Will we be happier at work in the future?

It's up to us whether new technology and business trends help or harm our quality of life.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 Nov 2017
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Down to business

The future is an exciting place, full of undreamt of wonders. Or, it’s a pit of nightmares. It depends who you ask. In either case, change is coming, with huge implications for our quality of life at work and beyond.

We had a glimpse into our possible futures at Sodexo’s recent Quality of Life conference in London. Leaders and thinkers from companies big and small, from public sector and private, shared their insights over a bewildering array of delectable canapés. From that feast, here are a few choice takeaways.

Tech: things will get worse before they get better

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Internet of Things (IoT) was powered entirely by hot air. It certainly hasn’t lived up to the extraordinary expectations the tech world established for it a few years ago. But it could be just a matter of time.

‘Almost every company I know has a budget for it,’ says IoT entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, who also happens to have been the first female Muslim in space. ‘Manufacturers are moving in that direction because they need to start understanding their consumers – at the moment, they sell to retailers, but they don’t really know who bought it, why they wanted it and how they use it. They’re investing in making their products smart without asking you to pay for it.’

As the IoT enters the office, we’ll find workspaces will become more efficient, cost less and be more interactive, says Ansari. Employees will not only be better connected, they’ll also have access to personalised tools that could help them manage their workload better. The smart office, for instance, could know when you need a break, or adapt how it sends you notifications based on how well you multi-task.

But as with any new technology, there’s no guarantee we’ll use it properly. ‘Change is happening so fast that it’s sometimes hard for us to adopt these technologies in ways that suit us. We sometimes become slaves to tech. It will take another ten years before we get it right,’ says Ansari.

‘I personally feel like it’s not good to be connected all the time. If you don’t create space to let your mind relax without distractions, your creativity and capacity to innovate will diminish.’

Innovation may not be for everyone

Indeed, with technology constantly unlocking new consumer behaviours and business models, only the innovative will survive. Yet, where once innovation in the form of continuous improvement would suffice, now increasingly it needs to be more radical.

For established businesses this presents a particular problem, says David Gram, innovation thought leader and former head of LEGO’s future lab. ‘Large corporations have a very hard time doing anything different from what they’re already good at. Their organisational immune system sees anything new as a virus and kills it off. That’s a challenge when the world is changing so fast.’

To flourish, firms will need to combine the start-up’s ability to imagine something completely new, with the corporation’s ability to scale it effectively. Gram believes that this will require both businesses and individual innovators to adopt the mindset of the ‘diplomatic rebel’. These intrapreneurs combine the entrepreneurial willingness to take risks and imagine the future with an appreciation of the work others in the company do, and why they do it that way. 

For many people, a taste of the entrepreneurial life will sound very appealing, but not everyone is cut out for that degree of risk and ambiguity. ‘Most folks can be trained to have these diplomatic rebel traits, but clearly some will have more than others,’ explains Gram. ‘If you like to know exactly what you’re going to do each day and have your work laid out, maybe you’re not cut out to be an intrapreneur.’

All you need is trust

So tech could overwhelm us or rescue us from distraction; innovation could enliven our worklives or leave us stranded in a maelstrom of bewildering change. In many respects, the future is what we make it. If we don’t think about how risk-averse people can thrive in fast moving companies, they won’t. If we don’t think about how to use technology wisely, we won’t.

There is some reassurance to be found in a third trend discussed at the Quality of Life conference then: the importance of trust.

‘Trust is at the heart of every business relationship, and it has collapsed everywhere,’ says Marion Darrieutort, CEO of communications agency Elan Edelman. For business, this is becoming a real problem: the public expects corporations to contribute to the common good, but doesn’t trust them to do so.

This may sound like a dark cloud, but it could bring a silver lining. Business is paying more and more attention to its reputation, because it’s waking up to the costs of lost customers and lost talent, which come from a toxic image. For every company that engages in labyrinthine tax avoidance schemes or callously exploits its workers, there’s another that’s embracing stakeholder value and a deeper, more sustainable purpose.

It’s possible, then, that in the future our priorities will change. Value extraction could give way to value creation, meaning technology and new ways of working can be harnessed to make people’s lives better, whether customers, employees or wider society. The future is not just something that happens to us – as with so many things, it is up to us.

Image credit: Ben Smith/Flickr