Gartner Research

How to Identify Future of Work Trends

Published: 08 July 2021

Summary

Many organizations struggle to identify the trends that can impact their future of work. Executive leaders can use this research to understand the different approaches to source future of work trends effectively. This resource is part of in-depth research on crafting a future of work strategy.

Executive leaders face increasing pressure to prepare for the future of work beyond setting their hybrid or remote work strategy. One of the first challenges facing executive leaders in addressing the future of work is identifying potentially relevant trends that might change the future of work at their organization. Any trend that could affect how, when and where work is done, who or what does work, and even what is considered work is a potential future of work trend. As Figure 1 shows, identifying these trends is the first step in the trend analysis phase of creating a future of work strategy.

Figure 1. Trends Analysis Phase of Crafting a Future of Work Strategy

There are two potential approaches for identifying future of work trends:

While working on their organization’s future of work strategy, executive leaders can use various external and internal sources to directly identify potentially relevant trends. This single-step approach won’t require further analysis.

  • Future of work experts, such as Gartner.

  • Press reports, particularly from strategically focused publications (e.g., Harvard Business Review, The Economist, BBC and Forbes).

  • Industry-specific trend reports, not just for your industry, but also for adjacent industries.

  • Search engine alerts set for different regions where your organization operates for the phrase “new trend,” “new pattern” or “emerging trend.”

  • Progressive business leadersUse surveys or focus group discussions with select progressive business leaders to determine what trends they have taken action on recently or are preparing to take action on in the next 12-24 months.

  • Talent analytics Assess emerging trends in your organization’s own talent data and in how your organization is performing compared to external benchmarks.

  • Board and executive meeting minutes and press releases Review internal documentation for mentions of the trends your senior leadership is most concerned about.

  • Employees and customers Crowdsource potential future of work trends from employees, like ADP did in the following case in point. You can even crowdsource trends from customers, if you have an engaged customer base.

While one-step sources are a great way to produce an initial list of potentially relevant future of work trends, they suffer from two weaknesses. First, to source ideas and trends from the external one-step sources, one usually looks into trendy topics or search terms, which may prevent leaders from exploring unknown territories. External one-step sources also tend to have interpretation baked in, reducing the opportunity for executive leaders to evaluate trends against their organization’s unique circumstances. Second, internal one-step sources have the opposite weakness: They are steeped in organizational context and likely produced with groupthink and confirmation biases. This can limit the number of potential ideas and future of work trends for consideration.

To address these potential weaknesses in your list of future of work trends, it is helpful to complement your one-step sources with trends derived from a multistep process.

Deriving future of work trends requires envisioning a potential future and then working backward toward what would need to take place for that future to happen. There are several ways to envision a potential future:

  • Premortem Unlike apostmortem, which determines why a patient — or a business project — died, a premortem attempts to predict why a project will fail or will succeed. It works like this: Draw up a document, such as a fake press release or award announcement, that is set in the future. The document describes how your initiative has been a huge success or a spectacular failure. The document must answer a simple question: “What happened?”

  • Science Fiction Writing Many organizations leverage science fiction writers to develop bold ideas. This might sound like a frivolous approach to understanding the future, but it is actually grounded in best practices for avoiding cognitive traps while developing innovative ideas. Bold, creative thinking is critical for moving past incremental innovation, but often people become trapped by cognitive biases, unable to see potential futures because they are weighed down by the limitations of present conditions.

  • Cross-Industry Analogues Organizations can look for new pilot programs or research projects in unfamiliar subject areas they don’t typically follow. This could include subjects such as robotics, urban planning, transportation, healthcare, agriculture, media, accessibility, energy, architecture, etc. Consider these unfamiliar areas with the following lens: If this pilot program or research project expands broadly, what the future would look like?

We recommend that executive leaders creating a future of work strategy try at least two of these methods, ideally with different individuals leading the exercise each time, in order to produce a novel set of ideas.

Once these potential futures have been envisioned, they should each be analyzed for the potential implications for your organization’s operations and talent strategy, which you can use to derive how the future of work will change (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Deriving Future of Work Trends

To assess how an envisioned future would impact your organization’s operational factors, consider its effect on your organization’s:

  • Technology roadmaps

  • Go-to-market strategies

  • Supply chain

  • Regulatory environment

  • Customer behavior

  • Capitalization strategies

Then consider how those operational factors would lead to changes in your organization’s talent strategy, including:

  • Employment models

  • Organizational networks

  • Workflows

  • Role design and responsibilities

  • Organizational design, including workforce locations

  • Critical skills needs

Use the hypothesized changes to your organization’s operations and talent strategy to get to the future of work trends. Brainstorm how these changes will affect:

  • How work is done Including technology enablement, collaboration, knowledge management, augmentation, the relationship between employers and workers.

  • When work is done Including the spectrum ranging from the traditional 9-to-5 work shift and a few core work or collaboration hours with a flexible schedule to complete autonomy over one’s schedule according to personal productivity.

  • Where work is done Including both geographic location and location relative to the organization’s facilities, which could extend to virtual and augmented reality.

  • Who or what does the work Including traditional full-time employees, contingent workers, bots, automation and augmented workers.

  • What is considered work May include how work is evaluated and compensated. For example, a shift from time-based compensation to task-based compensation and value-generation-based compensation, the elevation in importance of social and creative skills as other skills are replaced by or augmented with technology.

The resulting derived trends can be added to the long list of future of work trends that was created from the one-step sources.

The first step in crafting a future of work strategy is identifying trends that can potentially impact your organization and/or create opportunities in future. Executive leaders planning to prepare for and shape the future of work should identify and draft a list of emerging trends using multiple sources and approaches.

The next step in the process is to interpret the potential implications and relevance of each of the trends and prioritize those with the biggest potential impact on your organization and/or where your organization holds the greatest competitive advantage. Gartner’s research on a guide to interpreting and prioritizing future of work trends delves deeper into these steps.

Recommended by the Authors

Endnotes

Blockquote source: G. Klein, “Performing a Project Premortem,” Harvard Business Review, September 2007.

The organizations profiled in this research are provided for illustrative purposes only and do not constitute an exhaustive list of examples in this field nor an endorsement by Gartner of the organization or its offerings.

Analysts:

Human Resources Research Team

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