Workforce & Workplace: A Look Ahead
by Roger E. Herman

Employment life will never be the same. Significant evolutionary changes are underway in the workforce, and consequently in the workplace, as well. These transformations will occur much more rapidly than most managers expect or desire. What I see today evinces that, while there will be some resistance to the changes, they will occur and will drag reluctant managers along with them.

Why the resistance? Understandably, a lot of managers, executives, company owners, and other employees are comfortable in their ways. They like things the way they have been and don't want anything to disturb their comfort. This contentment is especially prevalent in situations where practices and expectations have been in place for a long time. Many organizations have conducted business quite satisfactorily in their customary ways for years . . . decades. A sort of euphoria lulled these employers into complacency. They've been satisfied with the philosophy "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Now the world around them will force these organizations - and the people who populate them - to change. . . dramatically. And relatively quickly. They're not happy about these circumstances and, in many cases, they're bewildered. They sense something is shifting-and that they have to adjust, too, but they are ignorant and uncertain of the trends, their influences, and how to respond. More leaders will turn to professional futurists to help them make sense of the trends and their implications.

The Adaptables

Much of the transformation in the work environment is driven by changes in the attitudes, approaches, and behaviors of the workforce. Is it the younger employees, those twenty-somethings, causing all these problems, all this upheaval? Looking at what's happening, we might say the new design evokes everything Generation X or Generation Why stands for, but this issue goes much deeper than generational finger-pointing.

In my 1995 book Turbulence!, I described a new breed of employees I called "the Adaptables." While eschewing references to age, I noted that "these workers will be light on their feet, ready to shift quickly in response to outside stimuli. They will easily adapt to changes in work requirements, job opportunities, and even major career shifts. Eager to accomplish their life goals, they will live practically all aspects of their lives in fast-forward." These nimble folks are quite comfortable in today's rapid-pace environment.

Adaptables will be self-sufficient. They'll prepare deliberately and carefully for the work and life they've chosen. Most Adaptables will be fairly well-educated; a large proportion will attend college classes, but some will study simply to acquire new knowledge or to spend some time in intellectual pursuits. To respond to the myriad of new challenges and opportunities before them, the Adaptables will cultivate and hone their ability to learn quickly. Many will concentrate on earning liberal arts degrees - at the bachelor's and at the master's levels. A liberal arts education will help them gain a broader base of knowledge and skills that will help them respond more effectively to what will lie before them in the future.

They'll continue to learn using audiotapes, videotapes, CD-ROMs, computer-based training, and other means. Adaptables, eager to grow, will expect their employers to provide or support most, if not all, of their training and education. Included in this desired support are tuition reimbursement, in-house training, community and technical college non-credit courses, trade schools, internet-based seminars, and on-the-job training, cross-training, and cross-experience. Employers who do not offer mentoring and coaching are clearly at a disadvantage in today's competitive employment environment.

Career Design

Workers will take control of their careers . . . and most aspects of their work. Control will be very important to the workers of the future. People will seek much more control in their lives - over their work, compensation, benefits, time, and life balance. Empowerment, the buzzword of the nineties, will become much more significant as workers seek the power to determine what they will do, how they will do it, and how they will be measured. Autonomy and accountability will go hand-in-hand.

More people will be free agents, floating to chosen opportunities in a highly fluid employment environment. Short-term assignments will be just fine for these independent specialists. There will be plenty of assignments available, bridging a gap between temporary services employees and long-term contractors. Special projects, interim appointments, and focused technical tasks will attract a sort of nomad worker who will pick and choose how much to do and when. Working full-time, all the time, will not be so important to these folks, who will treasure their time off as much - or more - than their working time.

Coming out of school, workers will seek jobs where they can learn, gain experience, and make a difference. They'll change jobs every 2-4 years, sometimes more frequently. Assuming their employers allow them such freedom of movement and growth, many of these job changes will be within the same company. If the silos and job stability requirements are too inhibiting, these evolving workers will simply leave their employers for other companies that will allow them to change jobs periodically. Companies that want to hold their top talent will be forced to become much more flexible and responsive.

Job descriptions will evaporate, replaced by role descriptions. They'll be less defined, more broad. Expectations will be built around helping the employer organization achieve its goals, whatever it takes. Workers will become more cross-trained and cross-experienced, better equipped to perform a number of different jobs. This expanded potential will be a retention tool, overcoming job boredom and restlessness, while giving the employer a workforce that is considerably more flexible and responsive to changing conditions.

The Long-Term Picture

People will work for 8-10 years, then take some time off, like a sabbatical. The down time may last a couple of months or even a year. Then people will come back to work and continue working for another 8-10 years, before taking another break. This pattern will continue until workers are in their seventies and eighties. I call these time-off periods "mid-career retirements." These recesses will supplant traditional retirement practices. In a generation to a generation and a half, retirement, as we know it today, will cease to exist.

A hop-scotch approach will replace linear career pathing. Climbing the corporate ladder won't be cool anymore. Workers may take a hop forward in their careers, but they may also take a lesser job to do the kind of tasks they prefer. Or they may jump sideways into a different career or different employer. With plenty of opportunities, expect workers to change careers frequently to experiment, learn, and experience.

Workers will design their own benefit packages to suit their particular situation. Today's cafeteria plan approach will be enhanced with more alternative offerings, giving people much more control over their personal package. Included will be college savings, adoption, pet care, vacation funding, and insurances like homeowners and auto insurance.

The next step will be benefit packages that are independent of employers. Created and managed by workers, these multi-faceted plans will be truly portable. When changing jobs, applicants will present documentation to the prospective employer explaining what coverages are in place and the cost of the customized benefit package. Prospective employers will pay the benefit cost to the plan administrator, or perhaps negotiate a shared cost agreement. The portability will enable workers to feel even more free to move from job to job, employer to employer, career to career.


The new design of careers will drive dramatic changes in management. Superiors will now be leaders, rather than managers, focused on bringing out the best in their people. Coaching will replace autocratic practices and supervisors will be expected to guide and support personal development. Individualized learning plans will be developed by employees and their supervisors, at all levels, complete with employer commitment. Supervisors will be expected to support workers in their growth efforts.

Bosses will practice what I term "facilitative leadership" - facilitating the high performance of each individual employee. Boss-subordinate relationships will be highly supportive, exemplified by coaching, encouraging, and self-responsibility. This new relationship design will produce a one-on-one personal partnership. Supervisors will continue their attention to productivity, quality, service, and similar business issues, but will be highly motivated to support their people in ways that are good for the workers . . . even if those objectives might be at the expense of the company. Bosses will be "career navigators," steering and encouraging their people to do whatever is best for their employees. While a sincere effort will be made to find a place for a growing employee within the host employer, supervisors will be expected to be advocates for the workers.

Compensation will be based on competencies more than position, though the roles played by employees will guide their compensation. Time off will become part of the compensation fabric, along with satisfaction of life balance issues.

The Workplace

Status barriers will disappear. No more reserved parking spaces - except for expectant or new mothers, handicapped, visitors and the mail car. Corporate casual dress will continue, but will be tightened up a bit. People will still get a little dressed up for work, but still at an informal level. Social distance between workers of different ranks or positions will be minimized, with emphasis placed on open communication and collaboration.

The informality, though with a serious attention to business, will influence the corporations' physical environment. Harsh corporate furniture like cubicles will yield to an open officescape with live and decorative plants, conversation pits, and art like paintings and sculpture.

Lighting will be more natural, as will the use of color. Corporate environment psychologists will work hand-in-hand with professional decorators to create the most appropriate ambiance for the work to be done. White noise, soothing music, plush carpeting, and soft furniture designs will encourage people to be physically and psychologically comfortable as they work.

The transformation to the workforce and workplace of the future will be an exciting, though sometimes exasperating experience. Hang on! We're in for a wild ride!

Roger Herman, co-author of How to Become an Employer of Choice, is CEO of The Herman Group, a firm of Certified Management Consultants and professional speakers based in Greensboro, NC. Visit or e-mail .

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Copyright 2004 by Roger Herman. All rights reserved.

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