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Decoding the Future of Work

The world of work has been in a constant state of flux since the wake of the Covid pandemic in early 2020. Three years on, while the pandemic has become something we have learned to live with, we are faced with newer, bigger challenges that are dictating how we live and work.

The war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis, spiralling inflation, increasing interest rates, tech and banking sector downturns, and the ongoing spree of layoffs paint a very uncertain picture for what lies ahead. Despite these challenges, it's not all gloom and doom for the future. According to the latest World Economic Outlook published by the IMF, the global economy is on a slow but steady path to recovery.  

Even as we come to terms with the fast-changing realities of today, individuals and organisations must prepare to remain resilient and to capitalise on what the future will be. To cut through the noise and the uncertainty that surrounds the future of work, and to gain unique insights into how organisations are preparing for the future, Sia Partners conducted a series of interviews with industry leaders across the UK, Ireland & Europe. This report provides a snapshot of the key trends shaping the future of work and the challenges to achieving the future vision.  

Scope of the 'Future of Work' study

The Sia Partners future of work study took place between October 2022 and February 2023 with participants representing Banking, Insurance, Education, Media, Government & Public Services, Asset Management, Retail and Luxury industries. The participant group included a mix of COOs, CHROs & HRDs, and leaders from Change & Transformation, Employee Experience and Communications. 

Trends defining the future of work 

In the increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world organisations operate in today, it has become key to define a broad future vision that accounts for different possibilities and facilitates the development of future-focussed capabilities. To understand what this future vision might look like, we asked the study participants what topics define and dominate their future of work agenda. Based on their responses, we identified four key trends that will shape the future of work. 

Reimagining organisational agility

55% of study participants cited “organisational agility and responsiveness to market changes” as their critical success factor for the future of work. 

The last few years have been all about organisations adapting to one challenge after another, establishing new ways of working, embracing flexibility, collaborating, and innovating remotely. The future will hold more such disruptive changes, some of which are already afoot (climate change, energy crises, global supply shortages, and ever-changing customer and employee behaviour), others which we cannot yet know. This can be further evidenced by the fact that more than 80% of the 12,000 business leaders surveyed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 cited “consistent volatility over the next two years at a minimum, with multiple shocks accentuating divergent trajectories” as broad outlook for the future. 

These uncertainties call for businesses and their leaders to follow an ambidextrous approach to sustain growth: delivering new revenues through business agility, while increasing organisational resilience by lowering operational risk. The responses of the WEF’s Innovators Community, on the characteristic that defines a successful leader in a volatile world, holds clues to the capabilities that future leaders and organisations will need to master as they prepare for the future.  

To do so, we believe that organisations will need to reinvent how work gets done. This will involve embracing new business and operating models, leveraging the latest in technology while keeping people, both customers and employees, at the core of every new product or service design. 

What changes will improve organisational agility and responsiveness in the future? 

  • Proliferation of Partner Ecosystem model and the resulting changes in business, operating models, and ways of working.
  • Increase in automation and digitisation leading to an augmented workforce of humans and robots​.
  • Rise of liquid organisations – built for agility, supported by ambidextrous teams with employees and customers at its core​.
  • Improvement in demand planning capabilities by leveraging latest in data analytics and bringing together internal & external signals​.

Winning the war for talent

49% of study participants cited “attracting, managing and retaining talent” as one of their biggest challenges in achieving a future of work vision. 

The pandemic provided employees a rare opportunity to reflect and reconsider their priorities for the future. With work from anywhere becoming a reality and increased labour shortages, employees had and continue to have the upper hand in the labour market. For perspective, the UK is currently experiencing the lowest unemployment levels in over 50 years. This means the challenge employers face is not just in attracting talent but also retaining it. Organisational purpose, culture, career development opportunities, employee engagement, compensation and rewards all become critical pieces of this puzzle. 

With 29% of participants noting that “creating lasting and sustainable work experience” is an important piece of what the future of work means for them and their organisation, it is clear talent retention is an area of growing interest. We expect talent strategy and workforce planning to become priority areas for organisations given the rising focus on cost optimisation in the current economic scenario. From rethinking reward strategies and value propositions to creating talent marketplaces and building new talent channels, this space will likely see a lot of change in the short and medium terms. 

The pandemic also brought about a seismic shift in both where and how employees expect to be able to work. Over 76% of participants cited ‘finding the right balance to hybrid work’ as essential for managing challenges around talent attraction and retention in the future. While many organisations are undergoing their journey with hybrid working and developing a hybrid working strategy, it is apparent that there are varying levels of progress depending on the organisation and sector. Although a company’s hybrid work policy needs to be developed in line with the organisation’s requirements and strategy, it must also consider employees’ points of view. Flexibility is now an expectation for many employees across all job levels and will be a growing area of importance going forward. 

What can you do to win the war for talent? 

  • Identify and offer incentives that matter most to employees. Go beyond monetary rewards to look at flexibility, purpose, career development and learning.
  • Expand beyond traditional recruitment channels while focussing on diversity and inclusion.
  • Revisit your value proposition to build deeper and stronger connections with the workforce and the broader society and community​.
  • Develop internal and external talent marketplace to build cross-functional teams, and accommodate internal talent shortages​.

Ensuring Sustainability, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity

Over 90% of participants rated "sustainability and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)” to be strategic priorities for the future of work. 

Sustainability, while not a new concept, until recently was often looked at as a passing fad or something nice to have. From employees to customers and shareholders, sustainability will continue to be a key criterion when it comes to decision making. With regulatory changes, like the TCFD and CSRD, providing the additional fillip in this space, we foresee organisations big and small committing to a sustainable future.  

Sustainability becomes even more critical as we embark on the next digital revolution. Energy use accounts for only 55% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, with products and services accounting for the remaining 45%. This calls for a shift in mindset and embedding sustainability as a core pillar of corporate strategy that drives product and service design and innovation.   

Similarly, no future of work vision can be disconnected from DEIB initiatives. The 2022 report by the International Labour Organisation on transforming enterprises through diversity and inclusion provides a comprehensive body of empirical research that outlines why an equal, diverse, and inclusive workplace is a key driver of resilience for the future of work. Strong DEIB policies will ensure organisations and managers in the future are adept at leading diverse teams, embracing new ideas, and fostering inclusive environments. We believe that bringing a data-driven lens to make the benefits of DEIB initiatives measurable will ensure they attract and retain leadership buy-in. 

How can you act now to ensure a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future? 

  • Re-design operating models to ensure sustainability runs through every part of it. From how decisions are made to governance structures and organisational culture​.
  • Embed DEIB into the DNA of the organisation and ensure existing policies and practices foster a conducive environment for DEIB initiatives.
  • Re-define the organisational purpose with commitments to community, society and sustainability​.
  • Measure, track and improve the results of DEIB and Sustainability initiatives. What gets measured gets done.

Future-proofing skills and capabilities

1 in 3 study participants ranked “future proofing the workforce” a top priority for the future of work.  

Be it to develop resilient organisations or to retain top performing talent, learning and development in many ways underpin the trends captured above. Given the rate of change we see today (in technology, the economy, geopolitics, etc.), organisations must embrace a continuous learning mindset if they are to be successful in the future. That means constantly investing in their workforce; upskilling and re-skilling workers to ensure they and their organisations can remain at the cutting edge of innovation.  

LinkedIn’s 2023 Workplace Learning Report found that 89% of L&D professionals agree that proactively building employee skills for today and tomorrow will help navigate the evolving future of work. This vision has also been getting increasing buy-in from the C-suite with 44% of L&D practitioners reporting more working time with the executive leadership teams (excl. CHROs), up 6% from 2022. 

We predict further innovation in the experiential learning space with the increased adoption of new learning and collaboration channels. Channels like the metaverse hold the potential to push the boundaries of L&D capabilities in the future. We also foresee an increased focus on building internal talent marketplaces that promote cross-functional teams and the creation of unique career pathways. These will drive the liquid organisations of the future.   

What can you do to future-proof your organisation? 

  • Develop personalised learning supported by new career pathways that match unique employee skills and capabilities to organisational roles.
  • Create internal talent marketplaces to identify employees with unique skillsets and build an enterprise view of skills and capabilities​.
  • Design immersive learning experiences through extended reality and the metaverse.
  • Focus on continuous learning to build organisational agility and resilience, while leveraging learning data to inform decision-making.

The future lies in preparedness and resilience

The reality is that there is no singular definition for the future of work. Every solution or intervention planned will only be relevant for an organisation at a particular moment in time. The key to addressing the unpredictability of the future will lie in preparedness and resilience organisations will build going forward.  

This can be achieved by formulating a future of work strategy that is dynamic and flexible to embrace the constantly evolving external trends and market movements. This will require the ideation and development of a future of work vision, followed by an iterative approach that delivers the continuous monitoring, analysis and prioritisation of trends that hold the biggest opportunities or threats for the business. Once the trends have been prioritised, business scenarios will need to be built and tested to understand their impacts and to identify outcomes that are most favourable to the business. A strategic roadmap of initiatives can then be drawn up that charts a path from the current state to the identified future scenarios. To be truly successful, such a strategy will need to cut across organisational siloes and be a unified plan that delivers competitive advantage in the future. 

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