Five Key Factors Shaping the Future of Work

Leo Hynett

A recent report from Bain & Company titled The Working Future: More Human, Not Less delves into five key themes that are reshaping the future of work. From automation to overwhelm, these are the deciding factors in the shifting war for talent.

Grounded in a survey of 20,000 workers from 10 countries – the United States, China, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil – and incorporating more than 100 in-depth interviews, the report offers a broad perspective from different cultures around the world.

‘Much of the prevailing thinking about the relationship between workers and firms was forged in a very different world than the one we live in today, where options were more limited and relationships more transactional,’ said Andrew Schwedel, partner at Bain & Company and co-chair of the firm’s think tank, Bain Futures. ‘Today’s environment requires a radical rethink of both the structure and the purpose of work, but to do that one needs to first understand the shifting motivations of individual workers.’

Record-breaking numbers of Americans quit their jobs last year in what was dubbed
the ‘Great Resignation’ or the ‘Big Quit’. With people not afraid to step away from jobs that no longer fit them or their lifestyle, employers have had to urgently rethink their hiring and retention practices to stay ahead in the coming months.

Motivations for work are changing

Rising prosperity has reduced the time that people need to spend working, and many people feel the 40-hour workweek is an obsolete model – it made sense as a cap for working hours in a factory, but is it really necessary to spend 40 hours at your desk?

As less of our time is consumed by work, we’re free to spend more time on leisure pursuits, which in turn gives us time to reflect on what truly matters to us as individuals. Trends are changing here too: when baby boomers were in their late 20s/early 30s they felt work was more important than leisure, at the same age Gen Y feel leisure is more important than work.

‘It’s evident that a coin-operated view of workers, where firm leaders see employment as a purely financial transaction, underestimates the deeper human motivations for work’

Workers now seek a sense of purpose from their work; simply working for a paycheck is no longer enough. In fact, the report found that ‘money is more often a source of demotivation for workers who feel underpaid than it is a source of inspiration for others.’ And, on a global scale: ‘the richer a country, the lower the share of the population that believe a job is “just a way of earning money”.’

Beliefs about what makes a ‘good job’ are diverging

Attitudes to work have fragmented over time and people have begun to consider what a ‘good job’ actually means for them. Especially during the pandemic, workers have had the time and energy to ask themselves questions about their current career path and their relationship with work. Many have changed jobs or even moved careers in the pursuit of something that fits with their personal definition of a ‘good job’.

The report found that simply ‘thinking about what the average worker wants from a job no longer makes sense in the modern economy’ – because, quite simply, the average worker no longer exists.

Some people want flexibility and the ability to work from home, whereas others are desperate for the clear divide an office provides between their personal and professional lives. Some people seek jobs that inspire or challenge them, others want to contribute to their community, while some just need something they can walk away from at the end of the day.

In future, business leaders will need to ‘recognize that their personal perspective of what a good job looks like won’t necessarily be shared by everyone in their organization, especially those on the front lines.’

Automation is helping to rehumanise work

Over the years, automation has fluctuated between being an exciting opportunity for a leisure lifestyle and something that workers fear. So far, automation hasn’t proved to be the total job-killer many are afraid of, but it has led to a shift in the roles humans perform and the role we play in the economy.
Bain optimistically commented that ‘the days of menial jobs that leave us feeling less like humans and more like placeholders for machines may soon be behind us.’

So-called ‘soft skills’ – such as ​​problem solving, interpersonal connection and creativity – are becoming more important as the human element becomes what is most important in our work. Focusing on developing these skills within the workforce will be key in the coming years.

Technological change is blurring the boundaries of the firm

This topic comes as no surprise amidst the changes to our work lives that have been accelerated by the pandemic.

‘The rise of work-from-home and the gig economy have loosened the boundaries of the firm, making the ideas of a workplace and a worker more fluid. While these changes decrease costs for companies, they offer a mixed bag for workers.’

Working from home is, as many of us have learnt, both a blessing and a curse. We no longer have to commute or wear smart work clothes, but distracting colleagues have simply been replaced by regular distractions from family members, pets, and looming household chores.

Productivity at home vs the office is only a small part of the picture: firms must also consider the desires of workers themselves. Over the past year, the desire to return to the office has steadily increased as people have begun to feel more isolated – 47% of workers globally view many of their colleagues as friends and miss that connection. This level of connection and trust is not only great for wellbeing but also a critical ingredient for effectively operating complex businesses.

Younger generations are increasingly overwhelmed

Young people are under considerable strain from challenges in and out of work. Bain found that, in Western markets, 61% of respondents >35 were concerned about financial issues, job security, or failing to meet their career goals.

‘The portion of American adults exhibiting signs of an anxiety disorder leaped from 8% in 2019 to a peak of 36% by December 2020. The pandemic has undoubtedly been an example of what sociologists call a “collective trauma” event.’

This overwhelm has not come solely from the pandemic and was beginning to set in long before many even knew the word ‘coronavirus’. The report found that Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z no longer experience the steady decline in stress that has historically been associated with ageing. These age groups are grappling with a new mix of stressors such as slowing economic growth, rising inequality, and declining housing affordability. Compounded by social media, the blurred lines between work life and home life, and an accelerated pace of innovation that creates the illusion of life at twice the speed, young people are understandably struggling.

The journey ahead

Adapting to the rehumanisation of work will require firms to scale investments in learning and cultivate a growth mindset within their organisation. Improving the skills of existing staff and helping them adapt to the changing landscape will be more effective – and beneficial for individual wellbeing and career progression – than attempting to hire those with the right skills.

Firms will need to stop treating workers like machines and expecting identical needs and output capabilities from all staff. Leaning into the varied talents and skillsets of workers will yield far better results than trying to eliminate that variation. This variation is, after all, our uniquely human advantage.