Shaping the Workforce of the Future

Reckoning with the two great changes of our timediversity and technologywhile acknowledging what's constant in human nature can help us adapt to changes in the the workplace

Predicting the future of U.S. business is a difficult endeavor. Someone looking ahead in 1977, the year I joined the workforce, might have talked about the effects of speedier electric typewriters—completely missing the pending computer revolution. And they also might have missed the diversity revolution, which would see white men being joined by ever-increasing numbers of professional women and men of every race.

The effects of those two transformations will continue to be felt over the next 20 years, as they change how—and, to some extent, even why—we do business. And ethics will continue to be a touchstone for business, showing us the true natures of those designated as leaders. I believe consideration of these three factors—technology, the increasingly diverse workforce, and ethics—will help us shape the workforce of the future.

Revolution No. 1: Freedom Through Technology

Technology has thoroughly reshaped the way we do business and, in particular, the expectations that members of Generation Y (those born after 1980) have about the way we should be doing business. Today's technology has given all of us unprecedented freedom and the power to access information whenever and wherever we need it. Gen Yers are without a doubt more at ease with this technology, having grown up with it, than the rest of us. They derive so much pleasure from it that they cannot imagine why we elders seem so insistent that work needs to be done in a set place, at a set time.

Future advances in technology will make workers more effective by enabling more collaboration. Improvements in knowledge capture and integration will speed up delivery of products and services. Workers will also be more contented, leading to improved retention, thanks to the freedom technology provides for flexible schedules and reduced (or eliminated) commuting time.

But whatever digital wonders may develop in the future, work will still be about three things: connections, connections, connections.

Human connections can be facilitated by technology—as the rise of social networking has shown us—but they still happen best in person. So offices will continue to be vital for socialization. In the past, the ratio of individual work to socialization (collaborative work or water-cooler chat) was 80:20. In the future, that ratio may become more like 20:80 for vast numbers of our employees.

People-to-resources connections include making sure people have the knowledge, technology, tools, capital, time, and physical space to generate superior results. As workers seek more elasticity in where and when they work, collaborative, real-time technologies that boost knowledge sharing and encourage the free flow of ideas will become more essential.

The final set of connections is "people-to-purpose." New communications tools such as podcasts and streaming video will no doubt become mainstream. Yet building and retaining a sense of personal and organizational mission will play an integral part in establishing a company's culture, values, and sense of purpose. In fact, introducing recruits to the company's processes and real-life environment seem hard to do without spending time at the office.

Revolution No. 2: Customized Careers for a Diverse Workforce

By 2012 the U.S. will likely have a shortage of some 10 million knowledge workers. That's almost the inverse of the situation my fellow baby boomers and I encountered when we entered the workforce. With so many of us scrambling to fill so few jobs, employers could afford to be choosy. They could also be selective on the diversity front, under-utilizing women and people of color in the talent pool.

Fortunately for all of us, that world is long gone. Women and people of color, as well as lesbian, gay, and bisexual professionals, have made significant gains and change will continue and accelerate as demographics catch up with the staffing needs of growing businesses.

There are already four generations represented in today's workforce. Ageism will continue to fade as businesses welcome baby boomers back from retirement.

Today, Gen Y may have some difficulty understanding older workers—and vice versa—but as far as diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation, our youngest employees today take that as a given. They expect the workplace to be filled with people who don't look like them. And they expect that companies will nurture their careers while also helping them integrate those careers with their family life and non-work interests.

Things that managers today might view as perks—flexible work arrangements, executive coaching, affinity groups—will become integrated into the fabric of the workplace. Instead of offering one-off flexible arrangements geared to working mothers, companies will recognize that all employees have times in their careers when they might want to decelerate—or accelerate—along the career track. Career customization will allow people, even in a highly service-oriented profession like accounting, to work when and where they choose.

The Touchstone: Some Things Never Change…

Ethics have been the foundation of business for thousands of years. But how do you monitor the ethics of workers you never (or rarely) see? How do you know they are working all the hours they report? How do you know they're not bending the rules or—worse—colluding in fraud? Without peers right there to guide a co-worker, will he or she be more likely to slip off the ethical straight and narrow?

According to a 2006 poll commissioned by Deloitte & Touche USA and Junior Achievement in connection with our “Excellence through Ethics” curriculum, 22% of high-schoolers said they would act unethically to get ahead if there was no chance of getting caught. The good news is that just three years earlier that number was 33%—so it's coming down. The bad news is that unless they reevaluate their moral codes during college or graduate school, we can expect that more than one in five of our future workers may cheat.

The diversity and technology revolutions may have changed much about business, but no revolution will ever make unethical behavior acceptable. How and when we teach and enforce ethics to a dispersed workforce…that's a question about the future that we cannot duck.

No matter what new technologies develop, the most important skills will remain the ability to learn and to think critically. Many skills treasured by previous generations were made obsolete by computer software, and so were the workers who lacked the flexibility to adapt. We cannot know which jobs will be superseded by technology in the future; we can only know, without a doubt, that some will be. And the reverberations will be felt in an ever more diverse workforce.

Of course, business always changes. That's the nature of the beast. But for those who are prepared to adapt, it will be an exciting ride.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.