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What workplace trends today tell us about the future of work

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10 mins

If you were a woman in the 1920s, you may have worked as a “knocker-upper.” The job entailed walking around town with a long stick to tap on the windows of your company’s factory workers every morning to ensure they made it to work on time.

In the 1960s, a large share of Americans worked for large industrial companies like General Motors, General Electric, and General Dynamics. They started on the job straight from high school and, with the exception of a labor stoppage here or there, toiled in the plants until they retired decades later with a generous pension.

Then technology exploded in the 1990s, creating thousands of high-paying, high-tech jobs. And the longest economic expansion in the country’s history offered more varied career opportunities, especially to the growing population of college graduates.

What is the future of work?

Today’s workforce reflects the evolution of a service-oriented economy: six of the 10 largest U.S. employers are retailers or fast-food chains. It also demonstrates the growing empowerment of workers. Many workers enjoy the flexibility of being able to show up at any reasonable time, and coming and going as they please as long as they get their job done. They earn benefits that promote work-life balance and work at offices with video games, workout centers, and free massages. That’s if they have to commute to an office at all.

With the rapid rate of change in workplace trends, predicting the future of work is complicated. Certainly, the “knocker-uppers” of the 1920s couldn’t predict that a century later their jobs would be performed by devices called smartphones, or that many workers wouldn't even need a wake-up call because of flexible hours.

But a number of today’s workplace trends will shape the immediate future of work.

Remote work and other changes to where we work

A growing share of today’s work can occur away from a traditional office. Employees can do their jobs from home, in co-working spaces, in coffee shops, or during a commute.

It’s estimated that nearly 5 million people work remotely, which is only 3.4 percent of the working population. Yet from 2005 to 2017, the remote working population increased by 159 percent.

Most experts agree the trend will continue. Companies benefit by spending less on real estate and overhead. They also don’t have to limit their recruiting to specific locations, which opens the talent pool. Employees can achieve greater work-life balance with remote work.

In addition, many firms previously hesitant to offer remote work have suddenly been forced to because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s reasonable to think many of these arrangements will remain permanent even after life returns to normal post-virus.

The growth in remote employees will impact the overall future of work in a variety of ways. Companies, teams, and employees must work harder to collaborate, communicate, and stay up-to-date on company and industry trends. Employees who migrate from office work to remote work may find it challenging to stay focused. Others need to learn to separate their career life from their home life, since both will occupy the same physical space.

[ Read: 7 effective tips for working from home as a first-timer ]

The four-day workweek and other changes to when we work

In addition to having flexible hours, some companies are moving to a four-day workweek.

The concept is gaining steam globally, with only a handful of American firms dipping their toes in.

But that could change, especially as research demonstrates increased productivity with a four-day structure over the traditional 5-day, 40-hour week. One recent study showed Microsoft Japan increased productivity by 40 percent going to a four-day week, while also lowering electricity costs.

It’s also a desirable benefit to skilled workers who crave work-life balance and would rather be measured on their total output versus the time they spend on the clock.

If more evidence points to employees getting more done in less time, why wouldn’t companies take the win-win?

One potential issue is that it can create a larger gap between professional workers and service labor. If certain parts of the workforce have an extra day off, they will likely want to spend it shopping, eating out, or on recreational activities. These industries are typically dominated by low-wage workers, who will have to continue their traditional workweek to accommodate that demand.

New collar jobs and other changes to how we are trained

The ballooning amount of student loan debt has dominated much of political discussion in the last several years. For many politicians, the answer is to make college free or provide some type of reimbursement.

Many in the private sector have figured out a different solution. It’s given rise to the new-collar worker.

This is a term used to describe individuals who took non-traditional paths to career preparation. They have eschewed the four-year liberal arts instruction for community colleges, vocational schools, online certifications, and apprenticeships.

Many new-collar workers find jobs in technology, from cybersecurity to digital design. IBM has created a New Collar Certificate Program.

In addition to the technology field, new-collar training programs have been implemented in fields with labor shortages, including health care and manufacturing.

With new-collar training, industries enduring talent shortages can hire and train employees faster than if they limit their search to those with four-year degrees. New-collar education is more accessible than a four-year college, as only about 25 percent of the workforce has a four-year degree.

With the ability to quickly train people on certain technical skills, recruiters and HR professionals may look more at soft skills. The future of workforce development, therefore, may include more emphasis on a candidate’s communication skills, attitude, critical thinking, and leadership qualities.

This trend may evolve in the future to where companies find the right people first, then offer to train them on the technical skills necessary for a job using a new-collar certification program.

The gig economy and other changes to how we work

The future of work will include more ways to earn income. Therefore, it’s possible the traditional full-time, 40-hour weekly job, the traditional corporate executive job, and the traditional small business owner may give way to making a living through a hodgepodge of sources on in the gig economy.

A typical income-earner in the future may spend part of their week driving for Uber or Lyft. When not shuttling people to and from the airport, they’ll be freelance writing or doing contract IT work. They may also generate passive income through an affiliate marketing program, which is promoting other companies via links on your website or other online platforms.

People are also finding ways to earn cash by renting out property through Airbnb, buying and reselling goods on websites like eBay, creating mobile apps, and selling ad space or doing paid product reviews on their podcasts and blogs.

If companies want to capitalize on this talent, they will have to structure a flexible workplace for them. That means remote work and flexible hours. It also means empowering employees to use their entrepreneurial desires to make their own job descriptions. Within some limits, managers may have to give up determining what employees should work on day-to-day, and let their talent decide how they can best serve the company’s interests.

Also, because many workers want and even need income from multiple sources, the company handbook must enable outside interests, so long as they don’t create conflicts of interest. That also means companies, their HR professionals, legal team, and employees may have to re-evaluate the definition of employee “conflicts of interest” in order to appease all parties.

Perks at work and other changes to how we are compensated

It wasn’t long ago that most employees were satisfied with a competitive salary, health insurance, and a 401(k) plan. While those are still important, the future of work will include more innovative compensation and benefit plans.

Companies will continue to invest in their workers by offering tuition reimbursement, paid industry training, and student loan repayment assistance. They will attempt to make the office more inviting with free snacks, massages, casual dress codes, and permission to bring pets.

Many companies are increasing their paid vacation time, offering paid days for volunteer work, and even providing unlimited paid time off. Parental leave will either become state or federal law or be adopted by more companies looking to recruit top talent.

To recruit and retain workers who presently switch jobs an average of 12 times in their working lives, companies will have to get creative with compensation. Raising salaries across the board won’t always be feasible. So employers will incorporate other enticements.

For example, technology companies started the trend in the last decades of granting ownership shares to employees; not just offering the chance to buy discounted shares but actually giving shares as part of compensation or a bonus. This tactic could be used more by non-technology companies. Having an ownership stake tends to increase employee engagement. Using a vesting schedule may encourage less turnover.

[ Read: The 20 best employee benefits & work perks in 2020 ]

It's all connected

There’s little doubt the future of work will be more flexible and less structured. Workers will be evaluated on the volume of their work instead of the time spent doing it. As long as an employee meets expectations and goals, employers will care less about when and where work gets down and how many hours it takes.

College degrees will matter less than skills, abilities, and certifications. Recruiters will evaluate candidates on their capacity to learn more than on what they already know.

Work will be more geared to problem solving, creativity and relationship-building. Automatic processes and artificial intelligence will continue to replace repetitive, task-oriented. jobs. At the same time, technology will help knowledge workers by performing many of their mundane tasks, enabling them to spend more time on work that requires imagination, innovation, and invention.

Current workplace trends and the ones that follow in the coming years are all part of a connected, complex system of causes and effects that will create constant change in the future of work.

For example, the use of automation and artificial intelligence will help many companies reduce costs. These savings can be re-allocated to enhancements in benefits and training.

Also, if professionals can spend less on commuting through remote work and eliminating student loan debt through new-collar training, they can potentially live on less money. The result may be a generation of employees who can pursue their passions rather than big paychecks. It means they can opt for small paydays from multiple sources rather than that one large bi-weekly check. This flexibility offers the opportunity to dedicate more time to community service than previous generations could do.

Many companies will find it challenging to recruit these professionals without a complete makeover of their facilities, culture, and overall corporate mission to tap into this sense of purpose.

Or those companies could decide to just go with the flow and outsource the bulk of their operations to gig workers, freelancers, and independent contractors. Between outsourcing, remote work, and flexible hours, the once crowded office cubicle farm may start to resemble a ghost town.

About the only accurate prediction one can make about the future of work is that the demand for "knocker-uppers" won’t be rebounding anytime soon.

Joel Palmer is a freelance writer and personal finance expert who focuses on the mortgage, insurance, financial services, and technology industries. He spent the first 10 years of his career as a business and financial reporter.

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published April 4, 2020
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