Let's Spend Less Time Predicting the Future of Work and More Time Building It
Who could’ve predicted the events of the past three years?
The shift to more flexible work practices like remote and hybrid work may have been in the making for some time, but no one could have forecasted that a global health pandemic would propel it to the top.
Similarly, we knew AI would come to the workplace eventually, but it was always a question of how and when.
The shifts — and the speed at which they happened — have been jarring, exhilarating and exhausting. They’ve opened up new opportunities for workers and organizations alike, but left us having to cope with the fact that work itself is changing in unrecognizable ways.
It’s human nature to want to predict the future. From think tanks and business leaders to futurists and academics, everyone’s quick to share their thoughts and forecasts. As people, we want control of our situation. We want to know what’s next. We want to be able to prepare for the future.
But we’ve also done a lousy job at predicting it, and we're not necessarily getting better.
Why Our Predictions Could Use a Little Humility
Let’s face it: We’ve never been very good at forecasting our own future. One of the best-known studies on the phenomenon found that only 10% of technology predictions made by experts between 1990 and 2007 were accurate.
Predictions about what work will look like in the future and how technology will interface with it often do one of two things. They are either extremely optimistic and simplistic to begin with, or they overestimate the impact of new technologies and work innovations while underestimating the challenges of implementing them.
In 2020, as we watched people struggle with massive changes at work happening all at once, any work expert should’ve paused and taken a breath. Nobody expected what happened, and we didn’t know then how people would cope with the change.
Yet, it seems the pace of predictions for big changes to come only accelerated — even as people indicated en masse that they were burned out by the changes they had already experienced.
While saying things like, “The office is dead!” may be a lot of fun, it’s incorrect. And though we shouldn’t abandon our natural desire to try to plan the future of work, we need to approach this matter with the humility it deserves. Because after all, we’re almost certainly going to be wrong and if history is any indication, we might be a lot more wrong than we are right.
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How to Make Better Predictions
So, how can we approach the future of work with a more realistic perspective?
The first step is to realize how limited we are by the amount of foresight we can reasonably have. We can’t possibly know what work will look like 10 years from now, much less decades down the line. I’m not even sure we can say for sure what will happen in five years.
We have a better chance of predicting accurately with a shorter timeline, like what will happen in the next two years, and forecasting the potential risks and opportunities specifically for our organizations. Doing so also gives us an opportunity to focus on what we can control and plan for today.
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The second step is to take a more human-focused approach to predictions. For instance, ask yourself: what matters for my employees and their lives at work?
Cutting predictions down to a reasonable time horizon surely helps, but it’s also important to be empathetic of the impact predictions can have on people’s views of themselves and their purpose. This means moving beyond the techno-utopian visions that have dominated the conversation so far — e.g., the idea that automation will liberate us from drudgery or that artificial intelligence will solve all our problems — and instead grappling with the more complex, messy reality of human beings working together with technology in the workplace.
For example, when we talk about ChatGPT taking over certain types of jobs, we don’t qualify that with how long it will take and how difficult it will be. We set people up to be defeated instead of encouraged by the future. We fail to contextualize these discussions with what it means for people in those roles and also fail to ask what else can they do for our organizations? Where will we need people and not machines?
Giving people the ability to do something within their control is human-focused. It also means you don’t simply talk about the destruction of industries without first thinking about the value that people bring to those industries that new innovations can’t replace.
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Focus on the Right Goals
All of this technology is for naught if it isn’t improving the lives of people. We aren’t making a better world for machines and AI, we’re supposed to be making it better for us.
The best outcomes are those where both people and organizations make leaps forward together. For example, while the invention of the assembly line a century ago improved business performance, it also improved the lives of the people who worked in those factories.
New technologies and innovations that will drive us forward will be with the cooperation of individuals inside of organizations, not in spite of them.
The future of work is not a monolithic outcome, either. Different businesses, industries and employees will be impacted in different ways. The simplistic future predicted by industry visionaries rarely accounts for the diversity of challenges.
If accuracy is the goal, people with influence also need to acknowledge the limits of their foresight. Hopefully, in doing so, we can build a future that is not just technologically advanced but also just, equitable and deeply human.
About the Author
Lance Haun is a leadership and technology columnist for Reworked. He has spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about HR, work and technology. Connect with Lance Haun: