In a 2013 paper, Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs may be susceptible to automation within the next two decades, igniting an international debate on the future of work. That conversation has included a mix of positive and negative predictions about the kind of world that awaits us in the wake of rapid technological advancement. While no one knows exactly how the future of work will look, it is sure to be radically different as technology advances like never before.

Now, it is time for a mental shift.

All of the predictions about the future of work can make it feel like we are on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. However, the future of work, like all futures, has yet to be determined — meaning we can proactively endeavor to create a future that is positive. The work experience today isn’t perfect; the technological changes ahead represent an immense opportunity to proactively create a future of work that is better for humans.

This human-centric perspective can start with our own careers and those of the people we lead. We can take tangible steps today to become future-ready individuals. First, it is important to understand the changes that are happening.

What is driving this change?

We often think of technologies as isolated inventions, and this is true for many modern items. Yet today there is a special category of technologies, including robotics and artificial intelligence, that is advancing uniquely based upon two major underlying forces — computing power and information.

Computing power

The advances we see with cutting-edge technology rely on ever-expanding computing processing power. Moore’s Law describes this process of amplified computing power. The number of transistors per integrated circuit is doubling roughly every year; this doubling adds up quickly. This pattern of exponential increases in computing power is the reason technological advances are projected to come rapidly and potentially surprise us with their scope.

Information 

Yet computing capacity alone cannot drive the kind of technology innovations we see today. The other big force is information. When it comes to technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence, information is the fuel. These technologies learn through iterative processes that require information, Ray Kurzweil writes in The Singularity is Near. We live in a time of abundant humanity-created data, meaning these technologies have an extensive fuel supply.

Taken together, we have more computing capacity to utilize more information — not just incrementally more, but exponentially more, year over year. These trends are driving rapid, mind-boggling technological change.

How can you become future-ready? 

In a rapidly changing world, with ever-expanding technological capability, what can we do to be future-ready? While the political, organizational, and entrepreneurial opportunities for innovation around the future of work are vast, there are also practical steps we can implement in our own careers and organizations today. Here are five ways to become future-ready.

1. Set brain-boosting boundaries 

While the prospect of a future workplace inundated with technology may make us think we need to lean into technology more, we actually benefit from smart boundaries with technology. This is largely because our brains work best with a mix of focused and diffuse thinking. Technology is an excellent tool for our focused thinking, but it can impede our diffuse (creative, mind-wandering) thinking. In short, our brains need breaks from reactive or focused states in order to function best, encode information, and think creatively.

Check in on your current work habits. If you are constantly checking email throughout the day, look for ways to limit this to two to four blocks of time instead. If you are in a leadership position, encourage this kind of time-blocking for your team and even permit time for employees to work technology-free. These diffuse-thinking breaks help us work with our brains and bring the best of our human skillsets to the table, like creativity.

2. Understand the DNA of skills 

Most studies focusing on the future of work have profiled occupations or skills against the capabilities of technologies to identify how replaceable a specific role may be in the future. Researchers use job analysis to identify what knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics a specific job requires — in other words, to identify the DNA of those jobs. We can learn from this analysis mindset to think about our own competencies and those of the people we lead.

If we pigeon-hole people into specific roles, or present ourselves that way, we’re only looking at the current form those roles take — not their underlying blueprint — and we can miss the opportunity to evolve our careers alongside technologies. In a rapidly changing work landscape, the skills that your organization needs will vary and roles will vary. Make sure you know your own and your team’s full DNA of skills and passions — even those outside of a current job description — so that you see technological advances as a means of being freed for other opportunities, rather than a replacement of your own or another worker’s value in the organization.

3. See technology as a colleague 

Gallup performs an annual study to assess engagement data across scores of organizations. This year, it found — yet again — that only about a third of us are actually engaged at work. The rest are either disengaged or actively disengaged. Too many of us are bored at work, and we too often work on tasks that aren’t core to who we are as people or professionals. This is where technology can be a tool to explore more meaningful work.

Identify areas of your current role or that of your team that are precise and repetitive and which have been deemed the most automatable tasks, and make sure you’re targeting your human development elsewhere. Routine tasks may be a reality today, but investing in the parts of our jobs that are more complex and meaningful is a way to proactively prepare your skillset for the future and is more likely to lead to engaging, rewarding work. Technology can be the complementary colleague who picks up the tasks less meaningful to you.

 4. Cultivate power skills 

It’s time we upgrade “soft skills” by giving them a new name — power skills. Power skills are the most human and often the least automatable — the skills to cultivate in order to be future-
ready. There have been numerous reviews of the skills that will be most relevant in the future, and those that most often come out on top are things like communication, critical thinking, sense-making, agility, and creativity. Fortunately, these skills can be coached.

Seek out opportunities to grow your own power skills. For example, to improve your critical thinking, look for complicated projects, challenge your first assumption when faced with a problem, and try an approach outside of the status quo. Work is changing due to technology, and it has never been more important for employees to be what they innately are — human.

5. Practice an adaptive mindset 

In light of the pace of technological change, we are likely to experience frequent shifts in our working lives that will require agility and evolution on our part. The foundation for navigating such change is an adaptive mindsetOur thinking can be a powerful tool to help us navigate change. For example, those who perceive constructive (negative) feedback as developmental rather than punitive experience very different wellbeing and career outcomes.

The same pattern holds true for how we view the future of work. Even viewing the potential of technologies as augmenting, meaning a tool to support humans, rather than automating, meaning a replacement of humans, can positively impact our subjective wellbeing. Consider the narratives around change and the future that you and your team believe. If you see the future as something that we must predict to prepare for, challenge yourself and your team to think instead about what kind of future you could actively help create.

The bottom line

The future of work isn’t the domain of governments or think-tanks alone. We all play a role in shaping how that future will look. Understanding the wave of technological change and how to become future-ready is the foundational step. As future-ready leaders, we can proactively innovate for a positive, human-centric future of work. This starts with the decisions made in workplaces today. This starts with future-ready leaders like you. 

Muriel Clauson

Muriel Clauson is a researcher, speaker, and entrepreneur focused on creating a better future of work. She is completing her PhD in industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia. She founded Oppticity, a data science company building “the skills map” to spark innovation around skill evolution for the workforce. She speaks on the future of work globally.

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