Should we fear the future workplace - or embrace change?

By Fiona Graham
Technology of business reporter, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTerminate this: Should we worry about our future robot overlords in the workplace - or are the changes coming actually going to be a good thing?

For the workers of today, the future can look bleak.

Retirement is an ever receding distant dream - probably just as well, as the pension is probably more likely to cover a week in Southend rather than a grand world tour.

Then there's the always present danger that if your manager isn't replaced by a machine, you may well be.

But that's not the whole picture - technology can be the great leveller, a transformational entity that could alter society and the future workplace for the better.

So which is it - shiny tech-driven utopia, or something more reminiscent of Bladerunner?

To round off a month looking at the future of work, I spoke to several experts who have contributed to technology of business over the past few years and found out if they had changed their view of the future.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionI, robot: Will technology make the future workplace a nice - and more fluid - place to be?

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer, Microsoft UK

I'm not sure my vision of the future of work has changed much per se, not in a visible way at least.

My hope remains that technology will increasingly afford greater freedom in where, when and how we work.

But, I think that the biggest change that is yet to come lies with how companies address the cultural and organisational challenges. These must be overcome, in order for the incredible opportunities that are offered by transformational technologies to be able to take effect.

image copyrightFluger Rene
image captionDave Coplin: In ten years' time, I hope we will have broken free of many of the physical ties of our current working world

The success of the future of work will come down to one thing. People.

It will be the extent to which the people are engaged with the "purpose" of their organisation that will dictate the success or failure of that organisation in the future.

Engaged employees embrace change, they look for growth and learning in all they do and best of all they unleash the full potential of new technology.

They do this by using it to find new ways of working rather than simply making the old ways of working happen a bit quicker.

In ten years' time, I hope we will have broken free of many of the physical ties of our current working world.

I hope that employees, engaged and empowered with the purpose of their organisation, will use the incredible advances offered by new forms of interaction, like holograms and displays that offer "high empathy presence" where more of our body language can be conveyed to enable us to collaborate more effectively wherever we are.

It would be foolish to think that any of this would replace the pleasure or efficiency of being there face to face.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHolograms are just one of the technologies likely to change the future workplace

But ultimately it provides a greater degree of choice and a greater range of people with whom we can connect and collaborate to deliver a better outcome for ourselves and our organisations.

To an extent, we should be worried about [being replaced by machines], as being worried should mean that we take the opportunity of the rising power and automation of the machines seriously and seek to use it to ensure a better outcome for our society.

But we should never be thinking in terms of humans versus machines, and rather of humans plus machines.

Our future has always relied on our ability to use the potential of technology to lift our human capabilities.

Only failure awaits those who use the technology to replace what we are capable of - ask any driver who has blindly followed GPS directions only to find themselves confronted with too low a bridge or too narrow a street.

For millennia, advances in technology have disrupted our society. Such changes are always difficult to live through, but ultimately, if managed properly and used responsibly, they will ensure our society is in a better place for generations to come.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMen (and women) at work: The future of work centres around people, according to Dave Coplin

I've been actively studying the future of work since 2008, when we first launched the Future of Work Consortium that has brought together executives from more than 60 companies to talk about this crucial issue.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly focused on two factors that shape work - technology and demography.

image copyrightLynda Gratton
image captionLynda Gratton: Most innovative activity is still taking place in the northern hemisphere

On the technology front the development of AI and robots has happened - as Moore predicated- at an exponential rate and every week sees new developments.

I chaired a session at Davos this year that brought learning, AI and neuroscience experts together. What was clear is that there is a growing awareness that technological developments will both augment some work, and replace others - and I think we are clear that this is happening at speed.

We can add to this the demographic reality of long lives. For the last couple of years my colleague the economist Andrew Scott and I have been studying what it means when the many (rather than the few) live to 100.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionAs people live longer, we are being force to work for longer too - and this will change the future workplace

Looking forward we see profound changes in the structure of careers and the way that people plan both tangible and intangibles assets.

However, whilst some events have moved very fast over the last three years - there are others that have not.

Despite the availability of on-line education, very few of those who start a course actually complete it.

And whilst we talk about the globalisation of innovation, a glance at the current patent landscape of the world shows that most innovative activity is still taking place in the northern hemisphere in clusters in the USA, Europe, Japan, Korea and emerging in China.

In Africa, South America, much of Asia and Australia there are still very few clusters of highly skilled people. I wonder if in the next ten years the world will fulfil the promise of the globalisation of talent and innovation.

The new world of work has become an aspiration that can be realised, with benefits for both the company and the individual.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRemote telepresence technologies mean we are no longer tied to the workplace

Businesses no longer have to lease obese property which is rarely efficiently used (over half the desks are typically empty on any one day) and can provide workspace aligned to the real work that needs to be done.

For the employee, more flexibility and freedom allow a better work/life balance and the ability to stagger commuting.

As technology advances, with new portable devices and the 'cloud', we will see a redistribution of work. It will move from central business districts to a poly-centric city where people work more locally, in new co-working spaces that provide a sense of community and challenge the corporate office, which will get slimmer and be used for different activities.

Algorithms may soon be our managers, as big data and decisions are best made by machine and no longer man.

Our roles will need to be creative, and so yes as the predictions suggest, many jobs will vanish as automation arrives.

Those that are left will be more interesting and fulfilling - and the workspace will accommodate knowledge work and not the process driven tasks of today.

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