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What will the future of work look like?

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how we work. Will this be the new normal? Melanie Cook, futurist and managing director of Hyper Island, makes a bold prediction.

How will a post-Covid-19 workplace look like? With social distancing becoming the new normal and remote working forming a key component of the future economy, employers are realising that evolution is not only important, but necessary for survival.

The Peak chats with Melanie Cook, futurist and managing director of Hyper Island, on her thoughts about the future of work and how we can prepare for it.

(Related: Here’s how to create a high-performance work culture)

“I believe we are becoming automatons. Fake news sways our political beliefs. Google’s algorithms decide what’s the best recipe for pancakes and the correct answer to the meaning of life. Not even my parenting is sacred. Machine algorithms secretly manipulate my parenting and my little girl’s choices all the time. Netflix’s algorithm coaxes our choices in what to choose to watch next. Spotify’s algorithm decides the soundtrack of her childhood.”

What is the most critical issue facing companies now that leaders need to address immediately to prepare for the future?

Restrictions on global movement in a post-COVID-19 world will hit global trade in unprecedented ways. Next year we, like our clients and nations, will face tumbling revenue growth and rising costs as we dig in to support co-workers and citizens, respectively. In an environment with falling revenue and increasing staff costs as a proportion of that revenue, the only strategy available to us is to become more prolific.

Similarly, what can an individual do today to prepare for that workplace of tomorrow?

Learn to learn. The workplace will be decentralised, and with decentralisation comes complexity. If you can be curious, conscientious and confident that no matter the complexity, you will learn to find a way through it, you will thrive.

What are the five books that everyone should read if they want to prepare for the future?

I can’t answer this for anyone else but myself. I read plenty of books written by academics as I feel secure in research. I would say that we underestimate fiction’s ability to predict the future. So here is my list as a parent, worrier, business person, human, and an artist.

  • Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras
  • Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
  • Machine, Platform, Crowd by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenburg
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

There’s that joke floating around the Internet that it wasn’t the CEO or the COO who drove digital transformation, but COVID-19. With this in mind, how do you think the workplace will change in the next few years?

When I think about our campus, it takes on a Dali-like appearance. Some things are hyper-real and some surreal. For people not on the front line, more than anything, I feel that we will finally work in the social fabric of Millenials and Gen Z. We’ll see less about aged leaders like me wondering how to integrate the next generation into our accepted definition of the workplace, and more about how to bring aged leaders into the new generation workplace.

This new workplace is more democratic and community-based than the old. It is more transparent as we automatically record more of our communication. It potentially is a workplace where people have more time to process and reflect. But I say potentially, because for this to last, we need to nurture the opportunity this forced mass working-from-home experiment has laid before us.

What is the first step that businesses can do to implement data and digital into their processes?

The first step is always the mindset. Data and digital technology are causing the world to change at heart palpitating rates. With that change comes risk, and the only way to mitigate risk is to experiment. Build experimentation into your business processes so you can create immediate value or learnings, refine and repeat.

(Related: Pandemic gives fresh momentum to digital voice technology)

Melanie Cook, managing director of Hyper Island.

Melanie Cook, managing director of Hyper Island.

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel wrote that we are living in an “indefinite future”, which is why everyone tends to converge to finance or law – to transfer and structure wealth, instead of creating it. I wanted to know about your own thoughts as a futurist, and this idea of the indefinite future.

Absolutely. The world is one big system with billions of people interacting together with exponential technology to create an infinite conceivable number of outcomes. With that comes a cycle of opportunity and danger for which finance and law have already proven inadequate.

For us to make the most of the future, collective wisdom and conscience, technological progress and policy need to move at the same speed for us to make that opportunity accessible to all. And therefore, sustainable indefinitely.

What do you think is the next Zero to One innovation that  will upend the future?

Our answer to optimising between an infinite number of outcomes is artificial intelligence (AI). In Shoshana Zuboff’s book, Surveillance Capitalism, she argues that too much AI power is concentrated in a handful of men, and the definition of optimal is their definition alone.

My Zero to One innovation is one that takes the power of AI away from those few men and gives it to society for a more equitable future for all.

What is the one important truth of the future that you believe will happen, but very few people agree with you on?

I believe we are becoming automatons.

Fake news sways our political beliefs. Google’s algorithms decide what’s the best recipe for pancakes and the correct answer to the meaning of life. Not even my parenting is sacred. Machine algorithms secretly manipulate my parenting and my little girl’s choices all the time. Netflix’s algorithm coaxes our choices in what to choose to watch next. Spotify’s algorithm decides the soundtrack of her childhood.

Film and music is the start of her arts education. The arts are fundamentally an expression of our society. As children develop, they use the arts to understand the world around them – learning right from wrong. My daughter will frame morality according to the arts revealed to her by algorithms.

The truth is that we are becoming automatons and we have no way of stopping it, yet.