The end of the world as we know it?

Jan 12 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

With firms going to wall daily, wondering what the workplace will look like in 10 years' time may seem like an irrelevance. But with technology advancing at a pace and experts predicting work will be a very different place by 2018, it is something managers need to be thinking about, even now.

A panel of experts brought together by U.S website Workforce Management has forecast what they feel the future will be like for HR, and the workplace more generally, by 2018.

Their conclusions are dominated by the feeling that working, and workplaces, will become much more transient, populated by ever-more mobile and flexible teams.

There will be much more freelance or contract working, more use of social networks within and for the workplace and a clear move away from "command and control" management styles to more collaborative approaches.

The Workplace Management panel comprised HR and workplace experts, including Libby Sartain, former head of HR at Southwest Airlines and Yahoo!, Kevin Kelly, director of the people team for the Americas at professional services firm Ernst & Young and Nandita Gurjar, vice president of HR at India-based technology services company Infosys Technologies.

Other HR experts on the panel included software firm SAP executives Terry Laudal and Virginia Clark.

There were also a number of academics represented, including John Haggerty, managing director of executive education at Cornell University's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, John Boudreau, business professor at the University of Southern California, Dave Ulrich, business professor at the University of Michigan and Susan Meisinger, former chief executive of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Their top-ranked prediction was that there will have been an explosion in the use of social networks and collaborative technology, such as wikis, within the workplace by 2018.

In fact, collaboration and relationships will become the two key buzzwords of the workplace, in an environment increasingly physically and geographically separated but technologically connected.

The whole structure of work will become more "adaptive", with much more informal management, team and office structures in place.

There will be increased use of virtual teams, with many more people communicating through videoconferencing, email and text messaging, forecast Infosys's Gurjar.

In fact, people could end up working extensively with colleagues who they barely, if ever, meet face to face.

"Our communication is so highly dependent on e-mail or SMS," she explained. "Nobody talks on the phone anymore."

There was some disagreement about what effect, if any, the arrival of new Generation Y "millennial" workers would have on the working environment.

While Michigan's Ulrich foresaw millennials as redefining work and blurring the boundaries of life and work, Cornell's Haggerty forecast they will only have a minimal effect.

"Gen Y issues will have had far less impact on business reality than predicted," he argued. "Talented people, willing to work very hard, will flourish in most organisational settings."

There was also disagreement over how much business travel there will be by 2018, with Haggerty arguing there will be substantially less and fewer overseas postings, and the SHMR's Meisinger predicting more demand for leaders with global and expatriate experience.

Nevertheless, the panel was by and large agreed that there will be a much greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility and ethical leadership by 2018, with recruitment, training and development all likely to be key parts of this mix. Again, recruitment will be a much more virtual and global affair.

According to SAP's Clark there will be a continuing shift away from "command and control" leadership styles to more collaborative approaches, meaning organisations will need to think differently about what sort of managers or leaders they need, and what sort of competences and capabilities they need to have.

"I really think that leadership development is going to be one of the areas on top of the corporate agenda," she said.

When it comes to employee benefits, these will become increasingly customised and creative, and will in all probability encompass things such as care of elderly dependent, pet care and concierge services, the panel predicted.

Within all this, the panelists agreed that HR will generally have a much greater role and profile than it has had up to now, with it more than likely that an HR executive will have advanced to become CEO of a Fortune 100 firm by 2018.

USC's Boudreau put the chances of this happening at 100 per cent, with Southwest Airlines Sartain adding: "With many HR people moving to operations or from operations and having strong business acumen, this will happen more often."

Yet at the same time, the name "HR" could disappear, the panel said. Ernst & Young's Kelly, for example, suggested that, just as "personnel" and "employee relations" now sounded outdated, so too will the name HR by 2018.