This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on July 10, 2023 – July 16, 2023

Here’s a scary story with a spooky twist: Dan was proud to start his new job as a drone delivery coordinator. He had to deliver 10 packages in an hour. Delighted, Dan grabbed the remote control. He flew his drone to the first address, dropped the package on the doorstep and messaged the recipient to pick it up. He repeated the same process for the next nine deliveries and finished his job in 50 minutes.

“Congrats, Dan,” his boss messaged him. “You deserve a promotion. Please report to the office tomorrow for your new assignment.”

Dan took a bus to the office the next day, signed an indemnity, opened the door — and gasped. The room was full of drones flying around. Each drone had a human head attached to it. He screamed and tried to run away. A drone flew behind him and grabbed him by the neck: “Welcome to the team, Dan.”

If that story stunned you, these statistics should shock you: Companies across the Asia-Pacific region outside of Japan are set to spend a whopping US$196.2 billion (RM907 billion) on products and services to enable an enhanced work culture by 2026. That’s up from US$99.8 billion in 2022 — a compound annual growth rate of 18.4% between now and then, according to the latest estimates from IDC Corp.

Radical transformation

IDC defines the future of work as a fundamental change to the current work model. It fosters human-machine collaboration, enables new skills and worker experiences, and supports a reimagined physical workplace and borderless digital workspace.

“With the widespread adoption of hybrid work, companies are investing in devices and apps to foster better workplaces and boost productivity,” says Dr Lily Phan, IDC’s director for future of work research. “Companies will spend on technology to enhance customer and employee experience.”

Robots and drones will see large investments in the work augmentation marketplace, as will IoT (Internet of Things) solutions and 3D printing materials.

Where are the hottest jobs?

The fastest-growing roles relative to their size are driven by tech, digitalisation and sustainability, notes the latest survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF). “AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) experts top the list of fast-growing jobs, followed by sustainability specialists, business intelligence analysts and information security professionals,” the WEF reports. “Renewable energy experts and solar energy installation and systems engineers will also see robust growth.”

The WEF’s latest survey, released in May, polled 803 companies that collectively employ 11.3 million workers across 27 industry clusters in 45 economies. The verdict? In information and communications technology, the highest rate of adoption will be in ABC — AI, big data and cloud computing — in the next five years. More than 75% of companies plan to deploy them.

Digital platforms and apps will be the most popular technologies, with 86% of companies planning to use them in their operations in the next five years. Education and workforce technologies rank second, with 81% of companies aiming to adopt them by 2027. E-commerce is top of mind by 75% of businesses. Power storage tech and distributed ledger solutions are less likely to be adopted, the WEF reports.

Which skills should you focus on? Organisations now value analytical thinking more than any other skill. Creative thinking, another cognitive skill, comes second, followed by three self-efficacy skill sets — resilience, flexibility and agility in one bucket; motivation and self-awareness in the second; and curiosity and lifelong learning in the third — reflecting the importance of workers’ adaptability to disruptions in the workplace.

Game changers

One game changer is AI. As AI becomes more capable and can handle more work in finance and other corporate functions, the question arises whether AI can replace human employees.

“When it works well, the human and the machine complement and enhance each other,” notes Dennis Gannon, a Gartner vice-president. “The biggest obstacle is employees checking out of the process because of fatigue with near-constant change, and fears about being replaced by technology stoking a widespread lack of faith in leadership.”

Another game changer is hybrid work. It is clear that in the post-pandemic, AI-infused world, hybrid set-ups (where some work happens on-site and some remotely) will persist. Companies will need to refine their operating models in response, advises McKinsey & Company.

That’s because one in 16 workers may have to switch occupations by 2030. That’s more than 100 million workers across the eight major economies.

“The pandemic accelerated workforce transitions,” McKinsey notes. “Job growth will be concentrated in high-skill jobs, in healthcare or science, technology, engineering and maths. Middle- and low-skill jobs such as food service, production work or office support roles will decline.”

The pandemic propelled faster adoption of digital tech, including automation and AI.

“Companies used them to control costs or mitigate uncertainty,” McKinsey adds. “They also deployed digital tech in warehouses, grocery stores, call centres and manufacturing sites to reduce workplace density or deal with surging demand for items.”

Pillars of change

Given the disruption and the rapid infusion of AI in the workplace, what specific changes in corporate leadership would be required in the new normal in the next few years? Here are six, in alphabetical order:

• Adaptivity: Employees want work experience that suits their individual needs and preferences. The pandemic and the rise of remote and hybrid work models have given employees more freedom over their work schedule and location. Adaptivity means choosing who to work with, how much work to take on and what kind of work to do, Gartner says. This is the pillar where finance leaders have done well, but also where they face the most pressure from the labour market.

• Benevolence: Empathetic and benevolent leadership means not just being kind, but also understanding others’ motivations and experiences without infusing them with your own biases. This is crucial for corporate leaders who may have to deal with burnout from their reports. As more members of Gen Z join the workforce, they demand more emotional intelligence from their leaders than do previous generations.

• Credibility: This requires corporate leaders to be honest and vulnerable with their bosses, teams and peers. “More than 50% of staff in finance are afraid to take a calculated risk because they think it will backfire on them,” Gartner notes. Credibility involves being authentic and showing employees they will not be punished by the system for sticking their necks out.

• Discipline: When done right, the mission of driving discipline is the same as the mission of being a human leader. Putting someone at the centre of the job makes him or her not just a more effective manager of people, but also a more effective leader. It improves their ability to make tough economic trade-offs when required.

• Education: Employers estimate that 44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted in the next five years. Six in 10 workers will require training before 2027, but only half of workers will have opportunities to upskill or reskill. The highest priority for skills training is analytical thinking, which is tough to foster and train.

• Focus on creative thinking: Training workers to leverage AI and big data ranks third among corporate skills training priorities in the next five years and is prioritised by 42% of firms surveyed by McKinsey. Focus also on tolerating failure, learning from mistakes and forgiving employees who take calculated risks.

Since I started this article with a shocking story, let me end with another: Tina was excited to start her new job as a virtual executive assistant. She logged into her laptop and saw a message from her first client: “Hello Tina, I’m Pat. I’m a busy entrepreneur and I need your help with a lot of stuff. Please reply with your availability and skills.”

Tina replied immediately and listed her qualifications and capabilities. She waited for Pat’s response.

Pat responded after two minutes. “You seem perfect for the job. There’s just one thing I need to know before we start working together,” he wrote. “Are you human?”

Tina typed: “Yes, of course, I’m human. Why do you ask?”

Pat replied within one minute: “Perfect. We’ll make a great team since you’re human, and I am not.”