• Four changes will define the way we work 5 years from now.
  • Work from home (or "remotopia"), green jobs, the gig-revolution and automation will rewrite the rulebooks.
  • Organizations have an opportunity now to shape the future they want rather than simply manage the future that comes.

Where previous calendars measured time according to Before Christ and Anno Domini, the coronavirus outbreak has revealed a new sense of time. This is the beginning of a new epoch.

Our collective consciousness now considers Before Corona and anticipates Anno Remedio. The year of the remedy is attributable not just to a cure for the virus but also a move-forward remedy for the pervasive economic and environmental challenges that confront us. As we strive to build back better, four key changes to how we work will be necessary over the next five years.

The next COO at your company will work remotely, stay with the company for six months, and never even get a company email account. But they will be the best hire you’ve ever made.

1. “Remotopia”: work from home - from the margins to the mainstream

At the outset of 2020, less than 5% of workers did their jobs remotely. Now, more than half of knowledge workers work remotely.

In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a number of high-profile companies - Facebook, Google, PayPal, Shopify, Siemens, and more - have announced long-term or permanent remote work policies.

Remote working arrangements, which are new to many companies and workers, require vastly different ways of thinking and collaborating. For example, the emerging normalcy of distributed workforces will place even greater importance on soft skills such as communication, relatability, empathy, and flexibility.

Studies show that remote employees work longer hours and are more productive than in-office counterparts. Both workers and employers alike must learn to balance those gains with increased likelihood of burnout and feelings of isolation. Additionally, recruiting for knowledge workers can expand to new geographies and include previously underrepresented populations like disabled or chronically ill workers. These changing dynamics will move to the HR forefront in the years to come.

Image: Cognizant, Remotopia

2. Blue collar. White collar. Green collar?

The climate clock keeps ticking. As the US looks to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and strengthen its commitment to climate change mitigation policies, new business opportunities should abound.

For starters, electric vehicles (EVs) are expected to reach price parity with internal combustion engines vehicles by 2024. This clearly has motivated Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, to boost its investment in electrifying its delivery fleet. All signs point to the emerging importance of the green business economy.

As new regulations and new technologies give way to new platforms and ways of doing business, the workers behind it must evolve. The rise of “green collar” jobs represents great opportunity for job creation and will be a salvation to many workers whose jobs will be eliminated by new policies around industrial carbon cuts or automation.

Over the past decade, digital transformation has turned every company into a tech company. The next decade is likely to see similar transformation in sustainability policies and strategies.

As every business becomes a green business, organizations will need to train green collar workers to combine tech skills with domain-specific training in environmentally-friendly business processes. These green collar jobs will range from solar installation technicians to ESG Directors that manage an organization’s overall portfolio of climate change reduction efforts.

3. The gig economy evolution

The next COO at your company will work remotely, stay with the company for six months, and never even get a company email account. But they will be the best hire you’ve ever made.

On-demand labour platforms like TaskRabbit and Uber have helped normalize the gig economy, providing a platform for ad hoc tasks to be completed by freelance workers. That normalization, along with new technologies, has opened the door for the freelancing of white collar jobs like marketing, management, engineering - and even finance. Upwork, We Are Rosie, and Guru provide marketplaces for these professional services. The combination of these platforms and collaboration tools like Mural, Slack, and Zoom is creating an environment in which minimal barriers remain for talented workers to contribute to projects at a range of businesses with complete flexibility.

In years past, freelancing was viewed as a last resort for individuals that struck out in traditional roles or for those that were otherwise undesirable employees. Now, the most talented individuals are betting on themselves.

Freelancing offers agility to companies that must adapt to unexpected challenges and provides freedom to workers who want flexible and remote work arrangements. Embracing this shift positions all parties to succeed in the future of work, no matter where or when that happens.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces a re-think of entrenched work culture norms, the opportunity arises for disruption of professional services via the gig economy. But the tools to move towards a less exploitative and more just platform economy will be essential – with strategies that involve transparency, accountability, worker power and democratic ownership.

4. Automation and AI augment the workforce

Much of the conversation around jobs in the Fourth Industrial Revolution pivots around the importance of so-called knowledge workers and creativity-based work.

The takeaway: computers and software will not be able to replicate human creativity. While some manual labour will indeed be eliminated by intelligent machines, far more jobs will be augmented by them.

In the wake of the pandemic, logistics operations have looked to on-demand automation services like Fetch Robotics to enable social distancing and safe work environments in warehouses.

Another example is the trucking industry. Despite automation – demand for drivers continues to rise in the interim – especially with the sharp increase of e-commerce. At first blush, AI-powered autonomous vehicles would seem destined to eliminate millions of trucking jobs worldwide. Instead, the development of autonomous vehicles is more likely to improve working conditions and safety with sensors that predict weather patterns and other drivers’ behaviour.

As similar scenarios play out across the globe, previously labour-intensive roles will see more dangerous tasks offloaded to machines. This gives rise to roles like “Man-Machine Teaming Managers” that will analyse business functions to assess the proper mix of human and robotic workflows. This is one of many other roles that will emerge at the intersection of human creativity and machine efficiency.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents an inflection point that will significantly re-shape the future of work over the next five years – and likely beyond. Understanding the second and third order effects of the pandemic are mind-bending, but key to successfully navigating the future of work.

While it is impossible to predict exactly how each of the trends will play out, leaders should be evaluating the range of possible outcomes and assessing their readiness should any of those scenarios play out.

Change preparedness will determine success for most organizations – separating the losers from the survivors and shining a light on the outright winners. It also offers the opportunity for organizations to shape the future they want rather than simply manage the future that comes.