i attended a workshop about the future of work. this is what i learned

Last week, I attended a leadership workshop hosted by MaRS about the future of work. MaRS is a Toronto-based, government-adjacent organization best known for its innovation labs, which host some 300 Toronto-area startups, as well as some big names (like Facebook, Google, Samsung, and CIBC, among others.) All of these organizations come together in the MaRS Discovery District, which unites educators, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and business experts. All of these specialists are interested in driving change in science, technology, government, and other fields.

As a champion of workplace innovation, with a direct line of sight into startup culture, MaRS is well positioned to see where workplaces are headed in the future. Here are some of the insights I took away from the workshop.

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change is happening faster than ever

The timeframe it takes for new innovations to be adopted by the masses is shrinking. It took the telephone 75 years to reach 50 million people. Radio took 38 years to do the same. Television took 13 years. Facebook took 3.5 years. Today a popular app can reach this milestone in a matter of weeks. The world is more connected than ever before, and we’re exposed to change faster. That’s true in the world of work, too. In the future, expect to see big workplace changes gather steam quickly and gain widespread adoption in short order.

Though some workplaces are famously resistant to change – think conservative workplaces like law firms, where traditionalism is all but ingrained into the culture – change is happening whether workplaces like it or not. 30 years ago working from home was a novel idea. Today 3.6 million Canadians work from home, at least occasionally. That number has doubled in the last decade, with 1.8 million Canadians reporting they worked from home in 2008. That means approximately 20% of working Canadians work from home to some degree.

Another example: consider how dress codes have shifted in the last decade. Not all that long ago, dressing casually in an office environment was reserved for Fridays, if it was acceptable at all. Today more companies than ever (including established Fortune 500 giants like IBM and General Electric) have changed their dress codes, adopting casual or flexible dress codes that prioritize employee comfort over the business uniform of suits and ties. Casual dress codes have become a selling point for younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z that appreciate the individual expression offered by a casual dress code. Some also attribute this shift to the growing influence of Silicon Valley, which is known for its laissez-faire approach to appropriate business attire. To compete for talent, other businesses must get with the program and offer what in-demand job seekers have become accustomed to and now expect. The more businesses adapt, the more normalized any change becomes.

disruption is nothing new

Just the word 'disruption' sounds threatening, but in reality, it’s nothing new, especially in the workplace. Lately, when we hear about disruption, the focus is on automation and AI. We’ve been hearing for years that automation is going to ‘disrupt’ the work landscape as we know it. Usually, those headlines are framed with scare-tactic sensationalism such as “robots are coming for our jobs!” that seem intended to frighten rather than inform. Yes, it’s true. Robots are poised to replace a variety of lower-skill, repetitive jobs. However, they will not replace humans entirely, at least not in the near future.

And what's more, we’ve survived such changes in the past and thrived. Many times, in fact. As technology changes, so does the nature of work. At one point humans were hunter-gatherers. Then someone figured out planting crops was easier and made more sense, so humans settled in and became farmers. Then came electricity, and work hours were no longer limited to daylight hours. Then the industrial revolution happened and a large percentage of the population took up industrial and factory work. Then the internet arrived and now it’s hard to imagine most workplaces without email. Change is a part of life and work. Humans are extremely adaptable, and we’ll figure out our next stage of work, whatever it happens to be.

entry-level jobs will shift up

When jobs are automated it’s usually good for people at the very bottom of the job hierarchy. Automation will push society’s most vulnerable out of harmful jobs that wreak havoc on their bodies. Think repetitive tasks that cause injuries over time (factory work), require exposure to chemicals (maintenance work), or are otherwise hard on your body (construction work). Most of these jobs exist because there are no alternatives – someone has to do them. Yet these jobs are often among the least desirable, so they end up being filled by people at the fringes of the workforce; people who need a job, any job, and will take whatever they can get.

Historically when low-skill, less desirable jobs disappear, it leads to entry-level jobs being shifted up a level. The total number of available jobs doesn’t shrink, as many people expect. Instead, the vacancies are pushed up the organizational hierarchy. So instead of being a factory line worker, perhaps you’d become a line supervisor, or a mechanic, or a heavy machine operator. Those slightly more desirable jobs become the new entry-level. And as production increases, because robots are able to do more, faster, more line supervisors and mechanics and heavy machine operators are needed, replacing those unneeded line worker jobs with better, safer, higher-paying jobs. 

service jobs will change, too

Usually when we think of automation ‘coming for jobs,’ it’s in low-skills areas where little to no human interaction is required, such as the aforementioned line workers. However, as technology improves, so does its ability to interact with humans in a natural way. You only need to talk to Amazon’s Alexa (or any of the other voice assistants on the market) to understand just how human-like robots have become. Gone are the days when you could easily identify AI by its robotic, staccato inflections. Today’s AI is rapidly becoming more human in both sound and action. In many cases, if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were interacting with a human. If you haven’t already seen it, check out the video that Google released during I/O 2018 of its assistant making a phone call to schedule an appointment. It’s impressively realistic.

As robots become more adept at mimicking humans, they’ll be able to take on more tasks that traditionally required human interaction. We’re already seeing some of this in the proliferation of virtual assistants, chatbots, ordering kiosks and service apps. Once again, the jobs that are targeted are the lowest skill jobs. Jobs that require taking information, answering questions, or completing simple tasks will be the first to go.

Bank tellers are no longer needed to deposit a cheque; you can do it on your phone. If you head to McDonald's, you’ll probably use a kiosk to place and pay for your order, rather than talking to a cashier. If you inquire about store hours on a website chat box, there’s a good chance a robot will answer your query. Simple tasks are being replaced, however, humans are still needed when it comes to completing more complex tasks. Every single one of these industries still requires human interaction, despite some parts of the job being automated. It’s unlikely a robot will be able to answer complex questions about your finances or develop the fine motor skills to cook and deliver your fast-food order any time soon. Instead of replacing people, technology is streamlining the simplest and most repetitive parts of jobs, so humans can focus more on the things that they are needed for, the tasks that robots aren’t capable of replicating.

soft skills are the new technical skills

At the MaRS workshop, one of the ideas I found most interesting was that soft skills will become a differentiator that sets you apart from other candidates. It used to be that everyone in the workforce was expected to have basic soft skills, while your technical skills were what made you stand out as desirable. In today’s workplaces, almost everyone has basic technical skills such as the ability to navigate technology or use software like Microsoft Office. These skills are foundational and expected. Also noteworthy: Canada is also the most educated OECD nation in the world. The majority of our population is highly educated, with 54% of Canadians aged 25 to 64 holding a post-secondary degree. Theoretically, these people have learned some sort of technical or job skills through their education.

With such a highly educated population, the focus shifts to what MaRS called + skills. The demand is growing for people who have technical skills and bring something else to a role, usually soft skills. In the face of a wealth of technical skills, skills like communication, teamwork, problem-solving and attention to detail suddenly become valuable once again as a way of setting yourself apart from other candidates. MaRS imagines a future in which businesses actively look for + skills as a way of finding the right job fit with employees. Instead of hiring a ‘nurse’ we will hire a ‘nurse+’. Both candidates understand the technical elements of a nursing job. However, the nurse+ has additional soft skills like people management, patience, and approachability that bring additional value to the role. These add-on skills will be actively sought out by employers in the future. 

employers must listen to employees

Employers are used to being the top of the heap in the workplace. After all, they’re the ones with the jobs, so employees ought to fall in line if they want to be employed. That old-fashioned mindset has slowly but surely been eroding. Today’s best employers recognize that their success is tied to their employees and their ability to attract the best talent in the market. Employers that can’t attract high-calibre talent stand to fall behind as the market for talent becomes tighter. We’re experiencing sustained, record-low unemployment (5.8% for most of 2018) which means in order to capture the talent they need, employers must entice passive job seekers, who are already employed elsewhere and give them a reason to change jobs.

Despite the tightening competition for talent, there remains a dissonance between what employers think their employees want and what employees actually want. In a survey conducted by MaRS, employers identified ‘opportunities to work on good projects’ as the top reason employees might actively seek out new a job. However, when job seekers were asked their motivations, opportunities to work on good projects didn’t even crack the top 10. The top reasons included: 1) higher compensation, 2) attaining a promotion, 3) working closer to home, 4) working for a larger company, 5) wanting a change, 6) dislike of their manager, and 7) changing industries.

Employers need to recognize that listening to employees and offering the right mix of incentives and compensation will be crucial to engage talent going forward.

so where is the future of work headed?

Somewhere good, I think. There’s a lot of alarmist talk about how automation will change the future of work. Without any further context, that can sound scary – after all, automation must mean some jobs are disappearing, right? What we don’t talk much nearly as much is how we’ve navigated many paradigm shifts in the past without catastrophe striking. Workplaces have changed significantly in the last century, the last decade even, and nothing terrible has happened. In fact, workplaces are safer and happier today than ever before.

The future of work is not some jobless dystopian future where robots have taken over, as some people would have you believe. Historically, workplace changes have been positive, and that trend will likely continue. From eliminating tedious or difficult jobs, to forcing employers to carefully consider how to appeal to and serve employee needs, the future of work looks bright.

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kristen smalley

A life-long lover of words, Kristen fell into her dream career when she discovered content marketing. As Randstad Canada's content manager, she's written about a variety of topics ranging from employment trends, to interview tips, to how to craft the perfect resume. Though she loves every moment, she's especially passionate about content that empowers women to make the most of their careers.