• Ian West, Partner |
5 min read

All change? Looking into the future of work

With new technologies emerging at pace, including automation and generative AI, the world of work is set to change in exciting ways. But where exactly will it take us, and how can organisations ensure that their employees are empowered through it to become more productive and fulfilled in their roles?

This was the highly topical subject in our latest ‘Future of’ TMT discussion events, where we were delighted to be joined by an exemplary panel consisting of Cecilia Liao, Employee Experience Specialist at Microsoft; Dana Therrian, Head of Research and Advisory at Anaplan; Ed Kennedy, Market Director at Workiva; and Luis Rosenthal, Director in the Ignition innovation lab at KPMG.

Collaboration and empowerment

We started by discussing how the world of work is likely to change in the coming years given the advent of new tools and collaboration technologies. Cecilia Liao of Microsoft explained that it was about exploring the “art of the possible” and said the focus is likely to increasingly fall on how new technologies can help organisations tackle some of the hardest aspects of change in order to achieve and sustain high performance. “Technologies can help us address some of the blockers in human behaviours, such as breaking down siloed working,” she said. “It can also help to tackle diversity and inclusion issues so that everyone is able to bring their best selves to work. And it can help managers to empower their teams rather than micro-managing them. Through collaborative platforms such as Microsoft’s Viva, employees will have a bigger role in shaping how work is done because they are empowered and equipped to do so.”

This is a journey that’s already well underway, as Dana Therrian of Anaplan reflected. “The future of work is happening now,” he said. “But what’s new is the AI revolution. Quite simply, this is helping people do their jobs better. For example, sales teams in the TMT sector (and any sector) can drill down into information much more quickly, analyse opportunities in real time, and self-correct as things change. Capabilities are becoming increasingly scalable. I’m excited about where we are – and it’s going to get even better.”

One of the key emerging differences is what I term the democratisation of insight. New technologies and data platforms mean that key information can be accessed from anywhere, enhancing productivity and performance.

Ed Kennedy of Workiva expanded on this theme when he talked about the power of “automation with collaboration”. Through automation, disparate teams who do different jobs can access and work off the same data across adjacent processes. This significantly increases efficiency and lowers costs. “The business case is clear,” Ed said. “The quantitative savings are significant. But it also means that the old top-down ways of doing things are going to be completely recalibrated in a much more matrixed environment with people working together with higher levels of individual autonomy – but in a controlled and secure way.”

Generative AI changing the game

But where does AI specifically, including generative AI, fit in? Ed Kennedy gave the example of using AI technology to help Workiva customers navigate the Help manual when they need guidance, taking them straight to the relevant support. In the future, the AI should also be able to give pre-emptive guidance, anticipating a customer’s needs in advance.

Without doubt, generative AI has become a hot ticket and is an area that everyone is keen to explore. But its impacts can’t be maximised if employees don’t understand it or know how to use it, as Luis Rosenthal of KPMG elaborated. Luis explained that the firm ran a whole “Summer of AI” this summer with more than 50 interactive workshops and tutorial sessions for staff so that they developed their understanding of AI and generative AI (large language models) – both how it could help them perform their own roles and how it could be harnessed to deliver even more value in services to clients. “The potential of generative AI is huge,” Luis observed. “But a key realisation is that it’s there to augment, not replace, human input and thinking. The outputs of generative AI will always need human sense-checking and validation.”

Cecilia Liao discussed how tools like Microsoft’s generative AI product Co-Pilot are bringing new capabilities. For example, with some initial prompts and information, the tool can create a comprehensive customised Powerpoint deck in less than a minute, ready for fine-tuning and tweaking. “It helps you get to your end outcome much more quickly. It frees up time, enabling you to spend more time on those really value-add elements. But the key thing is to make sure staff are educated so that they know how to use it and what it can do for them. If they have a poor first experience, they may not come back to it.”

Keeping room for the human element

This point of AI tools freeing up human workers to spend more time on value creating activity promoted a fascinating discussion – because how much high-end cognitive work can a person actually do in a day? Don’t we all need to spend some of our time on simpler, routine tasks in order to stay fresh and avoid overload?

Ed Kennedy cited the example of the likes of 3M and Google here, who both build in elements of downtime for their staff. Google engineers, for example, spend around 20% of their time ‘playing’ on side projects and pet interests. “If mechanical processes are taken care of by technology, then we need to think about how we feed and nurture people’s creativity. You can’t just flick a switch and expect people to be high-performing value creators all week long.”

Microsoft’s Work Trends Index 2023 has shown that two thirds of employees already say they struggle to find the time and energy to do their jobs. And with demands for value creating cognitive work set to increase as machines take care of the rest, this is only likely to become more pronounced. As Dana Therrien observed, this means that in fact we’ll need each other more as colleagues and fellow human beings. “I’m already a little concerned that we’re losing some of our interpersonal relationships, with communication between people becoming more short-form and abrupt,” he said. “We need to figure out ways of remaining human – being kind to each other, patient, supportive.”

That feels like a really key point. Through all the exciting change we’re living through, it’s also a time of instability and uncertainty – we need these incredible tools, but we also need it to stay relevant and stay human.