Three ways HR can understand the workplace of the future

So much has been written about the workplace of the future. But beyond the holograms and space-age offices, what are the dominant trends likely to be, and how should HR respond to them? In her latest Tech Talk column, Cath Everett picks out three to watch. 

Technology has both enabled and generated vast amounts of workplace change over the last decade, and it is likely to bring about even more over the next one.

In fact, Graeme Hubbard, technology business partner at Manpower Group’s workforce consultancy Right Management, somewhat scarily believes that “in the next 10 years, we’ll see more disruptive technology emerging than we did in the last 20 as change continues to gather pace and becomes the new norm”.

With that in mind, is it worth trying to delve into the future to see what we can expect? If we have some idea of what is on the horizon, we may be able to prepare better for it.

But such musings inevitably raise the question of just what this mythical workplace of the future might look like – and what the repercussions of any moves in that direction are likely to be on HR.

In fact, many of these predictions are based on an acceleration of current trends. So how should HR respond?

1. Flat organisational structures and fluid workforces

It is predicted that organisations will be physically much smaller than they are today, as well as much less hierarchical, especially if they employ technical and knowledge workers.

This is because, rather than having the skills they need in-house, lots of companies will be made up of a core contingent of staff and managers, a number of whom will work from home much of the time.

But no matter where they happen to be based, this pool of experts will hold the organisation’s strategy, values and ethics, acting as the glue that binds everything else together.

In the next 10 years, we’ll see more disruptive technology emerging than we did in the last 20.” – Graeme Hubbard, Right Management

Any other expertise required will be supplied by virtual (and global) networks of freelancers and contractors, who can be called on as and when they are needed.

This means that by 2030, those controversial zero hours contracts could be the norm.

To put it in perspective, Hubbard explains that the way things operate in 10 years from now will be similar to how a feature film is made today.

“Although some employees focus on production, lots of others come from different disciplines and are self-employed specialists,” he says. “They collaborate on project deliverables and are managed virtually. We’re seeing this already, but in 10 years time, we won’t even think about it.”

HR’s role

HR will have a key role to play in supporting and training managers to make sure they have the skills they need.

According to Melody Moore, managing consultant at Hay Group, a vital skill will be learning how to manage remote staff, potentially from a range of different cultures and geographies, based on output rather than input.

To make this scenario work, bosses will need to become good networkers, equipped with both great address books and that scarce commodity, excellent people management skills. These include being able to trust people and empower them to get on with things themselves.

Arguably, issues like staff engagement and motivation simply won’t matter in the same way because, for contractors and people pursuing so-called “portfolio” careers, loyalty will be much more focused on individuals rather than organisations per se.

That said, corporate reputation, which links into ideas of fairness and doing the right thing, will matter more than ever, not least when you are trying to recruit and work with people in those virtual networks.

As a result, corporate social responsibility will become a central concern, not least because millennials – the generation who really care about these things – are expected to make up three-quarters of the workforce in as little as five years.

A final, and particularly tricky, consideration in such a fluid world will be talent and succession management. Here, data analytics tools will play a really important role in helping you spot which future leaders to develop, for instance, potentially from a global pool.

2. Social and virtual communications and collaboration

In 10 years’ time, technology will be so deeply engrained in working culture and everyday life that we’ll barely notice it any more. But this situation will seriously blur the boundaries between work and personal time as a result.

For example, social systems such as Yammer and Twitter will enable members of global networks to work, and play, together instantaneously. This scenario will not only make it easier for people to collaborate, but will also help to reduce the potential feelings of isolation that remote working can bring.

At the personal-data level, meanwhile, individual workers will have much more control over it than they have done in the past. Instead of this kind of information being held in large corporate databases by their current employer, people will carry it around with them instead.

Jonathan Hogg, people and operations expert at management consultancy PA Consulting, explains: “I would bring my personal data to work in an application – I own the data and the app manages it. So I just click it into the company system when I arrive and take it out when I leave, but it’s linked into my pension and includes training details and the like.”

Virtual meetings and recruitment activities, however, will move into a whole new realm due to immersive technology. As science-fiction esque as it sounds, there will be 3D videoconferencing and life-size 3D holograms that can sit around a table and chat even if the participants are not physically present themselves.

HR’s role

First, it is important to get a good handle on technology yourself and learn to master things like social networking tools by experimenting with them, finding a mentor or reading up on it.

But you will also need to keep an open mind and go with the flow, accepting, for example, that face-to-face meetings may no longer always be the best way to communicate.

Second, growing levels of work-life integration mean that current policies around social media usage and the like will have to be rewritten as the boundaries between the two spheres disappear.

Another consideration will be how to manage and train workers of vastly different ages. For example, the skills gap between younger, “digital natives” and older “baby boomers” and “Generation X-es” is only likely to grow, meaning that learning and development (L&D) activities must be tailored more closely to each individual’s needs.

3. HR becomes more strategic

The world of operational HR will be almost totally automated and will either disappear into the cloud or be outsourced. Even shared service centres will have started to disappear, due to a much wider introduction of worker self-service systems.

This means that HR will assume a much more strategic and advisory role, helped by being able to take business operations data, analyse it and use it as a basis for making strategic decisions around everything from workforce planning to talent acquisition.

Rather than training everyone upfront, technology will enable them to access the information they need in the moment and keep it with them.” – Melody Moore, Hay Group

On the L&D side, on the other hand, it will be much more about curating content from numerous sources as and when required rather than creating it all yourself.

“You could call it just-in-time learning, which will be much more bite-sized and accessible,” Moore explains. “So rather than training everyone upfront, it’ll be about enabling them to access the information they need in the moment and keep it with them.”

Mobile and more informal learning methods will play a key role here by making it easy for workers to learn in their own time and on their own terms, while also having a much greater say about what they need.

HR’s role

The L&D function is likely to change dramatically. Not only will it need to completely rethink the way it provides learning, but the move to more mobile and informal approaches mean that evaluations will need to become more output-based.

Moreover, the function is likely to shrink significantly in size as virtual workers, who are not formally employed by the organisation, take increasing amounts of responsibility for their own learning.

On the HR side though, we will see things shifting relentlessly towards all things data in order to ensure decision making is more effective.

This means that you will need to learn how to analyse and interpret it properly, while also mixing it up with context and emotional intelligence. The aim here is that, when you take your insights to the board, you can always back them up with fact.

Hubbard concludes: “There’ll always be a place for HR, even as things become more automated, because we’ll always have real human issues that have to be solved.”

Cath Everett

About Cath Everett

Cath has been a journalist and editor for more than 20 years, specialising in HR and technology issues.

3 Responses to Three ways HR can understand the workplace of the future

  1. Mariann 22 Mar 2015 at 10:07 pm #

    Very good statements!

  2. MANOJ KUMAR SWAIN 27 Mar 2015 at 2:57 pm #

    Cathy..this article will be very helpful to all HR Professionals. Thanks for sharing. regards. Manoj.

  3. David Dieckman 9 Apr 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    A most insightful article. Few professions are going to change as much in the next few years than that of Human Relations. The hub of the organization will certainly be centered around HR! Thanks for the information..