THE term "Workforce 2020" may sound right out of a sci-fi movie, but it is a hot topic that has already been speculated about in the past decade.
Now that it is almost within reach, it's about time we revisit this familiar subject to get a clearer picture of future workplace changes we can expect.
"Five years ago, the emerging trends that were being discussed are mainstream today," says workplace futurist and author Kevin Mulcahy, who will be speaking at the Singapore HR Summit 2016 next Tuesday.
They include technological disruptions, the changing composition of the workforce, and - more importantly - new ways of working.
Such developments show no sign of stopping, and leaders who fail to ready themselves for these workforce changes will eventually lose out.
How Workforce 2020 is shaping up
In the near future, there will be five generations working in the same place, says Mr Mulcahy.
He attributes this to the changing of rules which encourage older workers to stay longer, while Generation Z (born after 1995) start joining the ranks at the same time.
One of the most interesting upcoming changes will be the greater role of Millennials at work. "Many workforces will appear more youthful as younger bosses manage older workers and Millennials take on more senior leadership positions in significant numbers," adds Mr Mulcahy.
This inevitably leads to changing ways of working as the younger generation expect more from their work and their employers. The overarching implication is that companies will find that they need to substantially invest in making the experience of the employee a much better one.
Organisations are now examining all aspects of work, and this includes the emotional, intellectual, physical, cultural and technological aspects to create meaningful work experiences for their employees.
Another speaker at next week's HR Summit, Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, suggests that workplaces will get more informal, with fewer barriers, casual clothing and shared spaces.
He quips that hot-desking will become the norm and that there "won't be enough desks to go round".
This shift in mindset will lead to increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home, and between being an employee or a freelancer.
This is a view echoed by Mr Mulcahy, who says that more workforces will be a blend of full-time employees and part-time freelancers as the gig economy continues to grow.
The last trend that will shape the future of work will be technology. No matter how prepared we are for new developments, the rate at which technology impacts the workplace will continue to surprise us, he says. "Technology will completely disrupt some roles to the point of elimination of certain jobs. Most roles will be enabled by technology . . . artificial intelligence today is taking over some job functions," Mr Mulcahy points out.
But he is optimistic that the use of technology will enable greater innovation, insights and productivity in other areas instead of simply displacing workers, as some fear.
Fit for the future
While companies are aware of technology trends and risks of disruption, not all firms are taking the right approach to cope with the changes.
In fact, Mr Birkinshaw observes that many jump on the bandwagon by embarking on hackathons or crowdsourcing idea-generation projects to tap into the latest technology. "None of these are wrong - but at the same time, they are often done in a fairly superficial way, and without a significant level of commitment to any course of action," he observes.
For companies to be fit for the future, they not only need to experiment with new technologies and business models, they also have to be able to scale up their new business opportunity at the right time.
This is much harder as it requires top-level commitment, and often involves cannibalising existing revenue streams.
Another part of being future-ready is making the workplace a more holistic experience for workers, says Mr Mulcahy.
This entails where they work, how they learn, the platforms they collaborate on, the technology used to get work done, and the efforts made to truly include different types of employees. "Companies can let employees know that they are willing to experiment with new ways of getting work done and encourage employees to look for ways to lead their company towards these changes," he suggests.
Mr Birkinshaw adds that pushing more power to those lower down the organisation and simplifying structures to reduce bureaucracy will help the organisation become more agile and work faster.
Such an approach requires humility and openness on the part of leaders, and those who do not heed this will risk irrelevancy.
To start with, leaders must recognise that they do not have all the answers and that they need to keep searching.
Being receptive to new ways of working also includes hiring employees from non-traditional backgrounds, and experimenting with simpler and more agile methodologies in order to get the best result. Such adaptable and agile companies are more likely to thrive in an unpredictable world.
"Ultimately, successful companies are the ones that make it everyone's job to think about and act on opportunities for improving the organisation," concludes Mr Birkinshaw.