December 2023 | 

The Future of Work Is Here

The Future of Work Is Here

“The Future of Work” is now. The popular phrase no longer refers to changes on the horizon, but rather a present reality that businesses need to shape to their advantage. That reality encompasses current challenges with work relationships, technological advancements including AI, increasing diversity, remote and hybrid work, mental health issues, changing skill requirements, and more— all taking place in the tightest labor market since the 1990s.

Management professor Matthew Bidwell, faculty co-director of the Wharton People Analytics Initiative, puts it this way: “When we talk about the future of the work, partly what we're saying is we want to be doing things differently than the way we were doing them five years ago. But we are also saying that there are new developments that we didn’t see coming and need to embrace. The future is here.”

“We already see companies on the leading edge of some of these trends, but the response is unevenly distributed,” he continues. “That’s the case even for aspects of work we've known we ought to do differently for a long time. We have been hiring people badly for 50 years while knowing we could do it better, for example. But in addition to those well-documented concerns are new issues that few people were thinking about five or 10 years ago. Diversity is one of them — over the last five to seven years, it's gone from ‘I ought to be thinking about this’ to ‘I need to get this right now.’”

Bidwell recently led a group of international leaders on a weeklong exploration of the future of work. The new Leading Today’s Talent: Management Strategies for an Evolving Workforce program covers research-based approaches and emerging best practices for hiring, retention, incentives, remote and hybrid work, AI, emotional intelligence, leveraging people analytics, and managing diversity. Participants not only learned from faculty experts, but from each other’s experiences in a range of industries.

A Comprehensive Approach

The program explores the most pressing issues in the workplace from multiple perspectives and shows participants how interdependent those issues are. “Fixing” your incentives will only get you so far, for example, because hiring, training, engagement, and retention have also become more challenging. Creating a workplace that works for all of your employees and the organization requires a comprehensive approach.

Bidwell explains, “All of the sessions in the program clearly fit together. When you're thinking about hiring, you're thinking about what kind of people you are bringing into the organization and the decisions you're making in terms of the kind of applicants you're trying to attract and the ones you choose to hire. Different people want different things out of their work, so the decisions that you're making have got to be consistent with your incentives. Some people are very excited about getting a bonus — they long for that recognition. You’re going to engage those people differently than somebody whose motivation comes from having a sense of purpose and feeling that they're making a difference.”

Incentives also affect attrition, another critical talent management element that can indicate how well you’re doing as a whole. “We like to think people leave jobs because they believe there's a better job out there. But that’s only one possible reason. It can be that you didn't do a particularly good job of hiring someone who's a good fit. It can also be because your management is subpar. The new employee may have come in with expectations about how they would be treated, and you just didn’t deliver.”

AI and Other Developments

Perhaps the most controversial recent workplace development is the use of artificial intelligence. While some experts argue that AI could create new opportunities for innovation and productivity, others warn it could potentially replace or augment workers and increase inequality in many jobs and sectors. But whether you view it as a boon or a bane, says Bidwell, “It’s already here. AI isn’t something you should think about soon. You need to look at what it could mean for your business now.”

“We can think about it from a productivity lens, and we should, but we also have to consider that every time we change people's jobs, we change what they like about those jobs and what they don't like about them,” he continues. “The nightmare scenario for a lot of people is a kind of dumbing down of work, where you use AI to take out all the interesting elements and leave people with only the monotonous ones. Instead, how could you use AI to eliminate the monotonous, boring things so that people can spend time doing the higher-level, more interesting aspects of their job?”

One participant says the program session on AI stood out because it was “different from what I have been hearing from other experts. Professor Tambe talked about humans plus AI instead of versus AI. It helped me to start considering how that would work for my team and for a third-party team we contract with. Taking that deep dive into such a timely subject was really valuable.”

He adds that the comprehensive approach to talent management in Leading Today’s Talent, including the session on AI, was informed from day one by the participants. “We shared our biggest challenges, and they were captured on a map that I later shared at a management meeting with my team. The program addressed everything we are dealing with at my company: hiring, hybrid and remote work, generational issues, retaining folks, and keeping them motivated. I may not have become an expert in incentives or any of the other topics by the end of the week, but I understand how to connect the dots. We have to be upfront when we're hiring people, have the right job descriptions, and ask the right questions so we have the right person. Then we have to do a good job of training them and offering the right incentives so they stay with us. It’s not about any one of these issues — they are all connected.”