7 ways the workplace will look different in 2050

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Over the years we’ve seen the workplace go through a number of dramatic changes: The dress code has shifted away from the suit and tie. There are entire jobs devoted only to the strategic use of social media. People are “job hopping” every year or two, rather than committing their careers to one company.

And that’s just within the last five or 10 years; imagine how much different it will look several decades from now.

Business Insider spoke with a of couple futurists with expertise on the workplace to better understand how it could change by the year 2050. These are only predictions, of course, but given the already rapid pace of change underway thanks to advancements in technology, here are seven very likely scenarios we could see in the next few decades.

The corporate ladder could become the 'corporate lattice.'

In the past 25 years, one-quarter of companies have reduced the number of layers of management they have, moving toward a flatter, more grid-like management structure.

We've already seen it in companies like Vegas-based e-commerce site Zappos, which eliminated employee titles just over two years ago in favour of a manager-free 'holacracy.'

'Traditional roles are going to disappear because many workplaces are going to disappear, so the whole structural hierarchical system is going to disappear,' said James Canton, PhD, chairman and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures and author of 'Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that Will Transform Your World.' 'You'll end up with a system, a network of humans and artificial intelligence, crowd-based intelligence -- they're all going to get mashed up.'

Artificial intelligence could replace jobs previously held by humans ...

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In May, NPR created a digital tool to calculate how likely it is that certain jobs will be taken over by robots 20 years from now.

Manual-labour jobs appear to be most at risk, while jobs that require empathy, like social workers and caretakers, are least at risk.

'(A University of Oxford report) predicts that by 2030, let alone by 2050, we'll have lost almost 50% of the workforce to artificial intelligence,' said David Price, co-founder of cultural-change practice We Do Things Differently and author of 'OPEN: How We'll Work, Live and Learn in the Future.'

The Oxford report, which examined sectors most likely to lose jobs, noted that the transportation and logistics industry was particularly susceptible to upheaval thanks to the development of driverless cars by companies like Google.

Even jobs that seemingly require the human touch, like the classroom teacher, are at risk.

'We're already seeing experiments with this robot in the classroom, and when you ask kids with autism which one they'd rather be taught by, the teacher or the robot, they pick the robot,' Price said.

Employers could start recruiting labour from a global pool of freelancers instead of traditional, full-time employees.

It's cheaper for employers, who have an entire world of workers at their fingertips, to hire freelancers as needed rather than full-time employees, as it doesn't involve a lengthy hiring process or require them to offer benefits like health insurance or social security.

Many workers are also starting to opt for freelance employment over full-time employment, giving them more jurisdiction over the hours they work and the jobs they take on.

But Price cautioned that this dynamic has the potential to exploit the labour force. Are workers choosing this route because 'they want to freelance, or because they can't find a job?' Price wondered. 'When companies are outsourcing so many jobs, people say,'Well, I might as well become freelance because I can't get a job.''

If the only reason people will freelance is because companies don't want to hire and pay full-time workers,'What kind of a society are we going to be getting?'' Price asked. 'Are corporations going to employ a living wage, or are governments going to have to force that?'

Retirement could become a thing of the past.

People are living longer, and the cost of living keeps going up, requiring many to keep working much later in life. Younger generations also aren't saving money for retirement the way their parents' generation did, because they can't afford it.

'I think people will live and work as long as they're capable,' Price said.

But advancements in medical treatments and remedies to the negative health effects of ageing could mean people are more energised and suited to working at older ages, according to a report on the future of work by financial-insurance provider UNUM.

Workers may demand more of employers, leading to even more career hopping.

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

A 'future of work' report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that people will continue shifting away from the one life, one career mentality -- an already observable trend among millennials. Workers will follow their passions as they change, and for many that also means changing careers.

But another driving force behind the phenomenon is a demand for social consciousness: Are companies ethically minded? Do they care about their customers, their environment, their employees?

Corporations 'have to have more of a social purpose,' said Price, 'because people are much more ethically aware now, and people won't invest in companies that don't have a strong ethics.' Companies have to prove that they're worth the time of their workers -- that they have missions, values that they're invested in, and goals for becoming socially responsible in order to attract and retain employees.

Employees could be monitored, and not just at work.


The PwC report also envisions a world in which employers can monitor and screen their employees at a much more advanced level: 'Sensors check their location, performance and health,' the report states. 'The monitoring may even stretch into their private lives in an extension of today's drug tests.'

The Daily Telegraph learned such measures will likely be met with resistance. The British newspaper installed motion detectors in early January to track their reporters but quickly abandoned them after incurring angry blowback.

'Will companies develop a kind of 'Big Brother' approach to checking on their employees? Possibly, but I think more of them will think they need to be engaged in supporting (their employees),' Price said.

He pointed out how many Silicon Valley tech executives are setting up schools for their kids and their employees' kids in order to provide a better, more tech-focused brand of education.

'These paternalistic philanthropists who want to give their workers housing, keep them out of the pubs, (and) look after their health' may seem intruding or controlling, Price said, but 'it will be in companies' best economic interest ... to play a much more active role in that.'

More companies could dissolve traditional offices and headquarters.

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Coworking spaces are becoming more and more popular, not just among freelancers and entrepreneurs but also corporations that can use them to relocate employees. Dissolving the traditional office headquarters would enable companies to hire the best candidates all over the world regardless of proximity to a central company hub.

Social media engagement platform Buffer announced in October that it's getting rid of its office and instead letting employees work remotely or from coworking spaces, which Buffer will pay for.

'With an office, if team members are in San Francisco it can be easy to delay meetings until all team members are in the office. The conclusion we came to is that we should always do the thing we can do immediately,' said Buffer co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne, adding that digital advances like Google Hangouts or HipChat help Buffer survive by facilitating instant meetings, messages, and face-to-face conversations regardless of employees' locations.

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