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The Future of Work in the Private and Public Sectors – A Worst-Case Scenario

By Rohit Talwar

I have just taken part an extensive survey on the Future of Work, conducted for a UK government department. Below are my thoughts on what the worst-case outcomes might be for the various scenario elements of the Future of Work explored in the study. The focus is on the implications for people management and human resources (HR), and for the Civil Service (CS) Clearly, there are many possible paths to the future and a range of scenarios that could play out. As futurists, we often deliberately use these worst-case scenarios to push back on prevailing assumptions, help people think the unthinkable, and prepare for the most challenging of possibilities. Below you can find the Future of Work elements and my responses on the potential worst case scenario HR and Civil Service implications. that were outlined I’d love to hear your thoughts on the various questions posed.

A: Uncertainty and Agility

Scenario – The amount of uncertainty in the labour market will increase as a result of business failures such as Carillion, increased automation and economic volatility. The need for organisations to be more agile and flexible will continue due to rapid technological development and increased uncertainty and volatility.

HR Implications – In the best firms, we are likely to see a shift from focus on procedures and administration to developing digital and futures literacy, an emphasis on building new leadership models, and on unlocking human potential. Many are likely to be blindsided by the changes and find themselves ill-equipped to help their organizations adapt.

Civil Service Implications – The most likely outcome if we continue on the current trajectory will be budget cuts to fund Brexit and higher unemployment costs, and more bad and expensive automation. This could result in service cuts, public anger, more chaos, and headcount reduction. This in turn could see the best talent leaving, deadwood rising to higher responsibility, and organizations in permanent crisis mode. The outcome could be constant ridicule from the public and the media, and government being blamed for holding back society, business, and economic development

B: Employee Attitudes and Expectations

Scenario – Attitudes towards work will continue to change due to factors such as technological advancement, economic changes and globalization. This will lead to increased diversity of attitudes between generational groups. There will be an increased focus on employee well-being and “good” work. This is as a result of increased media attention to poor working conditions and higher expectations from talented workers.

HR Implications – Some organisations will place more emphasis on enhancing the conditions for workers. However, competitive pressures, cost reductions, and higher redundancies due to technology make it seem likely that in many organisations people management and HR will actually be de-prioritised, particularly in the public sector. Their focus will become more administrative, e.g. handling redundancy processes.

Civil Service Implications – More outsourcing of public sector HR, a decline in HR service standards, headcount reductions in HR, lower standards of performance and poor morale across the service, with more strikes.

C: Diversity and Inclusion

Scenario – The emphasis on diversity and inclusion will continue but will broaden from the current focus on gender, race and age to focus on other aspects of inequality such as geography, education and social class.

HR Implications – We will want to do more on diversity, and initiatives like #metoo and #timesup will have an impact. However, given increased automation, competition, and higher unemployment diversity and inclusion could actually be de-prioritised.

Civil Service Implications – The Civil Service will espouse good intentions, but in practice will slide back on commitments and water them down.

D: Automation and Skills

Scenario – Advances in AI mean that repetitive tasks will be mostly automated leading to a number of skills becoming obsolete and a large proportion of the workforce needing to re-skill. Advances in AI will also lead to the automation of some decision making tasks, particularly those relying on the integration of accurate and detailed data such as medical diagnostics. The automation of repetitive and decision-making tasks will shift the focus away from the need for knowledge to skills such as those in the area of creativity, leadership and managing complexity. The automation of tasks and the increase of complexity generally will mean that people will become more specialized. The use of more specialists and the availability of high quality ICT means that work will require the formation of collaborative teams that may work virtually and will often be self-managed.

There will be an increased need for skills in working with technology and in managing teams made up of both machines and humans. As the skills that organisations require are changing rapidly, there will be a shift to recruit for potential skills development, attitudes, capacity for learning and agility rather than for a particular skillset. Some organisations will “rebel” against increased technology use and return to more traditional face to face approaches to working. Automation will mean that organisations and jobs will last for less time meaning that people will have to be constantly learning new skills and changing jobs. This extreme uncertainty will lead to increased levels of stress and mental health issues.

HR Implications – People management and HR will be more automated and outsourced, with lower HR budgets. There will be a greater focus on processes and metrics, and less on maximising employee performance, improving their wellbeing, and job fulfilment.

Civil Service Implications – Poor digital literacy and lack of talent will lead to ineffective and expensive automation. Public service standards will fall, dissatisfaction with the Civil Service will rise dramatically because citizens will have less opportunity to challenge and complain about automated decisions made by government agencies.

E: People Management

Scenario – The core elements and practices of HRM will remain the same. There will be an increase in the use of wearable devices to allow individuals to manage their own productivity and wellbeing.

HR Implications – Much more management of people by machines using the data from their wearables. Privacy will be eroded, with employees forced to use the devices. Reward systems will increasingly be based on performance as measured narrowly by these devices. People will be treated more and more like machines, organisations will behave more like machines, and work will become an increasingly unpleasant place.

Civil Service Implications – The Civil Service will use wearables in a relatively dumb way, the application of the technology won’t produce better performance – just a lot more data for managers to obsess over.

F: Risk Management

Scenario – Due to the move to a cyber environment and increased uncertainty, focus on risk and reputation management will increase.

HR Implications – More vetting of job candidates, more continuous monitoring of employee activity and greater control over what they have access too. Stricter penalties for staff involved in cybercrime.

Civil Service Implications – More government data breaches, with more budget directed towards cyber-protection, and lower transparency.

G: Organisational Structures

Scenario – The use of partnerships between organisations, including private-public partnerships and networked organisations will become more common.

HR Implications – The best HR functions will be a key part of resourcing the future needs of the business and ensuring a good cultural and ethical fit with potential partners. However, most won’t play much part in forming such relationships or designing new organisational forms. A lot of these collaborations will fail because of people and cultural issues.

Civil Service Implications – The Civil Service is likely to make greater use of external partnerships, but won’t have the resources to manage them well, and will generally be unhappy with the outcomes, but will paint a positive public story about their value. Lack of oversight skills will see a significant waste of public funds, higher levels of corruption, and a further decline in service quality.

H: Employment Contracts and Working Patterns

Scenario – Globalisation and technological advances mean that hours of work are likely to continue to increase due to the need to communicate globally. This will lead to work intensification and increased problems such as employee burn-out. The existence of a physical workplace that people attend daily will continue to decrease due to advancements in ICT and other forms of technology. Therefore, the number of people working remotely will also increase. The increase in remote working will endanger relationships between workers. This means that organisations will take steps to create physical spaces where employees can interact socially and hold physical meetings, for the purpose of building community and cohesiveness within their workforce.

The increase in digital platforms related to obtaining work will lead to an increase in contingent work and the continued growth of the “gig economy”, and the shrinking of organizations’ permanent workforce, as well as an increase in the number of people who are self-employed. The increase in contingent and “gig” work will lead to an erosion of trust in the relationship between an organisation and its managers and their employees. Job quality and the standard of living will drop due to the number of people working contingently and the lack of protection offered to this segment of the labour market.

HR Implications – HR will spend more time managing contracts with gig workers and automating the process, and they are likely to drive down gig worker rights. Workplace rights will be eroded, and people will be seen to be as replaceable as machines. Firms with a genuine focus on their talent and workers’ rights will stand out.

Civil Service Implications – A lack of resources in HR and wider management could see the Civil Service becoming a big user of gig workers, but with some of the worst conditions for those on short term contracts.

I: Use of data

Scenario – The emphasis on collecting data from customers and employees will continue to increase. The need for skills in data analytics will increase.

HR Implications – Many will become obsessed with capturing and analysing customer data. However, they will not necessarily use this to enhance the lives of workers. The focus could simply be on driving task based performance through attention to micro-measures.

Civil Service Implications – The Civil Service will seek to gather more employee and customer data, but there will be little evidence of it being used to enhance the performance and wellbeing of the workforce, or the service provided to citizens. We can expect far greater surveillance and intervention in the lives of citizens.

J: Ethical Practice

Scenario – The requirement for organisations to undertake their business in a way that is ethical and socially responsible will increase. Process transparency will increase due to the ability to access company information easily via technology.

HR Implications – Good firms and HR functions will establish and adhere to the highest ethical standards. Many will fall far short of this, and we could see ethical standards slip dramatically in the face of increasing competition and the power to abuse our data offered by technology.

Civil Service Implications – The Civil Service will gradually downgrade its public commitment to ethical standards.


What’s your view on the worst-case scenarios for the future of work and how we can avoid them? Please share your thoughts.


This article was originally published in FutureScapes. To subscribe, click here.


Image: by geralt


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