Last reviewed 13 March 2019

This article by Tricia Palmer considers future work and changes in employment patterns, which have resulted from a major relational shift that is occurring between people and their work.

The US commentator Thomas Friedman describes it as follows:

Work is being disconnected from jobs, and jobs and work are being disconnected from companies, which are increasingly becoming platforms. A great example of this is what’s happening in the cab business. Traditional local cab companies own cars and have employees who have a job; they drive those cars. But, now they’re competing with Uber, which owns no cars, has no employees, and just provides a platform of work that brings together ride-needers and ride-providers.­

This sums up how work is moving beyond organisational walls and balance sheets. What is variously termed the platform, gig or alternative employee is part of one of the fastest-growing segments of the workforce. In the US for instance, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that between 2005 and 2015, 94% of new employ­ment was created through al­ternative working arrangements. In the UK we now have over a million employees on zero-hours contracts. The likes of McKinsey and Gartner are predicting that at least half the workforce will be engaged in some form of alternative employment by 2025.

This future is not especially far away — visit a manufacturer, go to your nearest McDonalds or place an order with Deliveroo, pop into the reception office of a Council like Camden or Thurrock, and you will see that it is already here: all of these are examples of instances where the flow of work and the relationship between the organisation and customer have been re-defined. And in all of these cases technology is driving different behaviour from employees and customers.

In this article we will focus separately on the key components of this shift.

  • The impact of technology on work.

  • How employment practice and law is struggling to keep pace.

  • The way career patterns are changing.

  • And, finally, at the qualities that seem likely to be most important for sustained success in the future.

The impact of technology

Much has been written about the “rise of robots” with varying estimates for the proportion of jobs likely to be overtaken by automation in the near future. A landmark 2013 paper from the University of Oxford (The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?) put the figure at 47% of jobs by 2030, while more recent contributions from the University of Mannheim, the OECD and McKinsey have ranged from 9% to 13% to 50%.

The wide variation here is an indication less of the difficulty of accurate prediction, and more of the problems that arise when we try to generalise — greater clarity is obtained when examining the data in relation to specific industry sectors or job roles.

The sector generally considered to be the most automatable is hospitality and catering, where almost half of all labour time involves predictable physical activities and the operation of machinery — including preparing, cooking, or serving food, cleaning and order processing. According to the McKinsey 2017 study (Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained), over 70% of employee activities in this sector have the potential for automation. Specific applications here range from self-service ordering, through automated check-ins (both already fairly widespread) to the introduction of robots for cooking. Momentum Machines for instance has a hamburger-cooking robot, which can reportedly assemble and cook 360 burgers an hour.

Manufacturing comes out as the second most susceptible industry sector here, and again it’s hard not to feel the future has arrived when across developed economies there are already tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people employed as “robotic trainers” using data analysis and programming skills to develop driverless vehicles.

Retailing is another sector with a high technical potential for automation. McKinsey estimate around 50% of activities being automatable here, including technology-driven stock management and logistics (packaging objects for shipping and stocking merchandise), maintaining records of sales, gathering customer or product information, and analysing buying behaviour. Hard to escape the continued sense that all of this already feels familiar.

In financial and insurance services it’s estimated that about 50% of the overall time of the workforce is devoted to collecting and processing data, again making the technical potential for automation high. So where insurance sales agents gather customer or product information and underwriters verify the accuracy of records, and bank staff verify the accuracy of financial data, all of these tasks are fully automatable with immediate effect. What’s notable here is that efficiency and value (rather than technology) could be the real drivers of change. The effect of lean six sigma programmes on finance —- and in the public sector in areas such as processing benefits claims — has transformed the customer experience around financial approvals, with many organisations able to automate the processes and offer immediate loan or claim approval for instance.

Most commentators see healthcare as one of the least automatable industries, largely because of the centrality of social and emotional skills in caring work. So the elements of this sector where daily activities require expertise and direct contact with patients are likely to see the slowest introduction of artificial intelligence, but there is still considerable scope for improved productivity in areas including prescribing, skills training and even consultations which have for some time been possible online.

It will be interesting here to see the tussle between technological possibility and human habit — already trials in the UK of video consultations are concluding that the process is too problematic for widespread use. Yet many surgeries have already moved to digital approaches, enabling patients to message their GP and receive a response within 24 hours. A similar phenomenon occurred in education and training around the adoption of e-learning. Significant UK investment in e-learning in the 1990s (remember the University for Industry?) seemed to meet with lukewarm responses from workplace learners, but now the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and huge resources like Linked-In learning are fairly widespread.

One of the more intriguing questions here is the extent to which the job of management might be automated. The pat answer is that command and control or transactional management approaches could readily be replicated by robots, while the more transformational, emotionally intelligent style could not. But digging deeper, some of the potential here is surprising. In a recent debate on this subject hosted by the Chartered Management Institute, two contributors spoke about how automated systems were already surpassing what a human manager could offer:

Robots already make good managers. Our customers like initial human interaction but, once the account is set up, we don’t have to speak to anyone, as it is all automated. Our system runs the show with little human interaction.

Steve Reilly, VistaBee

We have created CoachBot, an intelligent piece of software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver management training. An effective digital coach uses AI to ask the right questions depending on the given situation and then lead the team to the right answers — it’s exactly what a good human coach can do, but robots do it better.

Alistair Shepherd, Saberr

In surveying our current position in relation to the automation of work, the analogy that springs to mind is a mid-race marathon field. The elite runners (early adopters) are already employing many of the approaches still touted as futuristic, but further back is a far greater number of employers with a much less focused and cohesive relationship with work technologies, and it seems to be here that the effect of the changes predicted is likely to felt most keenly — as companies and employees are compelled to adopt new ways of working.

It’s also increasingly clear that the doom-laden scenario of a robotised working world and increasingly unemployed working population is missing an important element. As fast as old jobs come off the balance sheet, new ones are being created. The economist, Robert Gordon, notes that from 1970 to 2009, what he calls highly cognitive non-routine work grew by 60%, while repetitive work declined by 12%. It’s in this space that — for a while anyway — humans seem to have an edge.

Future jobs

There’s an often-cited statistic about the proportion of jobs today’s school children will do that haven’t yet been invented — a fairly up-to-date version of this from Dell’s Institute for the Future puts it at 75%...all of which evokes a degree of sympathy for the hard-pressed careers advisor!

Wouldn’t it be more illuminating though to understand what these jobs might look like? Challenging as that sounds, a lot of commentators are taking the trouble to give us detailed ideas about what the jobs of the future will involve, and below we have summarised a selection of recent predictions about five future jobs. They range across different sectors to show how key trends will affect public service and non-profit workers as well as those in commercial operations.

Future job: Digital Twin Engineer

The Digital Twin Engineer creates a virtual representation of both the physical elements and the dynamics of how a product operates and interacts within its environment, throughout its entire life cycle.

Ranging from a jet engine or aircraft to a shop floor, an assembly line, or even an entire factory building, a Digital Twin Engineer makes it possible to virtually see inside any physical asset, system, or structure that could be located anywhere, thereby helping to optimise its design, monitor its performance and predict its maintenance.

Digital Twin Engineers play a crucial role in building the relationships and communication lines across silos to create a network that marries the physical and digital worlds throughout the manufacturing value chain.

By creating virtual models to test in virtual operating environments, the Digital Twin Engineer helps manufacturers gain an understanding of their product behaviour, thereby enabling better performance through enhanced design and predictive maintenance.

Future job: Criminal Redirection Officer

The Criminal Redirection Officer will contribute to a reduction in the prison population by refocusing criminal justice on reformation and rehabilitation.

Using enabling technologies and their knowledge of human behaviour, the Criminal Redirection Officer can work with low-risk and non-violent offenders who are allowed to live at home and go to work instead of being housed in prisons. A suite of digital tools will help to monitor each offender’s physical location, proximity to other offenders, and drug or alcohol use, as well as ties to community, family, and employment to ensure compliance with programme requirements.

In addition to monitoring time served, part of the role will involve equipping offenders with the necessary skills, resources and behaviours to successfully re-join society and prevent recidivism.

The Criminal Redirection Officer will use historical and real-time data through AI and analytics-based tools to inform action plans. They will have regular virtual check-ins with their charges and other stakeholders, using gamification to encourage pro-social behaviour and help offenders achieve goals.

Future job: Child Aid Co-ordinator

Similar to a social worker, a Child Aid Co-ordinator will investigate cases of abuse and neglect, organise and arrange required services, place children in foster care or adoption homes, and provide counselling and support for families.

Their paperwork will be taken care of by a suite of cognitive technologies, meaning the Child Aid Co-ordinator can focus on in-person interactions. Predictive analytics and machine learning help them make faster and more effective decisions based on data.

Cases are better matched to each Child Aid Co-ordinator through management systems that ties clients with the relevant experience and specialism.

Future job: Predictive Supply Network Analyst

Predictive Supply Network Analysts play a strategic role in the digital supply network. With a portfolio of digital tools, these analysts generally rely on machine learning and cognitive computing to identify opportunities for calibrating demand and supply. Results enable them to maximise performance based on metrics, including customer satisfaction, productivity, and margins. In essence this role enables Just In Time delivery based on dynamic intelligence about all factors on the supply and demand sides.

Because many day-to-day decisions are automated, these analysts can focus on changing algorithms that reflect exceptions or developing scenarios. More importantly, they have an eye to the future, making decisions intended to give their business a competitive advantage.

The analysts apply enduring human skills such as complex problem-solving, problem sensitivity, creativity, and judgment to make decisions that augment and refine the recommendations of the tools they use.

Future job: Mobility Platform Manager 

The Mobility Platform Manager is responsible for public safety, accessibility and equity within mobility systems.

Mobility Platform Managers oversee and manage the city’s multimodal transportation system, optimise prices and routes based on demand and supply, and develop new programmes, routes and models of transport to enhance the quality of life for citizens.

MPMs would stay up to date on advances in their field using integrated micro learning tools. Through an AI-powered system, they can optimise routes and pricing, and to prepare for potential disasters, they can use predictive models to help plan resources and adapt routes.

Looking at these very credible imaginings of future work roles, it’s apparent that technical capabilities are well to the fore, but also that softer-skills (relationship management, influencing, team-working, critical thinking) are not going away. If anything their importance seems likely to be enhanced in environments where data and analytics are heavily relied upon. The Talent Management technology business Harrison highlights the importance of intuition as a balancer of analytical capability in the future workforce and this is reflected in the movement towards STEAM rather than STEM in our education systems (adding Art and Design to the critical skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The challenge for employer practice

In the UK the most comprehensive exploration of how emerging work trends are affecting the nature of the contract (legal and psychological) between employer and employee was provided by the 2017 Taylor Review: Good Work.

The Review made a number of recommendations around employment and tax status, the National Minimum Wage, zero-hours contracts and agency work. Among the most significant were the following.

Employment status

Calling for a clearer distinction between the legal definitions of “employee”, “worker” and “self-employed”, in particular proposing a new definition of “dependent contractor”, to reflect the degree of ”control” the employer exerts (and affording a dependent contractor greater rights).

Tax status

Advocating that all workers should be ”employees” for tax purposes and backing proposals to equalise National Insurance for the employed and self-employed.

Minimum wage

Recommending that the Low Pay Commission develops sector-based strategies to ensure that people employed in sectors where low pay is predominant can progress beyond minimum wage level; and that ”platform workers” or ”dependent contractors” should receive at least the National Minimum Wage (NMW), but on a piece-rate basis. Under these rules, a ”gig” company would have to demonstrate that, at times of normal demand, an average person could earn 20% more than the NMW. However, if that person chose to work at a time of low demand, they might not earn the minimum wage; the company would have to use its real-time data to warn them of this in advance, as many already do for instance to inform customers of price surges.

Zero-hours workers and agency workers

Proposing that those workers in a post on a zero-hours contract for 12 months or more should have the right to request a contract with a guaranteed number of hours, with their average weekly working hours over the previous 12 months as the starting point for any new contract.

Recommending that agency workers should also have the right to request a direct contract of employment after 12 months with the same hirer.

Additional recommendations

…concerned the extension of rights to casual, platform and agency workers around statutory sick pay, and entitlement to holiday pay.

Eighteen months on, the prevailing response to the Taylor Review though seems to be a mix of frustration and disappointment that so few of its (mostly scaled back) ambitions are materialising into legislation or practice. It seems likely that test cases will prove to be the real engine of change and, to date, there have been a small number, such as the Supreme Court ruling in June 2018 against Pimlico Plumbers upholding the rights of a self-employed contractor to the business as a “worker”, entitled to the NMW as well as holiday and sick pay. Taxation may also hold the key here, but to date there have been no firm indications of any intention in the Treasury to carry out a serious review.

The future of careers

Commentators going back to Charles Handy and earlier have long predicted the demise of the steady, stable career. There is no doubt that most organisations have become flatter, making upward progression less common and placing greater onus on HR and line managers to create scope for “stretch opportunities” such as secondments, project leadership or profile-raising activity. Again, the analogy of the strung-out marathon field springs to mind though, as it is still common to find managers and employees at a loss about how to maintain engagement in a context of short-term careers and dynamic organisation structures; with relatively few embracing the opportunities that come with career agility.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman believes that careers are now simply “tours of duty,” prompting companies to design or­ganisations that assume people will only stay a few years. The data bears this out: around 60% of US companies believe their new employees will be with them fewer than 10 years. (LinkedIn research shows that, on average, new degree-holders these days have twice as many jobs in their first five working years as they did in the mid-1980s.)

So why is it proving so hard for people to accept that the traditional career model is not coming back? An insightful commentator on this issue is Josh Bersin who pinpoints three key and common mental models which constrain our ability to embrace the new order of things.

A career represents our expertise, our profession, and ultimately our identity. It defines who we are and what we do. This form of self-identity makes changing careers dauntingly difficult: What if we switch careers and fail? Then who are we?

A career is something that builds over time and endures. It gives us the opportunity to progress, advance, and continuously feel proud. When we are asked to change our career or path, what happens to all we have learned? Do we throw it all away? Or can we carry it forward?

A career gives us financial and psychological rewards. It makes life meaningful, gives us purpose, and pays us enough to live well. What happens if our career suddenly becomes less valuable, even if we still enjoy it? Should we continue to make less money or jump to a new path?

Josh Bersin (2017) Catch the Wave

In Bersin’s view the emerging model of work and careers has “disrupted all three elements: expertise, duration, and re­wards.” He points out that the resulting discomfort is felt keenly on both sides as employees try to forge careers which will offer them appropriate remuneration and self-esteem, and employers try to plan a workforce for the future.

He also points out how this uncertainty affects even those roles where one might imagine the level of personal and career security would be highest. Programmers and software engineers for instance are likely to be one of the groupings most affected by automation, as artificial intelligence gradually takes over the bulk of coding work. People in these roles, just like the rest of us are going to need to adapt, and there is some evidence of forward-thinking employers seeing this as an area of joint responsibility — where the employer looks to provide the conditions and resources to help employees continuously manage and develop their own careers.

Here are some examples from Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends Report (2017) of some of the best practices from around the world in this area.

  • Bank of America offers a prepaid “credit card” for em­ployees to access learning and content, with no restrictions on topic or format — iethe learning does not have to relate to current roles.

  • Creating a culture of learning among man­agement, where managers are rewarded for develop­ing their people and perfor­mance management/appraisal is re-engineered to focus entirely on development —- AT&T has focused its corporate culture on the continuous reskill­ing of its employees.

  • IBM has created career paths and self-assessment tools to help employees find new jobs and new career paths within the company

  • The Bangalore IT business Mindtree has created the role of Chief Learning Officer with a corporate budget for furthering organisational learning — the current incumbent also produces and circulates books and papers, for instance on integrity — one of the company’s core values.

  • Creating learning and development programmes to enable employ­ees to develop capabilities which span the digital/human divide, such as in design thinking and visualisation.

  • Investing in transition-management programmes to help people move into new roles as in the Royal Bank of Canada.

Qualities required for success

As a final contribution to this discussion about how work is evolving, it’s hard to escape the sense that we (as practitioners, managers, employers, and parents) could be doing a lot better than we are in preparing future generations for this dynamic, unpredictable and digital world we are all so sure is around the corner.

And perhaps (better news for our hard-pressed careers advisor) we could make this easier for ourselves by concentrating on some of the human qualities likely to be enduringly related to progression, success and personal fulfilment. Authorities such as Carol Dweck and Walter Mischel at Stanford University have been gaining increasing traction with their evidence about the importance of a Growth Mindset for instance, or the self-discipline to delay gratification.

The authors of the Deloitte report Redefine work (2018) have some interesting ideas about the personal qualities likely to support individual success in a complex, fast changing world. They point to the following very familiar qualities:

  • Curiosity — “the desire to ask questions, to see and learn more, to ask: Is this really what I’m seeing, and what else is there that I don’t see? Curiosity drives questioning the environment, the participants, the constraints to understand, explore, and probe.”. Without curi­osity they say, other human capabilities are of limited value.

  • Imagination—which they describe as “work[ing] with curiosity to address the unseen opportunity; it extends the seeing of the hidden beyond the problem and the current assumptions of what is known and what is possible to get to possible implications and solutions. Imagination probes the context in a way that gets to a deeper understanding of what affects and influences others.”

  • Intuition — already referenced as a balancer of analytical ability which the authors see as “a highly attuned system that senses and anticipates changes in the environment, bridging the gap between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our mind, and allows us to rapidly, without analytic processing, develop options and make decisions.”

  • Creativity — defined as “improvisation, about understanding the resources around you and allocating and combining resources in novel, effective and efficient ways.” Interestingly there is an eagerness to emphasise that creativity is not frivolous, and not the province of “artsy types” — creativity in this arena is applied, practical and usually directed to solving problems.

  • Empathy and emotional and social intelligence — here the Deloitte report authors chime with an increasing body of work from people like Andre de Waal and David Brooks in seeing empathy and social intelligence as the basis of our ability to understand and interpret the context of customers, colleagues and others “in a way that can create new value for them”.

For anyone seeking advice on personal characteristics likely to stand them in good stead, this is not a bad list. One important quality we might add, based on our own experience with employers across different sectors in the UK is personal responsibility — a willingness to take ownership of tasks and outcomes in way that allows the employee to become fully engaged in the work, and to exceed their own and others’ expectations. This quality flourishes most of course in environments where the employee has the freedom to take that responsibility, and perhaps the freedom to do high value work.

The following example, for instance, illustrates the increase in value deliverable within the same role where constraints are gradually released.

No freedom

Freedom about what to do and how to do it

Freedom to define the output

Freedom to define the desired impact

A financial analyst is required to create a monthly report on the collection rate of accounts receivable. She is told which templates and formulas to use, and cannot deviate from the prescribed steps.

The financial analyst is required to create a monthly report on the collection of accounts receivable. She decides how to go about creating it —choosing which data sources, formulas and report layouts to use.

The financial analyst is responsible for supporting the business’s under-standing of performance and practices around managing credit. She is able to work with business users to determine what metrics on accounts receivable are most useful to report. She discovers that management used the report to anticipate cash on hand and creates a free cash-flow report to better meet this unarticulated need.

The financial analyst is able to think about the accounts receivable process from the customer’s perspective and identifies a clumsy payment portal that regularly crashes. She is able to pull together a small group to develop and implement a new portal system, improving the organisation’s free cash flow.

We see many examples of employers already introducing higher levels of freedom into the way they design and manage work. For instance, a staple element in contemporary development programmes (not just for leaders and managers) is a challenge or improvement project, where learners are supported to apply their learning in pursuit of tangible business improvements or innovation. Or around re-structuring exercises where team members are involved early in re-thinking the value delivered by their service, and how organisational systems and work roles can be configured to maximise that value. Encouragement in the early 2000s for employers to look at shared ownership arrangement was conceived with this kind of involving philosophy in mind, and while there is not great evidence of any significant shift in uptake of the kind of partnership model John Lewis is famous for, it’s clear from sources like the Sunday Times Top 100 Employers survey, that there are many other ways to create an environment that maximises trust and engagement. One promising trend, for instance, has been the increase in adoption of Results Only Working Environments, where employees have the freedom to arrange their work patterns to deliver agreed outcomes.

Practices like this offer a tangible and easy to replicate example of how technological capability and a new world life/work mindset can be combined in a way where both employer and employee needs are fulfilled, and are a source of optimism that we can use our human skills in negotiation and influencing to make the future work for us.


Deloitte Insights (2017), Global Human Capital Trends

Deloitte Insights (2018), Re-define Work: the Untapped Opportunity for Expanding Value

Jacob Morgan (2014), The Future of Work

Josh Bersin (2017), Catch the Wave

McKinsey and Company (2017), Technology and the Future of Work

Martin Ford (2015), The Rise of the Robots

RSA (2017), Good Work: Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices

Yuval Noah Harari (2015), Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow.

Tricia Palmer is a consultant in HR, Interim director and leadership trainer. She is a regular contributor to Croner-i for Local Government. This article has been written in consultation with Darren O’Connor — Director of Passe-Partout leadership consultancy. Croner-i for Local Government is an online employment law and practice reference source designed specifically for HR managers and their teams in local government.