Designing for the future of work

The future of work might look different, but it’s a revolution being led by us humans. Read our five principles for the future of work.
Sarah Ronald

Sarah Ronald

Passionate about technology and psychology, Sarah founded Nile in 2006 to improve how everyday digital products and services are researched, designed, and communicated. Today a team of 50, Nile specialises in regulated industries and is especially focussed on the Financial sector. She has been a special adviser to both the British and Scottish Government, and served on boards for The Design Council, Service Design Network and The British Interactive Media Association.

Future of work lens

That is because, by all accounts, work is a major hallmark of the human condition. We can never escape it — nor would we ever want to. Work is how we develop ourselves, our faculties and the world around us.

The future of work might look different, but it’s a revolution being led by us humans.

Designing for humans will always be the primary concern.

With this most foundational of principles, let’s take a look at what opportunities the future of the workplace experience demands from and affords us.

Five Principles for the Future of Work

What are we really asking when we talk about the ‘future of work’?

Simple: We’re grappling with our own functionality, potential, and role in a landscape becoming increasingly dominated by our own playthings — the advent of artificial intelligence, distributed computing, and Big Data being excellent examples.

Human-centred design demands that we remember these technologies are simply corollaries or consequences. If they’re forcing us to re-think our role, then it’s not at gunpoint. Rather, it’s by our own hand since creating, designing, refining and directing so far.

So often, matters of automation, digitisation, machine learning, blockchain and integration or IoT conclude in a very one-dimensional question: innovate or die? Us versus machines?

But this is not just a matter of control; it’s a matter of defining a new role and assigning a new meaning to ‘human’ness’, that irreplaceable quality of being human, while functioning in a moment of a great transformation.

In the face of these technological shifts, what is the place of human-centred design?

To understand this, we have to understand the context we’re operating in: a “fourth” industrial revolution.

And it looks something like this:

  • Technology is only part of the story: by 2020, 50% of the workplace of the future will be comprised of millennials — and that means designing for a whole different generation’s sensibilities, consciousness, and expectations
  • But, speaking of technology, the most impactful will be the most disruptive: a combination of next-generation networking tools, distributed computing, and artificial intelligence
  • Intelligent automation and digitisation are disrupting and yet enhancing the way we serve customers, as well as internally hire, train and support employees
  • Learning is earning: companies are spending more time and effort equipping their employees with the skills they need through eLearning and learning management systems in order to amplify their expertise but also empower their employees to work alongside automation and digitisation
  • A change in human-centred design to mean designing for prosperity and the meaningful aspects of work: a workplace demanding a seamless integration between deliberate design choices in human engagement and learning, platform architecture, business models, functions that privilege civic and customer services, and better coordination with remote workers

The future of work, then, is the future of designing for digital native users (mostly millennials) who already understand that there is a bias towards decentralised networks and crowd-sourced capital, energy, talent and skills.

This new workforce makes certain demands on the way we design our workspaces and define the work we do — whether self-employed, remote, or part of a larger company or a small business.

1. Open

From GitHub repositories, which welcome a decentralised form of development off of a vast network of individuals, to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding campaigns, open networks breed open, democratic and transparent communications.

This ethic is not only more effective for a rapid transfer of information, it is far more human. As social creatures, it is in our nature to communicate. Getting to do so openly and authentically, however, is a purely digital and millennial priority and trend.

To reflect back this ethic, workplace experiences of the future must be open and decentralised by default. This means physical design, which can follow agile principles of office space design.

But this also means the way that we communicate. Closed systems like email are still in play but the future of work demands that we continue to incorporate and then scale up systems that are naturally ‘open’.

These include forms of communication like News Feed formats and tools like Slack, Workplace and Loom, which allow open communication, screen-sharing or explaining and collaborating over tasks.

2. Mobile

Future workers will be increasingly mobile-ready: with a majority of their interactions and behaviour already occurring via mobile and the incoming crop of millennials, we already know this is true.

The other side of this shift, however, is the continuous encroachment of artificial intelligence — and this is still emerging and evolving. AI is being harnessed for everything from smaller-scale, micro-decisions around customer personalisation and HR processes, to larger, more aggregate uses like in Big Data analytics.

Expect internal employees to work alongside AI, via chatbots, the ‘avatarisation’ of work (where remote workers control robots or assist in a robot’s decision-making process), and mobile learning.

This means that it’s not only customers who can expect a handy message of, ‘Hello, how can I be of service today?’ but employees themselves who must interface with AI in order to be productive and competitive.

3. Multi-platform

Did you know that 90% of people use multiple screens sequentially? Interactions between customers and businesses, users and brands, and employees and potential clients are taking place on multiple platforms.

Let’s take content marketing as a useful example. A key strategy of content marketing, in order to reach audiences in multiple spheres and provide useful, authentic content, is to broadcast on multiple platforms such as Facebook Live or Instagram Stories and offer a case study on LinkedIn.

Multiple content types, multiple platforms.

Expect this same multiplicity to enter the workplace. The workplace experience will see individual employees communicating with each other on multiple platforms, as well as with clients.

For example, instead of having a ‘boardroom’, a new workspace design choice might be implementing a ‘broadcast room’, where the team leads on a project would broadcast their progress to clients, while also updating deliverables on their PM software (Basecamp, in this case).

4. Integrated

Speaking of multiplicity, integration and convergence is an inevitable consequence of the digitisation and that previously-mentioned ‘disruption’ attributed to the fourth industrial revolution.

Integration involves bringing tools together in a way that allows users to implement a set of instructions to diverse software. They would hook them together to create workflows, some pre-set and automated, some triggered.

We already see some of this using tools like IFTTT and Zapier to bring together diverse SaaS platforms, populating data captured in one tool and communicating it to the connected tool.

Of course, this innovation closely resembles what we already see going on with IoT.

Designing for the workplace will mean further integration and connections between employees and physical office spaces as well as their external lives — such as having a ‘clock out’ function perhaps trigger a download of a summary of all relevant updates from the day sent directly to your email.

As one imaginative example.

5. Constant learning

AI is capturing our imaginations because it is essentially all about taking inanimate objects and having these objects learn in the neural-network-type configurations that humans do: intuitively, progressively, building on past knowledge, assessing non-verbal cues, making decisions and being adaptive.

This is no small feat.

In the workplace of the future, HR professionals and C-suite leaders will have to work together to bring that level of constant learning to their own internal employees.

From providing ongoing training and professional development through eLearning or learning management system (LMS) platforms to helping individuals work alongside the AI that is coming in, the only way to offset the pace and rapidity of the changes technology is enforcing is to learn, ironically, in the way that AI does.

Adaptively, consistently, progressively.

A more complete workplace “experience”

In much the same way as customer service has shifted to customer “experience”, so too will workplaces become about the “experiences” they can provide for both remote and physically-present employees.

We already see the beginnings of this shift in concept with simple hiring practices like ‘perks’ from companies like Netflix, Google and Stripe. It’s almost a staple, now, to offer some combination of unlimited-vacation/flex-time/catered-lunches.

Design, after all, is all about empathy — putting oneself in the shoes of another. These perks are designed to respond to what workers may want. But what else will they look for in that workplace of the future?

The challenge in designing for the future of work requires that we maintain a mix between stability for workers and the flexibility they’re increasingly demanding.

This ‘brave new world’, such as it is demonstrated by these five principles, highlights a very simple fact: HR professionals must either collaborate with design expertise or possess that expertise themselves in order to constantly improve and refine the workplace experience. Because designing for the future of work is a ‘work-in-progress’ — in perpetuity.