Knowledge, 16.01.2024

The changing world of work: future forecasts and areas of tension

The “new normal” is here to stay – until recently, the working world was in agreement on this. However, the global study published in October 2023 by consulting firm KPMG, in which 1,325 CEOs of large companies were surveyed on future topics in the world of work, has now overturned this insight. According to the study, 64 per cent of the CEOs surveyed assume that their employees will return to the office full-time within the next three years. Only one in four respondents can still imagine hybrid working models.

This surprising result prompted us to delve deeper into future forecasts and current trends on the future of work, to take a 360° view of the topics and to shed light on the various areas of tension and perspectives. After all, HR managers and employees themselves have their very own ideas here. A return to the old normality is hardly conceivable for most employees – because they don’t want to give back their newly gained freedom and personal responsibility.

We will therefore take a closer look at the much-discussed question of “where”, “how much” and “how”. In other words, the current controversy about how much home office or office presence is good and right for a successful working environment. In this context, we also ask ourselves on how or what success is actually measured today? Is performance still a contemporary indicator or is it rather the “contribution” of each employee by which the value of work should be measured? By answering this question, we also gain more clarity about what a future-oriented work culture and a contemporary understanding of leadership can look like and what values and competences are needed for this. We will also take a closer look at artificial intelligence and its influence on our working world – after all, it evokes fascination and threat in equal measure for many.  We also see another important area of tension in the change fatigue that is currently spreading and is counterproductive to our volatile working world.

We are certain that these topics will keep us busy in the coming year and will significantly shape and influence the world of work.

Flexible & hybrid or “back to the office”?

Now that the majority of CEOs want their employees back in the office, the world of work is unsettled. Although productivity has not decreased in the context of hybrid collaboration, CEOs still seem to be convinced that office presence and corporate success are closely linked. They fear that innovation and further development will fall by the wayside in the hybrid world and are certain that physical presence in the office promotes collaboration, spontaneous exchange of ideas and team dynamics. In their opinion, working together in the office also has a positive impact on corporate culture – it strengthens the shared corporate spirit and identification with the company. In addition, many CEOs still believe that an office presence facilitates leadership as it enables better control of work performance.

HR managers generally have the opposite opinion here. They do not want a return to the old normality for their employees. In their opinion, the offer of flexible, location-independent working not only promotes the well-being, health and motivation of employees. It is now also an important advantage in recruiting – because a high degree of flexibility creates space for personal needs and challenges. This freedom is therefore increasingly a decisive factor when choosing a workplace. Flexible working models can be an important competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining qualified specialists.

If we look at the arguments of CEOs and HR managers, both arguments are understandable. Nevertheless, we believe that the hybrid working world will continue. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it must be customised for each company and tailored to the personal needs of its employees. The basic prerequisite for a hybrid working strategy is a precise understanding of working methods, processes and needs. Only with this knowledge can a working environment be designed that gives employees a home and creates an all-round positive working experience in both physical and virtual spaces. Added to this are services and offers that provide employees with real added value – they can be a good incentive to come to the office. However, culture plays an overriding role – because only with a work and management culture that is based on trust, personal responsibility and empowerment can hybrid collaboration in various forms function smoothly and realise its full potential.

Performance versus contribution – does leadership need more humanity?

There is still a persistent assumption in the world of work that employees who show a particularly high level of commitment by working particularly long hours and completing many tasks are also particularly high performers. But can success really be measured by a high level of commitment or input, or is it not more about the value of the contribution they make? In a corporate culture that is based on New Work values and relies on trust rather than control, it is about achieving defined goals, not about completing tasks or “clocking in”.

This new understanding of performance also requires a new understanding of leadership –  away from authority and towards more humanity. In a New Work environment, managers have the important role of exemplifying the work culture and at the same time communicating visions, creating clear structures and setting unambiguous goals. This is the only way to give employees clarity on how they should behave – especially in the hybrid world – what their responsibilities are and what contribution they can make to the success of the company. At the same time, managers should recognise and promote the individual strengths of employees and create an environment in which the diverse workforce feels comfortable, can develop their creativity and contribute innovative ideas. In New Work Leadership, managers become mentors and supporters who create a human working environment and thus promote employee satisfaction, innovative strength and organisational success.

Money & status or rather compatibility & meaning?

Generations Y and Z are not only changing the world of work in terms of where they want to work in the future. A paradigm shift is also taking place in terms of the drivers and personal wishes and requirements when choosing an employer and general job satisfaction. While money, status and career development are often still the decisive criteria for Generation X, softer factors such as flexibility and a good work-life integration are much more important for the younger generations.

The meaning and purpose of work is particularly important, meaning that companies that support social and societal goals not only increase their corporate value, but also have a clear advantage in recruiting. Whereas in the past the focus was on the professional development of employees, today more attention is being paid to personal development in the context of additional competences and skills. This is because new skills such as adaptability, digital expertise, emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking and resilience are in demand, especially in the hybrid world

Even if a clear trend can be identified, it should not be forgotten that, especially in uncertain times, appropriate remuneration and career opportunities will remain an important criterion when choosing an employer. Employers who cater to diverse needs and offer flexible working models and development opportunities therefore have the best chances in recruiting and more satisfied and committed employees.

Man and machine – a perfect “match”?

In the past year, artificial intelligence has caused both fascination and horror. It has quietly moved into the world of work and has taken over entire activities and made jobs redundant at breakneck speed. However, it has also created space for new tasks and, if used correctly, offers great new opportunities. However great the resistance may be, AI is here to stay and will continue to develop. For companies and employees, this means accepting and integrating it as part of the world of work.

The primary aim is to consider how humans and AI can work together harmoniously and symbiotically in the future. The strengths of AI, such as fast data processing and pattern recognition, can perfectly complement human abilities, such as creativity, emotions and ethical judgement. Companies have an important role to play in allocating tasks sensibly – AI can take on repetitive and time-consuming tasks to relieve humans of monotonous activities. This allows employees to concentrate on more complex and creative aspects of their work. After all, human creativity is something that AI is currently unable to fully replicate. Collaboration should aim to use AI as a tool to support and inspire creative processes rather than replace valuable labour.

Politics and business have a joint responsibility to preserve and make sensible use of human labour, while at the same time giving employees the time they gain in the form of freedom for professional and personal development and more free time. An important and long overdue development in this context is the 4-day week. This would be a step in the right direction in terms of employees’ mental and physical health, which has steadily declined in recent years.

Is the fast pace of life making us tired of change?

Whether technical progress, globalisation or economic and geopolitical uncertainties – our world is becoming increasingly fast-moving. This also has a major impact on our working world, as companies need to be able to react and adapt quickly to market requirements. Companies that want to remain fit for the future therefore rely on flexible working models, agile processes and flat hierarchies. Resilience and agility are already important key competences for employees today – yet the constant pressure to adapt leads to fatigue and stress or even burnout for many.

An area of tension that should not be underestimated arises when the organisation promotes changes that employees do not want to support due to change fatigue or fear of the unknown. It is therefore important to involve people in the change processes and take them along on the journey. A strong vision can give employees an outlook on the new, positive possibilities of change, motivate them and increase their willingness to change. Continuous communication is also crucial to keep employees up to date and turn their fears and concerns into enthusiasm.

In order to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies, new working methods and processes, lifelong learning is also essential. Companies should embed constant transformation as an attitude in their culture and invest in learning and training measures to continuously adapt the competences and skills of their employees to current and future requirements. However, more mindfulness and active measures and programmes to promote physical and mental health are also important to achieve a balance. Overall, companies should ensure a balance between stability and adaptability in order to create a healthy working environment..

Our conclusion

Our realisation from the current developments and areas of tension is nothing new and can be summarised as follows: people remain the linchpin in the changing world of work. The new world of work can only be successful in the long term if the needs of employees are understood and taken into account and people are “taken along” in all change processes.

After all, people are the most important asset of any company.

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