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Projecting the workplace of the future: experts weigh in

Just a mere 10 years ago, the workplace tech you used to get work done was drastically different. No Zoom, Slack, Asana or Google Drive. Cloud computing was still up-and-coming, teleworking was barely permitted, and pen and paper sign-in sheets were the norm.

If the pace of evolution in workplace tech is an indication of what’s to come, we’ll be looking at a vastly different office landscape in 2030 and beyond. An influx of automation, AI and distributed workforces lies ahead, and Gen Z’s arrival in the workforce projects to bring new expectations and requirements to the office.  

Envoy's 'Future of Work' panel: Discussing workplace trends in 2020, 2030, and beyond

These topics and more were the focus of the “Future of Work” panel hosted at Envoy earlier this month. Some of Silicon Valley’s most forward-thinking founders and executives joined us to analyze today’s employee experience, talk about how the office itself is changing with technology, and explore what the next generation of employees should expect as they enter the workforce. The discussion gave us a revealing look at what to expect in the coming years as our workplaces evolve:

The “growth mindset” of AI and automation

Many industry sectors fear that AI and automation will transform work and take away jobs overnight. But Superhuman founder and CEO Rahul Vohra theorized that the transition will be a step change that happens more gradually, in part because the next generation of workers who takes on lower-leverage jobs will see the impact of automation on the horizon and adapt their training accordingly.

“Go back, let’s say, to 500 or 1,000 years ago, and ask yourself: how much would it cost to create a t-shirt? Economists say in today’s money, it would cost around $1,000,” said Vohra. “And we’re used to buying these things for $5 or $10 today. Why? Because of automation and mechanization. We’re going to see the same thing, and it will be only positive, with AI impacting us today.”

Envoy CEO Larry Gadea noted that in some cases new technology will automate the mundane aspects of our work lives, enabling us to do more creative things and move on to grander ambitions. But the bigger impact of automation in the office will be to help us with tasks we have no way of accomplishing on our own today.

“AI will learn how we use our offices, adapting itself to make us more efficient,” said Gadea. “We’ll see AI address problems that we’re just putting up with and dealing with today that we’ll now actually be able to fix.”

Zoom’s Chief People Officer Lynne Oldham says a growth mindset is absolutely essential when preparing for the future of automation. When hiring managers at Zoom, Lynne looks for people who want to continue learning and taking on new skills, because those workers tend to be more adaptable and ready for what comes next.

“The bottom line is, AI will create more jobs than it displaces. You can’t fear automation, you have to embrace it, be adaptable and open to change,” said Oldham. “This is where universities will have to step in and prepare students better for the workforce, encouraging them to study the economy and understand what jobs will be important in the future so they don’t end up in replaceable entry-level jobs.”

Maintaining human connections and collaboration

The ramping up of wide-scale remote work is creating a new focus on whether collaboration can still function smoothly within a fully remote workforce. Companies like Rajiv Ayyangar’s Tandem are approaching this by creating spaces designed for spontaneous conversations.

“In a physical office space, you have these scenarios where people talk spontaneously: at the lunch table, at the water cooler, overhearing each other at their desks,” said Ayyangar. “You can’t directly translate this online, but what you can do is look for things that fill the same function. For example, setting up remote happy hours, or having remote employees playing a game together online.”

Companies are increasingly experimenting with new ways to incorporate distributed work. Superhuman has employees work remote one day per week, but that day changes for each person, so there’s always a random mix of employees in the office, requiring them to integrate systems that fully support remote work. Tandem takes a hybrid approach: one day per week where the entire company is remote, and at least one day where everyone is in person—that approach forces the team to use its own chat tool while remote, while still understanding the experience of a physical workplace.

In the next few years, an increasing share of businesses may decide to operate entirely remote. Both Vohra and Oldham suggested their companies would have done so if they launched today. But as Gadea pointed out, the physical office will still dominate the workforces of tomorrow. Software engineers and similar roles might be more prone to work remotely, but people will still want to get to know each other and have a location for face-to-face interactions.

“We’ll never be molding steel from home, we’ll always need physical daycares, and there are many other businesses that inherently require that you’re in-person,” said Gadea. “Today, you might have 2% or 3% of the workforce distributed and working from home. Maybe one day soon it’ll jump to 10% or 20%, but you’ll still see the workplace as extremely common.”

Generation Z’s transformative impact

Recent graduates entering the workforce are digital natives who’ve interacted with modern technology before they could even talk. As a result, companies need a new blueprint for the GenZ workplace experience. Ayyangar says Gen Z is much more capable of building and maintaining relationships digitally, though video and audio conversations remain much more meaningful than those who only interact via chat. Oldham says appealing to digital preferences and a need for purpose and community is the best way to maximize the impact of Gen Z in the workforce.

“This generation interacts with peers more fluidly. They are global citizens, not just global spectators. They are all about meaningful interactions and communicating in a relatable way,” said Oldham. “They are seeking on-demand learning and will be more likely to be role-hoppers than job-hoppers. So, if you provide meaningful work and give them opportunities to move around in the company, they’ll be more likely to stay.”

And because they are digital natives, Vohra says, the next generation of employees is arriving with completely different skill sets, allowing them to specialize and move on quickly to sophisticated, advanced tasks.

“I grew up learning how to program, and went to school to learn computer science. Someone like me doing that 30 years ago would have needed to have intimate knowledge of computer assembly and be completely fluent in C,” said Vohra. “People graduating today, they don’t need to know how to build a computer in order to operate it properly. That opens them up to do more creative and innovative work.”

The challenge for leaders

Balancing generational differences, technology changes, and distributed workers will present plenty of new challenges for tomorrow’s executives and team leaders. Visionaries will need new ways to inspire their employees and new methods for building relationships with a remote workforce. The panel emphasized that strong internal communication will be hard, but absolutely critical to ensuring businesses operate smoothly in the years to come. The good news is, we’ll have incredible tools to facilitate the transition and maximize our success in the workplaces of the future.  

What are your predictions for the Future of Work? Check out our “Workplace of the Future” ebook for additional perspectives.