The Future of Work: Confronting One of the Biggest Challenges of the Next Decade

Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and automation in all of its forms can augment human workers and enable them to pivot to more valuable work, and perform their jobs with more efficiency, safety, and ease.

Yet there’s justifiable concerns emerging regarding the potential of these technologies to displace human workers.

Ronald van Loon is working in partnership with Protiviti, and was able to examine their recent study, Future of Work Top Risks Survey brief, which was conducted as a joint effort with NC State University, and lend his point of view as an industry analyst about the evolving dynamic between technology and the future of work.

How we work changed dramatically over the course of the past year, leading to new remote and hybrid work models, changing workforce and employment trends, and ubiquitous technology adoption to accelerate the necessary transformation to sustain operations.

Protiviti’s findings indicate that the future of work is shaping up to be one of the most disruptive and definitive business challenges of the next decade. Business leaders must take a proactive role in preparing their workforce for the changes and challenges that coincide with pervasive digitization and technological adoption.

Job Functions are Changing

Business leaders are now exploring what the long term implications of the pandemic will be on the future of work. The disruption of physical proximity across various occupations was a significant factor in workforce trends emerging from the pandemic, as certain roles across hospitality, travel, healthcare, education, manufacturing, agriculture, and financial services are often distinguished by how closely individuals work together. Exploitation of automation and AI addressed the new necessity for contactless interactions and greater dependency on virtual experiences, and to a certain level, these trends are likely to continue.

But automation and intelligent technologies will also eliminate many job functions and be replaced with new job functions that allow organizations to fully leverage new digital capabilities. The World Economic Forum forecasts that automation will displace 85 million global jobs by 2025, and that easily automated roles that currently comprise 15.4% of the workforce will decrease to represent just 6.4%.

And the technologies that displace job functions are also expected to create many new ones. As new job functions emerge, new questions arise regarding who will execute these new job functions, and what that means for displaced workers.

Protiviti’s 2021 and 2030 Top Risks Survey reveals that executives are concerned about interrelated challenges specific to talent and the future of work, both now as they address the more immediate impacts of the pandemic, and in the decade ahead (numbers in parentheses illustrate how each risk ranks for 2021 and 2030, respectively):

  • Digital technological adoption might demand new skills, or efforts to upskill or reskill existing employees. (2021: 4; 2030: 1)
  • Success obstacles and the means to attract and retain top talent. (2021: 8; 2030: 3)
  • Resistance to change operations and business models. (2021: 9; 2030: 4)
  • Ability to effectively compete with competitors, including those who are “born digital,” and are better situated to handle transformation challenges. (2021:10; 2030: 8)

The overarching theme is change and how it affects the workforce, and the findings suggest that executives are worried about their company’s lack of skilled employees and leadership to leverage their existing data and tools. Failure to address this concern could equate to future vulnerability for their organization, and an inability to boost their technological competency, resilience, and agility via the utilization of big data, analytics, cloud, AI, and other digital capabilities.

Enabling the Future of Work

As the Protiviti survey indicates, executives are currently targeting the logistics of preparing for the future of work as they strive to lead their organization through digital transformation and the rapid rate of change. They’re evaluating how to upskill and reskill displaced employees to assume new job functions and fill talent roles alongside myriad short and long-term competitive priorities and ongoing COVID-19-driven challenges.

Businesses need to develop concentrated strategies to help displaced employees, or there could be broader implications for society, government policies, and economic stability. For example, displacement due to automation could force political choices around Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Also, as workplaces and workforces are redesigned to accommodate the future of work, more disruption may emerge:

  • Transportation patterns: As the need to commute to physical offices fades and individuals spend more time at home, they may demand more diverse activities within walking distance.
  • Brick and mortar footprints: Physical offices will decline, and empty commercial and office spaces may be renovated for residential purposes. This will call for zoning changes, and substantial investments from building owners.
  • Future office spaces: Physical office spaces may be designed to accommodate more collaborative activities vs types of work that can be accomplished alone.
  • Experiential retail: Physical stores will focus on experiences rather than traditional purchasing, such as a convergence across entertainment, shopping, dining, and working.

How to Prepare Employees for Change

Organizations must invest in their employees if they are to successfully leverage the techniques and technologies to advance their transformation journey.

The future of organizations, and the broader economy, hinges on effective digital transformation. Equipping the workforce with the in-demand knowledge base and skills will result in more diverse teams – a proven innovation and growth enabler. Business leaders should approach reskilling and upskilling as an economic opportunity, and not just an initiative for future survival. Executives should assess how to best guide their workforce forward and empower their employees.


This is an option for non-tech employees who may have been displaced by the pandemic, or at risk of being displaced. Organizations must ensure reskilling initiatives are not abandoned once a disruptive event passes, and leverage this to continuously build reskilling capabilities.


This revolves more around training in a skill relevant to a certain domain, which is increasingly critical for displaced workers in highly disruptive sectors, such as finance or customer service. This can be an efficient option for an employee who has existing industry experience and needs to reskill to fill a new position. And it may be a necessity as the available talent pool may be too thin to hire and onboard.

Partnering with external education providers

Organizations can offer upskilling and retraining opportunities via online learning providers, which allows employees to learn on their own timelines and gain relevant credentials and certifications. Partnering with educational institutions can also help future graduates shape the skills needed for in-demand careers.

Focusing on tasks 

Organizations can analyze what work can be performed remotely by targeting the specific tasks involved instead of entire jobs. Job descriptions will likely change as tasks are assigned and combined in various ways. This also provides opportunities to enhance diversity by including employees who may be unable to relocate to regions that are typically hotspots for talent and opportunities.

Policymaker and government support

Policymakers can support organizations by extending and improving the digital infrastructure to enable accessibility to critical internet services. Additionally, they could provide benefits for independent employees who are in the process of reskilling mid-career.

Acquire unconventional talent

Organizations should explore creative options to acquire unconventional talent, such as temporary contractors or freelancers on a per-project basis. This route not only provides opportunities for displaced workers, but may help contribute to sustainable talent pools.

According to Protiviti, organizations should also broaden their borders globally to stimulate internal mobility, and allow individuals and teams to operate where their skills are most needed and can be deployed most effectively. Also, companies should look into implementing a new labor model to help them confidently approach the future of work and the accompanying challenges:

  • Skilled full-time leaders and workers who make up the “professional core.”
  • Specialized contract employees that can be utilized for additional capabilities, such as managed services arrangements to fill gaps in available talent pools.
  • Versatile labor force that includes external assets for interim resource needs.

Ready to Thrive in the Future of Work

Executives must adopt a new mindset regarding the future of work and prioritize the development of an ideal combination of contracted, internal, and technological talent to acquire the leadership and technical skills necessary to thrive in the future of work.

Check out the full Protiviti report, and further explore the challenges, risks, and opportunities surrounding the future of work.

By Ronald van Loon