The future of work is one of the hottest topics of conversation today – and understandably so. Rocked by COVID-19, leaders have a new awareness of the risks and uncertainties the future can hold. Is it surprising to wish for a business crystal ball?

And of course, nobody can offer one. But we can look at today’s biggest emerging trends, draw tentative insights about how they’ll shape tomorrow and start to outline strategies on how to prepare for the future of work.

4 major trends that could impact the future of work

What is the future of work? As Gartner defines it: ‘The future of work describes changes in how work will get done over the next decade, influenced by technological, generational and social shifts.’

1. A changing power dynamic

London Business School professor of management practice, Lynda Gratton, talks about how the pandemic brought broad changes that redefined employees’ relationship with work:

‘This combination of habits, skills, aspirations and changing networks means that we won’t return to pre-pandemic ways of working. We’re going to see greater variety in the deals that employers offer their employees’. 

She envisages a world where employees have radically more flexibility, freedom and choice – or employers risk losing their people, and their competitive edge. Indeed, with the Great Resignation we’re already seeing people vote with their feet.

This is already having broad ramifications. There’s new scrutiny on workplace culture and employer brand, for instance. Many organisations are racing to strengthen their value proposition, at a time when employee engagement in the UK remains low and turnover is high.

More employees are requesting pay rises – 64%, according to employee experience platform Applaud – resulting in the highest pay increases in a decade.

This changing dynamic between employer and employee is likely to be a driving force shaping your future HR strategy. Organisations that prioritise supporting, inspiring, nurturing, developing and engaging their people likely have their priorities straight.

2. Shifting models of work

We’ve talked often about the rise of work flexibility since the pandemic. A study by Cranfield University found that 96% of line managers are more flexible today than pre-pandemic about where their team worked, for example. And over half of organisations said they expect remote working and flexible working to increase over the next two years.

What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work According to a McKinsey survey of 100 global executives across industries, the post-pandemic future of work will be more hybrid. 90% of executives said their organisation will be combining on-site with remote working.

Hybrid looks like it’s here to stay – but that raises a major question for leaders. How to prepare for the future of work that looks like this? Organisations face a major challenge to develop a hybrid working model that works well for everyone

3. A pressure cooker for employee wellbeing

Employee wellbeing in the UK isn’t in a great place. Employee engagement is low; stress is high; burnout is high.

For example, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2022 report finds that only 14% of European workers are engaged, while 39% experience daily stress. In the UK, that drops to 9% – 2 percentage points fewer than last year, and 13 points behind the global average of 21%.

This situation could be a Damocles’ sword, unless leaders are prepared. For example, people analytics leader Visier report that 79% of UK workers are considering leaving their job due to burnout, while Mental Health UK say addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%.

Whatever the future of work throws at us all, an engaged, mentally resilient workforce provides a strong foundation.

4. Skills needs and priorities evolving

The UK is in the midst of a skills crisis, as talent shortages hit a 16-year high. According to Manpower Group’s Employment Outlook Survey Q3 2022, 78% of employers are struggling to fill jobs because they lack skilled talent.

This puts the onus on employers to create strategies to build competency, not only considering innovative talent acquisition strategies but building robust employee development programmes.

Apprenticeships too are becoming an increasingly popular route to attract early careers talent. In 2021/22, for example, there were 14% more apprenticeships started than in 2020/21.

The jury is out on which skills these competency-building approaches should prioritise though. The rise of automation in the UK will likely inspire new training needs around technologies like robotics and AI, but softer competencies like people management skills are also an urgent gap.

How to prepare for the future of work

Many of these trends are already evolving but of course, there’s no true certainty about what the future of work holds. The pace of change is relentless: tomorrow a new technology or new risk could leap onto the scene and change everything, like the pandemic did.

Author of Atomic Habits and popular newsletter creator, James Clear, shared this idea recently: ‘the ultimate form of preparation is not planning for a specific scenario, but a mindset that can handle uncertainty’. 

This idea applies too to the future of work. Being truly prepared is less about planning for scenarios like robotics, hybrid working, VR or whatever else – and more about cultivating the right organisational mindset.

What might this organisational mindset look like, then? What does it take for an organisation to be well-equipped to handle change?

One important factor is fluid collaboration among executives. Rachel Ernst, CHRO at Reflektive, speaks to this:

‘When determining your company’s direction forward, it’s important to take into consideration your industry, customers, competitors, employees and leaders. The weight of this responsibility should not fall squarely on HR. HR can facilitate and lead the charge, but company leadership must weigh in on any new direction and be aligned on execution’.

At the same time, Rachel points out the need to ‘give employees a voice’, inviting them to ‘contribute ideas on how they’d like to see the company move forward’.

Engaging employees is critical. McKinsey research finds that when employees feel a sense of ownership and are empowered to create change themselves, the success rate of organisational transformation projects increases from 30% to 79%.

We might not know exactly which transformation projects the future holds, but increasing the organisation’s ability to cope with change, full stop, means the specifics become less important.

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By nature, the future of work is an extremely broad topic and uncertainty, however uncomfortable, is unavoidable. But all four of the trends we've explored here – the changing employer/employee dynamic; hybrid work; employee well-being; skills shifts – all point to one sure truth. Investing into your people, into the policies, processes and, per James Clear, the mindset that supports, develops, nurtures, empowers and engages your employees, remains one of your strongest routes to building resilience.