The future of work

The future is here

What will your job look like in years to come?

This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Illustrations by Tanya Cooper

The future belongs to power-sharers in the workplace and leaders who speak their minds. In this era of the innovator, don’t hold back! INTHEBLACK kicks off 2015 with a look at some likely future trends, including the possibility that robots could become our best friends in the office.

The rise of robots

The battle of man against machine has fuelled many a Hollywood plot line, but research from Oxford University shows that machines may in fact triumph, with predictions of significant increases in job automation in the next 20 years.

In their research paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne found that jobs in 47 per cent of the occupational categories are at high risk of being automated. Those most at risk include real estate agents, telemarketers and accountants.

Indeed, Osborne’s algorithm predicts the accounting profession has a 0.94 probability of being automatable in the next two decades. But the former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley says such a fate is far from assured.

“Not many people understand the modern professional accountant. Perceptions of a solid, safe measurer and reporter of past historical data persist, when the reality is of an innovative strategic resource adviser,” he wrote in a recent LinkedIn Influencer post.

“If we have the courage to call it we will future-proof our relevance and can continue to be the strategic leaders in reporting, assurance and measurement.”

But with Düsseldorf Airport recently unveiling the world’s first robotic parking valet, and Nestlé trialling a robotic customer service assistant called Pepper in Japan, will any occupation really outsmart the machines?

“Human employment will not go away,” says Osborne. “I think we should focus on human workers complementing and working with machines, rather than like machines.”

Agility at work

Proponents of workplace flexibility were rather irked when Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer decreed in February 2013 that remote working would be a thing of the past at the technology giant.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” went the internal memo from Yahoo! HR.

“We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Mayer’s decision contradicts research that has found workplace flexibility is good for business and increases productivity by allowing people to work anywhere at any time. Recent legislative changes in the UK also highlight a global trend toward greater flexibility, and suggest that Mayer’s view may be in the minority.

All UK employees now have the right to request flexible working, subject to certain conditions. While it doesn’t mean that all requests must be granted, the new legislation extends the right to flexible hours beyond parents and carers.

Alison Maitland, UK researcher on agile workplaces and co-author of Future Work, says that while requests for flexibility were once only expected from working mothers, it’s now something more men are seeking.

“It’s not surprising that men should want, and need, to play a more active role in home life, given that women are the majority of the graduate talent pool and given the drive for more gender-balanced leadership,” she says.

“Responding to the realities facing all employees will help companies achieve the diversity of leadership that has been shown to improve business performance.”

Yet it’s one thing to talk about flexibility and quite another to have it ingrained in company culture. Recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency shows that in Australia, almost half of employers have policies on flexible working but only 13.6 per cent have a strategy for it. Similarly, 45.2 per cent have a policy for supporting employees with family and caring responsibilities but only 13.2 per cent have a relevant strategy in place.

Maitland says organisations must adopt agile working as a company-wide strategy to achieve business goals.

“By enabling people to work at a time and place that best suits the task in hand, they are benefiting from increased productivity, lower costs and more motivated employees.”

Did you know?

Research from recruitment specialist Randstad indicates that Australian employers are the least open to flexible working arrangements of any in the Asia-Pacific region. Almost 80 per cent of Australian workers said they are unable to work remotely in their current position. This compares to 59 per cent of workers in China, 62 per cent in India, 64 per cent in Malaysia and 65 per cent of workers in Hong Kong and New Zealand.

Democracy at work

Democracy, the system of decision-making that allows everyone to have a say, may be a growing management trend.

US consultancy WorldBlu believes workplaces of the future should be governed by the people, and since 2007 it has published an annual WorldBlu List of the Most Democratic Workplaces. Most companies that make the cut have an open-book management policy that often includes no fixed working hours and transparency of financial information. The list includes companies such as US online retailer Zappos, London-based management consultancy Future Considerations and New Zealand website and app developer Boost New Media.


Bill Harley, professor of management at the University of Melbourne and theme leader at the Centre for Workplace Leadership, says we’re more likely to see an increase in participatory decision-making in the workplace.

“There’s an argument that if organisations use systems of sophisticated recruitment and training, good performance management and the opportunity for employees to have some say in decisions, they’ll reap the gains. It’s clear that organisations that have those sorts of practices perform better than those who don’t. They have lower turnover because employees are more committed, less stressed and happier.”

The problem in some countries including Australia, says Harley, is that these practices are not widespread.

“I think it’s partly to do with managerial competencies,” says Harley. “But the work we’ve done in the Centre for Workplace Leadership suggests that most managers, particularly in small to medium enterprises, aren’t well qualified. There’s a recognition that a lot of the other changes that might drive productivity have already been made in terms of regulatory systems, so there needs to be changes in managerial practices.”

Be a provocative leader

The great leaders of the future are those who bust out of the company mould. That’s the thinking of Alf Rehn, author of Dangerous Ideas and chair of management and organisation at Abo Akademi University in Finland. A proponent of provocative leadership, Rehn believes change only comes through agitation.


Former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley believes this kind of disruptive thinking drives innovation.

“It inspires me and my team to take our organisation to places it has never been,” he argues.

“If we want the best of the best to enter our profession in the modern era, we need to inspire them to voice their opinion, be provocative, take on difficult politics and not to respect protocol simply because that is what they think they should do.”

Disruptive, provocative styles may become an expectation of leaders, so when you see the company line, prepare to step over it.

Outlawing after-hours calls

Should it be a criminal offence for your manager to contact you outside of office hours? If you live in Germany, this may soon be the case. As the line between work life and home life becomes more blurred, some governments are stepping in with measures to protect workers from burnout.

In countries such as Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, employers are legally obliged to assess workplaces for the risk of psychological stress. In Germany, labour minister Andrea Nahles is considering new “anti-stress” legislation that prohibits companies from contacting employees out of hours.

A 2013 report by Safe Work Australia shows that mental stress costs Australian businesses more than A$10 billion a year due to absenteeism and loss of productivity. And the costs could rise. A survey from the Australian Psychological Society shows a continuous decline in workplace wellbeing since the survey began two years ago.

Rachel Clements, co-founder and director of psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health, says that while work-related mental health issues may be increasing, so too is awareness.

“People check their emails at home at night and this can lead to increases in cortisol levels and heart rate and we may not even be aware of it. But I also think there’s more education about mental health in the workplace and more awareness. It’s also much harder to hide it these days in the push for performance.”

Clements says companies can build a mentally healthy workplace through education and policies that promote wellbeing.

“Companies also need to look at their organisation’s intervention framework for recognising and responding to mental health issues.”

Find your perfect job match

Dating website eHarmony already helps you find your one true love. Soon it may help you find your dream job, too. Matching more than 600,000 (now married) couples since launching in 2000, eHarmony plans to use its algorithms and assessment tools to match jobseekers with prospective employers with the aim of achieving a long-term, meaningful relationship.

Job matching may be set to outstrip the traditional online ad listing model. Professional networking site LinkedIn recently acquired job-matching start-up for US$120 million and job-matching website OneShift, and plans to move into the US market with a model it calls “passive jobseeking”.

“Rather than actively searching and applying for positions, the passive jobseeker is able to create a profile and wait for the employer to contact him or her,” says Gen George, CEO of OneShift who started the business in Australia at age 22.OneShift has been shaking up the Australian online jobs industry since launching in 2012. Valued at A$18 million and catering to 330,000 jobseekers and 33,000 businesses across Australia and New Zealand, OneShift started by targeting casual workers but now caters to jobseekers after full-time work, including 15,000 users who are actively looking for work in the finance industry.  

“This expansion into permanent work will further attract a more mature age demographic of our jobseekers, which will no doubt assist this growth for the financial industry,” adds George.

Steaming ahead on STEM

To curb the global STEM shortage, governments may need to adopt a more artistic approach. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines are closely linked to global economic competition and the strongest STEM performers have each injected more creativity into their curriculum.


According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares student achievement in maths and science at age 15, the countries with the most students at the top three proficiency levels are China (with a focus on Shanghai), Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Drawing on student results from 2012, Australia was placed 19th in maths and 16th in science. Both scores were down on the 2009 results.

A study by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) shows that the most successful STEM countries have reformed their curriculum to focus on making maths and science more engaging and practical, with an emphasis on creativity. In South Korea, for example, the program for building participation and achievement in STEM incorporates the arts as a means of strengthening the focuses on creativity and design – and it’s now called STEAM.

Who's new in the C-suite?

CDO may have been a dirty acronym in the global financial crisis, but from 2015 on, a different kind of CDO is reportedly in high demand. In its list of hot jobs, global executive search firm CTPartners has Chief Digital Officers – strategists for mobile and other digital platforms – among the most wanted.

The firm also reports that Chief Creative Officers (CCOs), who dictate the look and feel of marketing and branding work, are on the rise. This comes as companies shift from traditional to online advertising models with trackable returns on investment.


Also on the increase are CGOs – Chief Growth Officers who identify expansive opportunities across digital media and technology as well as borrow ideas from the start-up world.

On the risk front, a new type of CRO makes an appearance, the Conduct Risk Officer – this role is a subset of operational risk, incorporating the treatment of customers, the remuneration of staff and a firm’s response to conflicts of interest, while DROs – Digital Risk Officers – are meeting the growing need for consistent, organisation-wide responses to digital business risk. And Chief Information Security Officers continue to proliferate.

The need to wrangle data is still looming large among employers, with abundant positions vacant for head of people analytics – those who capture and synthesise massive amounts of data from customer interactions, supply chain feedback and other sources – and head of personalisation, the integrator of the knowledge from customer behaviour analytics into highly targeted engagement and marketing strategies.

And in the finance sector, get ready to hear more about Private Equity CFOs. With robust private equity activity underway globally, this financial leader has the capacity to move quickly when making decisions, insist the high-level recruiters.

Designing for camaraderie

The success of online marketplaces such as Elance-oDesk and shows independent workers are on the rise. At Elance-oDesk, more than 2500 businesses seek skills from more than 8 million freelancers across almost 200 countries. The work these connections generated in 2013 was worth more than US$750 million. So with ever more people working independently, what will the workplace of the future look like?



Futurist Philip Ross, the founder of, believes that the “one person, one desk” model will give way to a workplace that is fluid and responds to the work that it needs to accommodate.

“As teams flux, a flexible approach to workplace will be introduced – one based on real clusters, teams and communities and not a container for the organisational chart.”

Ross, who was a keynote speaker at Mirvac’s Future of Workplace forum, predicts the current trend of activity-based working will be replaced by “unworking” – a new model that unravels the office factory and creates a new environment for work.

The unwork space, he says, will be one of a number of destinations in work spheres in a future polycentric city.

“This will be led by technology where we have a perfect storm of new mobile devices with astonishing processing power and performance; connectivity with 4G and WiFi and the cloud where our data will be stored; and software delivered on a needs basis as a service – a consumption model that will redefine how we provision work.”

But that doesn’t mean the end of the office. Sydney architect Richard Francis-Jones believes that rather than becoming irrelevant, workplace designs must evolve to reflect the reasons people travel to an office.

“It’s about a sense of camaraderie, of sharing the burden and the rewards of work. Workplaces need to accommodate flexibility, they must be healthy, make us feel good and they must provide contact with the outside world.”

He’s demonstrated this approach with his design for Mirvac’s 200 George Street building in Sydney, due to open in 2016, including innovations such as daylight harvesting and computer-controlled lighting to reduce energy consumption. 

Quotas for diversity

Last November, the German government agreed to a draft law that would force the nation’s leading listed companies to allocate 30 per cent of seats on non-executive boards to women from 2016. And Germany is not alone. The new Swedish government is considering a quota of 40 per cent of women on boards. And Norway has already done it, a point made by United Nations Development Programme director Helen Clark in her interview with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley for INTHEBLACK last year: “They just said ‘that’s the way it’s going to be … the women are out there, go and look for them’.”

Claire Braund, executive director of Women on Boards, says gender diversity at board level makes economic sense. “What does the tax office want you to do? It wants you to work, pay tax and have more little workers. But you’ve got to make them mutually inclusive, not mutually exclusive. That means we have to rethink the way we work … If you’ve got voices at board level that start to question the status quo about the way we work and start to think more creatively, you’re going to get different outcomes.”

Legislated quotas are one route, but there are other ways. “I think companies themselves can think about mandatory targets,” says Braund, citing the UK’s 30% Club, which launched in 2010 with a goal of getting 30 per cent women on FTSE-100 boards by the end of 2015. The number currently sits at 23 per cent, up from 12.6 per cent when the club launched.

“You’ve got to have creative drivers that make it unpalatable for people to sit outside the framework,” she declares.

This article is from the February 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.

February 2015
February 2015

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