Originally published on MIT Technology Review.  Reprinted with permission.

By Mark Esposito, Clinical Professor of Global Shifts and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

When you think of the future of work, what comes to mind? Is it robots taking over our jobs? Employers slashing jobs in a cost-cutting frenzy? STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals becoming the end-all-be-all to enterprise, rendering the rest useless?

Lucky for us, these common ideas have largely been debunked. However, there still exists significant uncertainty regarding the future workplace and what we should expect. In this article, we share three of the most significant changes the future of work will bring to the market and what professionals can do to make sure they’re ready for these changes.

Automation and other forms of artificial intelligence will change the role of humans in the workplace. Notice the absence of any fear-mongering or doomsday headlines (a la Fortune). While AI is likely to displace a fair number of jobs, it will simultaneously create a new array of jobs that were previously non-existent. In this sense, this technology can be seen less as a threat and more as an accomplice or facilitator. Let’s take manufacturing plants as an example. At some point machines will undoubtedly take over the entire production line, but as a result, more jobs will be created due to the need of managing and maintenance of these machines.

Another example is in the financial services sector. In the mortgage lending process large banks have teams of dozens who dedicate their time reviewing and analyzing client information for the approval of loans. These teams can spend hours verifying and inputting client data manually into the bank’s systems, and oftentimes the input is riddled with mistakes due to humor error. With the introduction of automation into their workflow, the bank is able to speed up the approval process, cut substantial operational costs, and free up their employees’ time to focus on tasks that require a unique human skillset, such as customer relations.

We like to think of AI as not so much as artificial intelligence, but as an intelligent assistant, intelligent algorithm, or intelligent asset. Thinking in these terms removes the negative connotation AI undeservedly carries with it and shifts the perception from a technology poised to destroy humans’ role in the workplace to one that enables humans to be more creative and useful.

We will see the rise of the “gig economy” and the evolution of the traditional workplace.  As a result of the influx of AI, we will see the proliferation of the “gig economy”, where more and more professionals will work as freelancers carrying out projects for a number of different companies.  Although this puts freelancers at a disadvantage for now (making pensions and taking out mortgages more difficult), we can only expect this trend to grow more popular, as it provides major benefits to large companies cutting costs by hiring contractors. On the bright side, the gig economy will provide another dimension of flexibility for professionals that we haven’t seen in the past. Instead of being married to a 9-5 job involving a limited set of tasks and responsibilities, professionals will be able to take advantage of a number of opportunities that suite their different needs and lifestyles.

On that note, we’ll also see the evolution of what we consider the traditional workplace. With more and more freelancers, contractors and remote workers, the office space will become more of a meeting point and hub, as opposed to an everyday place of work for many. As technology advances and the internet becomes even more readily available in all parts of the world, it will be easier, cheaper and more convenient for colleagues to touch base using video and teleconferencing.  It won’t be uncommon to see entire businesses being run by teams scattered across the globe.

There will be an emphasis on soft skills. While machines may replace humans in more rudimentary and repetitive manual tasks, there will be an increasing need for human skills that robots simply cannot fill. Empathy, collaboration, and problem-solving are all examples of highly important skill sets that are vital to the success of any company and cannot be delivered solely with technology.

Creativity and communication are arguably the two most important human skillsets that will need to be developed.  According to research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), “creativity is consistently identified as the most significant predictor for the likelihood of growth for an occupation between now and 2030.” Communication skills is also consistently highlighted. Although this is no real surprise taking into account the large role verbal communication plays in today’s workplace, the ability to negotiate, resolve conflict, and express oneself effectively will become more of a priority in environments where colleagues will be spanning various cultures and geographical locations.

So how can we prepare for the future of work?

The first thing we can do is understand what the future of work is, what it means for society, and even more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. By reading this article you’re already one step ahead! The faster we can dispel the myths surrounding the future workplace, the more equipped we will be to make the adaptations needed.

Second, we must adapt our understanding of a traditional career path. As companies become flatter and corporations begin looking outward for skills, the antiquated model of a lifelong career will soon be eliminated, leaving us with more opportunities to leverage our talents and knowledge in a multitude of different avenues.

Lastly, we should all be on a quest for continued education and skills acquisition. Be it hard skills such as coding and graphic design or non-tangible ones such as managerial skills and conflict management, keeping a toolbox of know-how that is updated will be the key to staying relevant in this highly competitive market.

This article has been co-authored with Terence Tse

Tse T., Esposito M., & Goh D. (2019) The AI Republic: Creating the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation. Lioncrest Publishing.

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