiet or isolated space would be best for focused activities. For learning, a specialty training room might be the best option. For casual brainstorming and conversation, the café-style layout can be most ideal. The idea is to give employees the opportunity to choose their preferred environment.

This doesn't mean that tomorrow you should start destroying your walls. But you should speak with your employees to understand how they work and what they desire in a work environment. Like anything else inside of our organizations, change isn't an endpoint; it's a mindset and a feedback-driven process that allows for continuous evolution.

With any type of change, education and training are required. This is especially true in the case of creating new physical spaces or introducing technologies. You'll want to help employees understand the design of the type of office you want to create, and how to use new work tools, such as a conference room reservation system, for example. It's also important to create clarity around the intended purpose of various spaces in the office such as quiet rooms, demo rooms, lounges, and the like.

A simple and effective place to start is by looking at the values of your organization and asking, "Are these values physically reflected and manifested in the workspace?" In other words, if your organization values fun, innovation, and collaboration, then these aspects should be brought to life in the office. But, if you have six-foot cubicles, empty conference rooms, and one sparse breakroom, then chances are you need to make some changes.

Organizations have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the changing business landscape by creating environments where employees truly want to show up. This is no longer a luxury or a nice-to-have; this is something that employees around the world are expecting, as they should. If your organization is serious about attracting and retaining top talent, then you can't afford to overlook your physical surroundings.

When it Comes to Your Physical Space, Consider These Five Concepts:

  1. Design for multiple floor plans—not just open or closed.
  2. Use technology to connect your people and information.
  3. Think of your physical workspace as you would a house.
  4. Design for changing employee values, attitudes, and expectations across the employee base, not just one cohort in particular.
  5. Remember that your physical workspace is an employee experience center, so treat it as such!


Note: Jacob Morgan was a featured keynote speaker at EMS Live! 2015. We asked him to share his latest thoughts on the design of the digital workplace in advance of his third book,The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspaces They Want, the Tools They Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate, which will be available in March 2017.