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Focus 2040: What students predict for the working world

From a GPA-type ranking for employees to working in space, students paint fascinating vision for the workplace

By Todd Humber

In 1967, Walter Kronkite unveiled a vision for the office of the future — a glimpse of what a home office could look like in futuristic 2001.

Kronkite’s vision is ludicrously outdated by 2013 standards, and the technology on display comical. But the basics of what he pitched 46 years ago (see video below) have come true.

Newspaper headlines at your fingertips. Live access to weather and stock quotes. Video conferencing.

“With equipment like this in the home of the future, we may not have to go to work — the work might come to us,” he said.

Last week, students gathered at a campus of McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Burlington, Ont., to present their vision of what the working world could look like in 2040.

This year, more than 60 individuals and teams entered the competition from universities across Canada, and the 10 finalists gave 20-minute presentations on their vision of the workplace of the future. I had the opportunity to attend the competition, a partnership between DeGroote and the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork), an association for senior leaders.

The visions outlined by the students ranged from the practical to the outrageous. Some of the ideas appeared feasible, while others were completely nonsensical — but that’s the point. It’s a fascinating exercise, watching the next generation of leaders talk about the kind of working world they think will exist when they are in their prime, and the type of workplace they want to see.

A few highlights.

What’s your QPL score?

Steven Lee and Joseph Hansik Ha, commerce students at McMaster University in Hamilton, opened up the day with the Kronkite video. It was the first time I had seen it, and it was a perfect way to kick-off the competition.

One of the concepts they unveiled, which caught my attention, was something they called Quantitative Performance Level (QPL). It’s like a Grade Point Average (GPA) for the workplace.

The goal of QPL, which Lee called the “ultimate HR tool of the future,” is to eliminate subjective hiring standards in the recruitment process.

Using different metrics, individuals would accumulate a QPL score — which employers could then use as an objective measure of their talents. It’s kind of like a credit score for employee talents.

It would also help with retention, they argued, since it would ensure candidates’ skills are a better match for the position, leading to more productivity and satisfaction.

HR without borders

Shwetha Chandrashekhar, an HR management student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, unveiled her vision for an organization she called “HR Without Borders” (HRWB) — in the same vein as Doctors Without Borders.

HRWB would be a not-for-profit that would help companies, particularly in developing countries, that need a lot assistance with human resources.

3D printing revolution

Amy Todd, a student at Western University’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., put the spotlight on the rise of 3D printing.

3D printers allow individuals to actually print three-dimensional objects using raw materials like plastic.

She envisioned a future where large scale manufacturing plants would disappear and be replaced by smaller facilities located right outside urban centres where 3D printers could print virtually any product a consumer wants.

The rise of the freelancer

Sinan Nasir, an engineering management graduate at the University of Ottawa, talked about the “optimal mix” for the workforce — a 20/80 split between core employees who work for the organization and talented freelance consultants who bid on microtasks.

He called the 20 per cent core group “super generalists” and the 80 per cent freelancers “hyper specialists.”

One of the judges at the competition raised concerns about relying on such a contingent workforce when there is so much confidential corporate information being passed around. But Nasir pointed to the example of ciphers in the Second World War who worked on parts of a message when breaking coded communications.

These hyper-specialists played a critical role in decoding the messages, but none of them had the whole picture of what the message said. That information was only available to the core, the “super generalists,” and the same model could be effective in the workplace.

Skip-stop elevators

Kelvin Ewald, a returning internship student at McMaster University in Hamilton, spent part of his presentation talking about healthy workplaces.

He saw a 2040 that would see greater use of innovations like the standing desk and the treadmill desk to reduce sedentary behaviour by employees.

He also called for the use of “skip-stop elevators,” that would only stop every three to four floors. Employees would then be forced to walk up a central staircase to their floor, something that not only would improve employee wellness but also get employees talking as they climbed the stairs together.

Google goggles

Ernest Mistica, a fourth year student at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, played the Google Glasses video (see below) and wondered what that technology could do for the workplace.

For example, if a worker was about to enter a safety-sensitive area, an alert could pop up on the goggles warning the worker she is about to enter a dangerous area and needs to put on the appropriate safety equipment.

Or perhaps a note could pop up saying the weather is -20 C today, so the worker needs to prepare for working in the extreme cold, he said.

The space race

You can’t have a conversation about working in 2040 without also discussing space. And that’s where Sheeba Thomas, a commerce student majoring in accounting at McMaster University in Hamilton, came in.

She started off by discussing the plans to create a ship that would be moored in international waters off the coast of California. That’s not a 2040 plan — it’s something happening now. Blueseed, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup, is looking to launch the vessel that would allow entrepreneurs who can’t get a work visa for the United States to collaborate with counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Thomas wants to take that idea out of this world — literally, with the creation of floating workspaces in space. If the obvious high cost could be surmounted, then space’s perfect vacuum would allow for the building of microchips and semiconductors.

And asteroids passing by could also be mined.

Those are but a few of the excellent and fascinating visions of 2040 unveiled to the judges at the competition. The other finalists were:

• Brianna Smrke, McMaster University, Hamilton

• Salman Ahmad and Akshay Pattni, York University, Toronto

• Lindsay Brent and Anu Singh, McMaster University, Hamilton.

And the winners are...

First place:
Sinan Nasir, $5,000

Second place: Brianna Smrke, $3,000

Third place: Amy Todd, $2,000

Paris Internship:
Shwetha Chandrashekhar

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at
todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.

Cronkite in the home office of 2001 and the Google Glasses project

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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