Welcome to the future working world

Students imagine school-like workplace, ‘telepathy’ in Focus 2040 competition
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/20/2014

Near-telepathic communication, robotic arms and a workplace that’s more like a university — these are just a few of the trends we can expect to see in the workplace of 2040, according to the winners of this year’s Focus 2040 student competition.

Created through a partnership between the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University and the Strategic Capabilities Network, the competition asks students to imagine the workplace of the future.

“(It’s) focused on the idea of having students envision what the world of work will look like in the year 2040, and to think through what the implications of that vision might be for employers and for their employees,” said Rick Hackett, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and Canada research chair in organizational behaviour and human performance.

There are three phases to the competition: Phase one is a written essay, after which the top 20 students are selected for phase two. Phase three narrows it down to 10 finallists and involves an oral presentation before a panel of judges, said Hackett, who was faculty advisor to the competition’s student organizers.

It’s quite a useful exercise for the students who can potentially land themselves an internship with one of the competition’s sponsors — but the contest can be invaluable for employers as well, said Hackett.

“Business organizations can benefit from that perspective and get some really unique, creative ideas as to what the future might look like, which may help them with their own planning,” he said.

“But secondly, and more immediately, a number of our sponsors offer summer internships — and they really like the idea that they have first-hand access to the 10 finallists.”

‘More like school, less like work’

So what were some of the creative ideas employers may even incorporate into their own business plans? One was that the workplace model will evolve to be “more like school, less like work,” according to Matthew Armellin and Nadine Shantz of McMaster University, who won first place in the contest.

“Going into 2040, generation Y is going to be very educated. A lot of them are going to have university degrees, they’re going to have master’s degrees — what do they value in school that can translate into the workforce of 2040?” asked Armellin.

“For example, autonomy. Students go to school for maybe 10, 15 hours a week. The rest of the time, they have the flexibility to do their work where they want, when they want. So in the workforce, (this will mean) giving employees a due date but giving them the flexibility to do the work when they want — as opposed to a nine-to-five, structured workday.”

Company-sponsored housing — similar to university-style “residences” — will also be an emerging trend, said Armellin.

“A lot of the larger companies, maybe in downtown Toronto, may purchase condos or residence-style buildings, like school. But it will serve the purpose of attracting young workers to the company. They might not be so focused on buying that house right when they get out of school,” he said.

Social networking will also have a major impact, said Shantz — finding a job will be less about physical resumés and more about networking and personal branding.

“People (will be) their own brand. So instead of Sam, who would currently be known for working for company XYZ, he’s going to be ‘Sam, the information technology manager.’ He has all of these credentials and he belongs to these associations, and this is who he is and who he’s really built himself to be, instead of just this person who works for a company,” she said.

“We also talked about how the resumé is going to be disappearing — how it’s really about networking and building those connections and finding out about opportunities through those networks.”

A strong focus on health and well-being will also be important, as will a trend away from health risks such as shift work, said Shantz.

“Eliminating things like shift work — right now people might think that’s crazy, especially with globalization and staying competitive — but it’s going to cost companies so much money with the side-effects and negative impacts it’s causing that it’s actually going to actually outweigh the (benefits),” she said.

Obviously, there are going to be some fields where shift work is necessary, such as health care, said Armellin.

“But we’re starting to really realize the effects of shift work and the damaging effects that it can have for people in terms of psychological health, sleep schedules… so we’re predicting a shift away from that.”

Technologically savvy

The workplace structure isn’t the only thing that will see dramatic changes — so will the technology, said Naureen Qazi Mushfique, an MBA student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the second-place winner.

New communication tools will revolutionize the way organizations and individual employees transmit information, said Mushfique, who offered specific examples of some of these tools.

“One of them was ‘telepathy’ — and I don’t mean telepathy in that you look at someone and you know what they’re thinking. It was based on this thing called Telepathy One that’s being created right now. It’s very similar to Google Glass but much more advanced, which kind of lets you integrate all your networking-based or computer-based applications and software, and it lets you communicate,” she said.

“I predicted that it would be used to open up a lot of communication between interdisciplinary or interdepartmental employees, as well as it would also help you create test environments for decision-making. So if you wanted to know what the consequences of a certain decision would be, that would help you almost simulate the decision.”

A heavier use of robotics was another of Mushfique’s predictions, including an ‘autobot’ that would eliminate certain health risks.

“It was a robotic arm and people would work remotely from different locations, but the robotic arm itself would be at the research centre,” she said.

“It would help you do a lot of research that we can’t do right now because of human health or (the) environment might be too hazardous,” she said.

Technology that monitors an employee’s stress and cognition levels was another of Mushfique’s predictions. So was knowledge-sharing technology that retains an employee’s knowledge after he leaves the organization.

“They could track from the very beginning when an employee enters, how he actually works,” she said, adding there is a wealth of “hidden data” around productivity.

Adaptable to market changes

Another way organizations will evolve is by becoming more adaptable to changes in the market, according to Mikael Castaldo of the University of Toronto and Joseph Lundy of the University of Waterloo, who won third place in the competition.

“In 2040, due to technological accelerators and increased human populations, and also development in emerging markets, the world is going to be changing a lot faster, economically and technologically. And that’s going to make it harder for corporations to predict things,” said Lundy.

“Our goal for the organization in 2040 is to build a business model that, whether or not you make the right predictions, it doesn’t affect the overall success of your organization. So the point is to build organizations that are actually able to survive volatility and change.”

To accomplish this, companies will have to adopt two key principles, said Castaldo.

“The first is to become what we call a module organization, so built around a core idea, but then extremely de-centralized so that products are managed by individual teams that are loosely related to the core of the organization. But it’s super de-centralized — kind of like the way Google is structured,” he said.

“We envisioned a company in 2040 that is more like a collection of startups,” said Lundy. “Corporations in 2040 need to be built around a core idea instead of a single product because companies that are built around a single product are going to be a lot more vulnerable to change.”

The second principle was for companies to hire more generalists, said Castaldo.

“We want companies to focus less on hiring single-function workers, specialists, and focusing more on hiring generalists because generalists make better problem-solvers,” he said.

That will become increasingly important as technology improves, processes become automated and creativity becomes a valuable commodity, said Lundy.

“Companies are going to have to focus on building more creative, flexible and general workforces. So they’ll need employees to have multiple skill sets and to be creative problem-solvers, because they’re going to really depend on the employee, not for just linear input and output in 2040, but to be able to think creatively.”

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