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The future of work is more human than you'd think, say these business experts

Generative AI, hybrid work, and a series of other emerging trends altered our jobs forever this year. Here's why a people-first approach is critical for organizations to succeed in 2024.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
busy work environment with small colorful meeting rooms
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If you thought 2023 was a big year for the future of work, wait until you see what comes next.

The impact of generative artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to dominate discussions about workplace roles in 2024. Add in pressures for hybrid-working strategies, sustainable operational practices, and the effect of other emerging technologies, and the future of work will be a key talking point for employers and employees next year.

What's already clear is that work today, with its focus on decentralization and automation, is very different from the nature of labor even just a few years ago.

Also: ZDNET looks back on tech in 2023, and looks ahead to 2024

Five-day office weeks have been replaced by a mix of working styles that stretch from the home to a video-conferencing platform. Increasing numbers of employees, meanwhile, are using generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT and Copilot, to work productively and effectively.

This rapid move toward decentralization and automation would have seemed impossible at the start of the decade. However, the coronavirus pandemic and the exploitation of AI have set into motion a digital transformation that's brought the future of work into the present.

What the experts say

"Work is a thing you do, not a place you go," says Ben Elms, chief revenue officer at internet connectivity specialist Expereo, to ZDNET in a one-to-one video chat.

"Post-COVID, we are now in a world where hybrid must exist. You've got to be able to manage distributed workforces around the globe, with some people in offices, some in homes, and everything in between."

So, what happens next? With some solid technological foundations in place, what will be the direction of travel for the future of work through 2024 and beyond?

Conversations with business and industry experts suggest the rate of change is only going to quicken, which brings challenges for both employees and employers.

Also: Two breakthroughs made 2023 tech's most innovative year in over a decade

David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst at Forrester, says this pace of change means business and digital leaders must focus on making sure professionals feel supported and engaged.

Unfortunately, his firm's research suggests a full-blown employee experience (EX) recession could blow into enterprises through 2024, as employers take their collective eyes off the ball.

Forrester suggests the business case for EX -- with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, engagement, talent management, and the effective use of emerging technology -- is stronger than ever, but many leaders struggle to listen to their employees and put their concerns into action.

Also: These 5 major tech advances of 2023 were the biggest game-changers

The researcher says two key metrics have dropped between 2022 and 2023: employee engagement has fallen from 48% to 44% in the US, while culture energy has fallen from 69% to 66%.

Even worse, Forrester expects engagement to fall to 39% next year, and culture energy to drop to 64%.

People-first solutions are critical

As a matter of urgency, Brodeur-Johnson says managers must listen to their staff and ensure the technologies they implement solve the workplaces challenges that employees face.

"A successful EX-focused strategy for 2024 and beyond is one that starts with a clear understanding of employees' jobs-to-be-done and works backwards into the technology stack to continuously improve their ability to be effective in their work every day," Brodeur-Johnson tells ZDNET.

Also: The promise and peril of AI at work in 2024, according to Deloitte's Tech Trends report

That singular focus on people-first innovation is a trend that resonates with Sandeep Raithatha, head of insights at technology firm Jabra.

He tells ZDNET that any investment in technology should stem from a thorough understanding of present and future human requirements. 

His firm's recently released research on the future of work considers a range of global economic, cultural, and social trends.

After reviewing hundreds of sources and interviewing 76 global experts, Jabra has identified six future-of-work scenarios that are highly likely to happen during the next five years. Here's a summary of those scenarios:

  1. Focus on employee wellbeing – Leveraging AI and using sensors to track and optimize employees and ensure they are healthy and happy.
  2. Agile superteams – Seamless cross-company collaboration and partnership between smaller full-time teams and a flexible network of partners.
  3. Sustainability at the heart of business – Exponential growth in communications technology as businesses reduce travel and create low-consumption supply chains.
  4. Office everywhere – Universal cloud technology and communications platforms will allow employees to work from wherever they want.
  5. Investing in the whole employee – Using data and AI to support a rapid growth in personal coaching that helps individuals stay motivated and focused.
  6. Consumerization of enterprise – Employees will select the devices and applications that best suit their work and personal lives in a hybrid style.

Raithatha reflects on these six scenarios and says one of the key conclusions from the research is that the future of work is not mono-dimensional.

"Different forces and directions co-exist at the same time," he tells ZDNET.

"The ability to plan for and manage multiple scenarios is a key capability that business leaders need in the new year. A key enabler of this will be putting in place the culture and structures required to enable teams to succeed as circumstances evolve."

Also: AI in 2023: A year of breakthroughs that left no human thing unchanged

However, planning for the multi-dimensional future of work is far from straightforward, recognizes Expereo's Elms.

"The challenge is, 'How do you drive inclusivity? How do you make sure health and wellbeing is managed? How do you make sure you're watching out for those people who may not be engaging when you've got the complexity of multi-generational workforces, hybrid workforces, and distributed workforces around the world?'" he asks.

"You really need leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence, empathy, and the ability to sense how people are in order to drive the level of engagement that you need to help everybody feel fulfilled in doing what they do, and also achieve the organizational objectives."

Making work meaningful

Michelle Smith, program manager at Barnardo's, which is a British charity for vulnerable children, also says it's critical frontline staff spend as much time as possible engaging in fulfilling activities.

She suggests to ZDNET in a video interview that happy workers are more likely to be productive -- and that's where the tactical use of technology can shape the future of work.

Also: Generative AI filled us with wonder in 2023 - but all magic comes with a price

Barnardo's, which supports over 370,000 children, young people, parents, and carers, is using Freshworks' IT service management platform Freshservice to ensure requests are dealt with quickly and effectively.

"Since the pandemic, there's been some huge shifts. We need to help reduce the additional pressures from work, which aren't part of the day job," says Smith.

"If we can relieve people from doing tedious manual work, then they can do more work on a person-to-person basis, which is much more enjoyable and impactful."

The key message from industry and business leaders is the future of work is being molded by a complex range of factors that create significant challenges for us all.

Also: ZDNET editors' favorite tech products of 2023

While some senior managers might be struggling to deal with a confluence of economic, cultural, and technological concerns, now is the time for employers to step up and create a human-first approach to work, says Jabra's Raithatha.

"By building this better future, business leaders can help reduce stress, enhance focus, improve performance, and positively benefit mental health in the workplace."

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