As a student of the history of work and the author of a book about the future of work, I can’t talk about the world of work without talking about the horrific health and economic crisis we are all struggling with now. How will COVID-19 affect the workforce? Is this the end of the office as we know it? What is the future of work going to look like?
These questions and many more dominate the discussion on workforce planning and will continue to do so for some time. My answer has two components:
- It's too early to draw conclusions because this situation is unprecedented in its speed and impact. We simply don’t have enough data yet to draw conclusions.
- The most likely outcome is the acceleration of existing trends.
I like to focus on the existing trends and not on our lack of data. Some are undeniable, some inevitable, and some we just don’t know yet. One undeniable trend is the increase in remote work and we have plenty of data to back up that prediction. Elements such as the continued encroachment of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs are inevitable, but the data on acceleration has not yet been presented. On-demand labor’s slow and steady growth will most likely also accelerate, but that is a more complex discussion.
Remote WorkRemote work is, by far, the clearest example of a trend that is accelerating. During the past 10 years remote work has doubled to about 3 percent of the labor force. Prior to the crisis, most experts agreed this number would continue to grow but at a slower rate. Companies didn’t have the policies, procedures, and infrastructure to support remote work at scale. Of course, those hurdles were quickly (and in some cases, imperfectly) overcome as we moved to nearly 40 percent of the labor force working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Most employees will go back to the office once this crisis has passed, but some will not. Gartner recently surveyed CFOs of large companies, and they predict that 5 percent of workers will remain remote even when the COVID-19 threat has waned. I believe that number will be closer to nearly 8 percent of the labor force. Regardless of where we end up, the remote work trend has clearly accelerated.
Robots and AIAdoption of robots and AI is another trend that is picking up speed. Robots have existed in the manufacturing sector for a generation, slowly decreasing the need for human labor. Manufacturing employment in the United States decreased from 20 million in 1980 to about 12 million today. Most of this reduction is due to robots’ ability to perform the repetitive high-volume tasks inherent in production lines. As the price of robots and AI systems continues to fall, more and more industries, from services to consumer usage, will find applications for these elements. This trend was clear before the crisis, and the need to protect from another pandemic will convince many decision makers to invest in more automation. The purchase of a self-checkout kiosk or AI accounting software is a cost versus benefits decision. The costs have been falling, and the prospect of robots working in any condition is an increasing benefit. You don’t need to socially distance your robots. An AI system will not get sick. It's too early to see how this trend will progress as companies cope with what’s in front of them, but as capital budgets are set for the next few years, automation technology will be at the top of the list.
On-Demand LaborThe on-demand labor market is more complex. On-demand labor had been growing slowly and steadily over the last decade as a portion of the labor force. Companies with large on-demand labor forces were able to quickly adjust to the crisis by reducing costs—stopping all on-demand work. While this was a huge benefit to companies, it left millions of on-demand workers with no income (and, of course, these workers had limited access to the social safety programs). Many executives took note of competitors who were able to reduce costs quicker and may now be thinking that more on-demand labor is a better path forward. Additionally, some companies turned to on-demand labor to fill gaps as their workers couldn’t or didn’t want to travel (for example, there’s no need to put someone on a plane to do a project when freelancers live there and can do the work).
On the other side, some companies are thinking about last year’s Business Roundtable declaration about stakeholder value and have been converting on-demand labor to full-time employees. Other companies have been decreasing their use of on-demand labor as regulation is getting more complex. All these trends and contraindications in the on-demand labor market mean that the future is being formed, but we just don’t know yet which way it will go.
The future of work is being defined before our eyes. In some ways, the data is undeniable, as with remote work. In other ways, the trend is clear even if the data isn’t there yet, as with robots and AI. And sometimes it's unclear which way the data will break, as with on-demand labor.
The future is now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to predict.