Lynda Gratton: Why the future of work is so fascinating

We are always confronted with new ideas and emerging topics

In 2008 it was clear that work was beginning to change, and during the following year I launched the Future of Work Consortium. More than 50 companies across the world joined. First we identified 32 future trends we wanted to follow, then we devised a survey to discover how important these were and what executives were doing to prepare.

That was seven years ago and, frankly, I did not expect the Consortium to continue – surely we would arrive at the answer to the ‘future of work’ and then move to another topic? But that was not the case, and every year we are confronted by new ideas and emerging topics. Here are some of the reasons I think the future of work continues to be so fascinating:

#1: Some big trends decelerated

Five years ago we expected that by now we’d all have 3D printers in our homes – we don’t. The only way to know if a trend will slow down is to watch it carefully.

#2: Some small trends accelerated

Most of us failed to understand the impact that platforms and apps would have on work. Uber and Airbnb changed all that. In fact, the ‘trust economy’ evolved and continues to grow in ways that no one really expected.

#3: Change happened on a scale few of us imagined

When Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that 47% of US jobs were at risk from robotics and AI, this was important news. Until then we knew that automation and outsourcing would play a role, but the scale of their prediction took many by surprise.

#4: Human responsiveness is unpredictable

Governments and corporations are often slow to respond to the forces reshaping work. Yet most people have to adapt, and often do so remarkably quickly. Take Uber. Within months of launching, hundreds of thousands of people had decided to spend some of their time driving others in their private cars. Who could have predicted this speed of mobilisation?

#5: The future is still opaque

Where can we find the signals and signs of the future? For me it is as opaque as it was seven years ago. But in a sense this is the fascination with the future of work, and why I still have this question at the centre of my research focus.

Some of the ways my team and I approach thinking about the future of work include:

– Constantly expanding the list of 32 trends we initially identified. For example, government regulations have become more important.

– We stay close to leading-edge scientists. For example, there are groups at MIT and Berkeley looking closely at AI and machine learning, while the Pew Institute keeps an eye on social trends.

– We build scenarios. This is something I’ve been interested in for years – how to construct alternative paths into the future. It’s a fascinating way of bringing disparate trends together from the perspective of an individual.

– We check back with reality. The Consortium makes a point of spending time within corporations to gauge the extent to which new technologies are being adopted, social norms are emerging, and employees are engaging in experimentation.

– We look across the world. We are fortunate to have members who represent most of the continents. This is important because, increasingly, ‘frugal innovation’ is the major driver of adaption of new technologies.

– We consider risk – the distance between future direction and current capacity. This enables us to imagine the risks corporations will encounter as they consider the future. Our risk analysis suggests that the capacity to collaborate – in virtual teams, across corporate functions, and across businesses and social enterprises – is the biggest challenge companies face.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School