Digital transformation, increasing flexibility – the working world is transforming radically.
Future Workplace

"We won't be running out of work"

Labor economist Dr. Alessio J. G. Brown explains how we can benefit from the changes in the working world.
What might the workplace look like in ten years? Labor economist Dr. Alessio J. G. Brown explains how we can benefit from the transformation.

Dr. Brown, the workplace is transforming radically. Some people fear the increasing digitization while others appreciate the new flexibility. What does your working day look like?

After my apprenticeship at Sparkasse (a savings bank), I had fixed working hours. Today I'm flexible – and I relish that. As a family man, I appreciate the ability to be there for my kids when they're sick. In exchange, I'm perfectly happy to work in the evening, after they've gone to bed. Overall, this flexibility is very favorable to my life plans.

Your children will be joining the workforce in a few years. Will it bear any resemblance at all to what we have now?

That's difficult to say. A changing world is nothing new – but the current pace of change certainly is. We won't be running out of work, but many occupations that we take for granted today will disappear. Instead, the digital economy will grow: with half a million workers in Germany, it's already nearly as important as the automotive industry. Our children won't only be competing with workers from all over the world, but also with machines and artificial intelligence. But when it comes to creativity, social skills, self-responsibility, entrepreneurial thinking, empathy and communication capabilities, we humans are ahead of the robots.

Is there no escaping the transformation?

No, it's already underway and more changes will follow. Those who want to stay competitive – companies and employees – will have to adjust. All the technological developments in the past have improved our quality of life and created more prosperity. We should view these changes as an opportunity to improve our life planning and build on the necessary key qualifications.

Which specific changes should we expect?

Firstly, work will become more flexible. We will have more personal say in when and where we work. Secondly, work will become more heterogeneous. Instead of pursuing a clearly defined career for many years, in the future we will contribute our skill sets to flexible projects. This will make CVs more varied and careers more open. In addition, the workforce participation of women, older workers and qualified immigrants will increase. Thirdly, work will become more informal. Regular employees will join up with freelance experts to form virtual teams in which hierarchies are less important. Fourthly, work will demand more flexibility and willingness for life-long learning. All in all, the work of the future will not make us less satisfied – if we are prepared to deal with this new flexibility.

Studies show that flexibility on the job, when combined with employee empowerment and independence, generates higher levels of motivation and happiness. But is the future of work really so bright?

There will definitely be challenges. Work will become more complex overall and boundaries between our jobs and our personal lives will become more blurred. Self-management and good leadership will be needed to avoid stress. We also need to make sure that business risks are not increasingly transferred to individuals. The growing number of crowd-workers needs advocacy groups to improve their social security.

How will enterprise structures and corporate culture change?

These areas are already transforming as well. 47 percent of all companies in the IT and communications industry already have rules governing home offices. The corresponding figure in other industries, however, is just 17 percent. But this will be changing in the future, too: there will be new working hours, additional qualification opportunities and more co-determination. HR departments will have to be prepared for applicants who increasingly value a good work/life balance. The companies that can offer this will be better able to retain their employees. New compensation models will acknowledge individual success, as well as enable equity participation. Google already does this today – and its employees' performance has improved noticeably.
Dr. Alessio J. G. Brown is Co-Director of the Center for Population, Development and Labor Economics (POP) at UNU-MERIT in Maastricht.

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