Humans and Work in the Digital Era – The Next 20 Years

Humans and Work in the Digital Era – The Next 20 Years

Published on October 7, 2019

Rohit Talwar
Rohit Talwar – Futurist Speaker

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, and Alexandra Whittington

Transformative technological changes are reshaping our organizations; what could this mean for the future of work?

Decentralizing Technologies and the Future of Organization Design

We are often asked “what is the future of organizations?” Over the next 15-20 years, organizational structure and the nature of work as we know it seem likely to undergo drastic changes. Technology is already decentralizing, and automating business and external boundaries are becoming more fluid as we integrate into wider collaborative ecosystems. As a result, the scope and focus of organizations will evolve on a continuous basis. In the face of such shifts, this chapter intends to shed some light on the possibilities of what organizations of the future might look like and how we will work.

There is already incredible variation in the structure of workplaces and in how work gets done. We expect and hope for such diversity to be amplified in the next 20 years rather than reduced into a single scenario of the “future of work.” Of course, we expect technology, and in particular artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, to penetrate every sector and have a major influence on the shape of things to come. 

How might these emerging and disruptive technologies impact our notions of everyday work? If current exponential rates of technological progress continue, in 20 years we could have computing capabilities anywhere from 500 to 10,000 times more powerful than we have today. This could be replicated across every domain of information technology, encompassing fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, drones, big data stores, quantum computing, hyperconnectivity, cloud computing, sensor devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D/4D printing, and augmented and virtual reality. 

A combination of these exponential technologies, new business thinking, evolving societal expectations, and economic shifts could result in an ever-broadening spectrum of organizational models. At one end will be those fully automated decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) with no employees—many already exist—such as Teambrella the insurance company in the Netherlands. At the other extreme will be those firms that pride themselves on doing their work the way it has always been done. From handcrafted furniture artisans to super secretive personal law firms serving ultra-wealthy individuals, and the millions of new jobs that will hopefully emerge in the creative arts, their work will we be done much as it is today and as it was 20 years ago.

In the middle of the spectrum, we’ll see a lot of entities using technology in three key ways: i) to automate away human roles; ii) to augment specialist roles to free up humans from the robotic parts of their work; and iii) to do information manipulation at a scale and speed which humans could never do. A lot of organizations will realize that to keep their firm differentiated will require the creative spark of humans and the personal touch. While a robot could serve me and manage my account and AI could conduct the entire bidding, contract, and delivery process for a $50 million building project, some clients may simply prefer dealing with humans.

Personal Technology, Collaboration, and Communication

As the boundary between technology and the human body starts to blur, what might the impacts be on the way we interact with our environment? Some hope that we will see exponential advances on the already impressive current progress in brain computer interfaces and wireless brain-to-brain communication. Almost certainly, voice and gesture will have eliminated the bulk of interactions with everything from our refrigerator and vacuum cleaner to whatever replaces the computer and smartphone in 20 years’ time.

Our devices could become way smarter, monitoring everything from our breathing, oxygen intake, and heart rate through to walking speed, voice patterns, and fluid consumption. They will use the data to determine or anticipate our moods, needs, and desires, and act accordingly to manage the world around us. Simply think of a colleague we want to talk to and our AI will be able to determine who it is and connect us as a result of comparing current and historic data on our brainwaves and bodily functions.

If we get to thought transfer, all sorts of new opportunities emerge. Instant chat really does become instant, emails get replaced by thought exchange, and lies might become a thing of the past. There are also challenges. How will we manage the constant flow of information bombarding us all the time? Imagine all your emails being opened in front of you to be read the moment they arrive, all the time. How will we hide our personal thoughts, how will we prioritize the information coming in, how will we keep conversations private? We might need AI implants in our brain to manage all of this on our behalf and act as a privacy guardian and brain concierge serving up what we need when we need it.

Future Workplace and Project Communications

Projects are becoming the lifeblood of organizations, but our methods of team communication still leave a lot to be desired. If we look ahead 20 years, will we still be discussing projects in never-ending email threads? In a smart tech-enabled scenario, projects would be managed very differently. Manager AIs would draw on past project records to determine how to structure and coordinate similar new work tasks. Most routine work would be automated in the type of workplace environments we’ve imagined here and so the work the humans do will increasingly be project-focused.

The email scourge is generally driven by poor communication, misunderstood requirements, competing priorities on our time, and unrealistic deadlines. Smart project management systems could help eliminate these issues. Brain-to-brain communication will also help, and the biggest contributors to the death of email will be far better training in communication, collaboration, project working, dispute resolution, problem solving, scenario thinking, and accelerated learning.

Slack, Facebook Workplace, Microsoft Teams and G Suite, and other such work communication tools will evolve and become far more ubiquitous in the next decade—covering ever-larger parts of the work we do. As humans get replaced by machines for a lot of traditional activity they are likely to shift their focus to more creative tasks. In response, newer group productivity tools will also start to emerge that have far more seamless connectivity between constantly changing business applications, workflow management, and the communications requirements of the team. The less human involvement in the flow of routine activity, the more the technology will enable smooth interconnection between systems and an accelerated flow of routine work.

Social Media and Networks

As millennials enter the workplace and drive adoption of social media tools, how might this impact our ways of working? Our social media tools are becoming increasingly vital for work tasks from conference calling and team coordination to customer communications and complaint handling. The importance of this functionality is likely to grow and then disappear into the background as the social part of social media simply becomes part of how we work—with AI doing more of the social connection on our behalf. As part of the work environments mentioned above, we’ll see ever-greater integration of existing and customizable social media tools.

As the technology gets smarter, for individuals, the boundaries will disappear between email, text, voice, work social media, private social media, and direct brain drops—everything will become a curated flow of information managed by a personal AI. In this world, the distinction between LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Slack, and every other platform will evaporate—they all just become inputs to your inbox. We are currently obsessed by these brands, but 95-99% of tech ventures fail eventually, so we can expect casualties even among the current masters of the digital universe. The brands may die but the functionality and multimedia user experience will live on.

To take a radical leap into the future, automated sharing and resource allocation—from staplers to massive display screens—could introduce a new social ecosystem that enhances new behaviors and skills around collaboration, sense-making, curiosity, scenario thinking, and work. The organization could also provide support to the local entrepreneurial ecosystem in terms of employment, training, start-up support, and start-up pitching. There could be incubator facilities for internal and external ventures alike. Some of the larger organizations of the future might see it as part of their civic remit to provide multi-purpose facilities for yet to be determined internal uses and to support “grand challenge” societal redesign projects—for example, experiments in housing courtrooms, doctors’ surgeries, social centers, and libraries in the evenings, at weekends, and during holidays.

The End of Email?

Will we finally wean ourselves off email addiction? A lot of the developments described here will chip away at the current role of the email. However, its total demise will be a long time coming. Security requirements, personal comfort, inertia, and a lack of trust in the new technology platforms in some quarters will ensure that email lives on for at least another 5-10 years—even if the way in which it presents to us changes dramatically over that time frame.

The Possible Shapes of the Next Future

The next logical question is, what comes after email, Slack, and Facebook? We think there are a combination of evolutionary and unexpected developments in how we work which could become significant in the next five to ten years. At the core is the notion that as technology frees us from the routine, there will be a growing focus on value creation through collaboration and co-creation with internal external partners, which could see a shift toward more “walk and talk” meetings and less fixed appointments.

Technology and AI will undoubtedly sit at the heart of the next wave of work design, with a growing reliance on life automation tools—multi-app personal AI assistants managing our workday. These will be coupled with the digital twins performing the bulk of our routine tasks. Our AIs are increasingly likely to be performing tasks such as document review and triaging all our inboxes to extract salient information and send auto-responses. As we do our work and take on new tasks, we can expect to see growing use of context-sensitive, in-task, and on-demand personalized training. Such continuous monitoring of the work people do should allow us to spot productivity problems and poor approaches to tasks. The systems will evaluate how we are doing the job and then draw on vast global databases of information on others doing similar tasks from systems like Office 365 to provide instant written, verbal, and video guidance on how to do each task more efficiently and effectively to improve our performance.

In the background, we could see growing use of context-aware AI voice assistants responding to requests and proactively listening to conversations. Such tools would bring relevant information into view on demand or on an anticipatory basis, mute participants automatically, record and transcribe the discussion, and summarize the outcomes. As these tools will have a better and constantly updated understanding of what each of us knows, they could highlight and research new terms and concepts that are mentioned in the discussion and share the findings with us discretely—perhaps overlaying the information on our contact lens displays.

The rise of new sectors and the new possibilities enabled by technology could see exponential growth in terms of the number of roles focused on humans and AI working together to extract and act on insights from vast data arrays. The greater the reliance we place on technology, the faster core work will get done, which could potentially create pressure and tension points wherever humans interact with the machines and decisions are required to enable the flow of work to continue. Our capacity to keep pace with the speed of business is already being challenged and this is likely to be exacerbated as AI enters the scene. Making our work lives more sustainable will require a radical rethinking of priorities and a cultural commitment to make our workplaces more human. Whatever happens, we are likely to see a growing need for regular disconnection and retreat in oases of calm and reflection within the workplace.

Preparing for Multiple Possible Futures of Work

No one can accurately predict where the future of work will take us in the next few decades, but the developments taking place today and the ideas emerging from research labs creating the next waves of technology give us some pointers around what our systems might do. The technology may allow us to operate seamlessly around the globe, provide genuinely consistent levels of service 24/7/365, and become far better at predicting issues and solving problems. One thing is certain: we will be learning constantly, and smart systems will be a key resource. In parallel we need to be focusing our efforts on enhancing human capabilities to help us perform in whatever jobs and roles we might be undertaking. From raising digital literacy to enhancing our communication and collaboration skills, continuous learning will be the essential lifeforce for individuals and organizations alike.

  • What are the value-added parts of work we can see human workers focusing on in the future?
  • What major changes to the structure of businesses are you already noticing and what other changes would you expect to see in the future?
  • How is your organization addressing the requirement for enhanced future workplace communications and collaboration?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

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