The Changing Dialogue on the Future of Work

The Future of Work has been a heavily discussed and debated topic over the last several years. What is interesting to note is how the conversation and focus of this topic has shifted, especially over the last year. If you’re a thought leader interested in the topic of the Future of Work, knowing how the discussions in this area have changed recently can help you make your perspectives even more pertinent to today’s audiences.

Several years ago the Future of Work topic began appearing on the agendas at major conferences around the globe. At the time, the focus centered around how Artificial Intelligence (AI) was transforming the workplace and there was heavy debate about whether robots would be taking over for humans in the workplace.

In 2020, massive changes in where and how we work brought on by the pandemic changed the entire focus and tenor of the whole discussion on the Future of Work. To illustrate this concept, we compared the 2019 agendas of several high-profile Future of Work conferences, with the topic areas in their 2021 agendas.

For example, in late 2019, CNBC produced a conference called Future of Work: People & Machines.  The conference addressed how AI is transforming the workforce and the regulatory risks and insider cyber-threats associated with this transformation. In early 2021, CNBC produced a similar conference and called it the @Work Summit: Building a Resilient Future.  Instead of addressing the rising influence of AI as they had in previous events, this conference instead dramatically altered its focused to address the hot issues of today including how the pandemic has changed how and where we work, finding and keeping the best workers, and how to lead an organization into the future. The shift has largely moved from a conversation about technology to one centered around people.

Another example is presented by The Wall Street Journal.  At their Future of Everything Festival in May of 2019, discussion included topics such as Rise Against the Machines and how technology was making it easier to work from anywhere and with anyone. In their upcoming May 2021 Future of Everything Festival, the conference covers much more ground, including Health & Humanity, Money, Culture, Technology, Work and Style.  Topics for this year’s conference have shifted dramatically to include office design, rethinking hiring and the workforce, and leadership in a post-Covid world. Again, the focus has clearly shifted from a focus on technology to the needs of people in today’s environment.

This same shift is being repeated at other major conferences by Bloomberg, The Economist, The Atlantic, and dozens of other conference producers.

This is important for a few reasons.  First, it is interesting to see how the subject matter of a single topic changes over time.  We believe that the subjects being addressed at the most influential conferences are the ones that need the most attention at that time.  Thoughtfully discussing the issues widely is the first step to identifying, understanding, and solving the issue or problem within that topic.   Secondly, as a thought leader, while you may be an expert on a given topic, you may benefit from knowing how that topic has changed over time so that you can make your remarks as pertinent as possible to the audience you’re speaking to.  The metamorphosis of a topic like this also can change the focus on which experts should be speaking about it.    The AI focus on FOW remains for technologists to address.  Now, there are other key issues to be discussed from various aspects of HR, like hiring practices, Diversity and Inclusion, and changing views of what is considered good leadership.

The issues being discussed at conferences about the future of work have changed abruptly in the past year. The topic has gotten much broader inviting a wider set of perspectives. Perhaps the shift from a fear of new technology taking over our jobs to a reflection of the design of work itself – how, where, when and why, that is, from a focus on the technology to a focus on the people is exactly where we needed this discussion to go.

We’d love to hear how you’ve seen the conversations around the Future of Work change, how that has affected  how you speak about it both publicly and internally, and how it has affected your planning.