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19 January 2018
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Life and work 2020: Tomorrow's office world

7 January 2011

Cathy Hayward

The fourth seminar on Life and Work in 2020, organised by Advanced Workplace Associates, explored how work itself will change over the next 10 years. What demographic pressures will organisations have to cope with and will environmental pressures play a part in the way people and organisations work?


The employer-employee relationship will be turned on its head over the next 10 years as a result of a change in demographics and technology, economic development, social, workplace and economic inequality, environmental challenges and the changing role of the state. That was the message from Will Hutton, executive vice chair of the Work Foundation, speaking at the fourth seminar on Life and Work in 2020, organised by Advanced Workplace Associates, late last year.

Managing the talent of people in their sixties and seventies together with dealing with the question of fairness in organisations will be two key issues facing the world of work in 2020, he said. “In developed economies, the workforce is ageing and required to work longer which raises issues about workplace health and longevity, engaging, motivating and retaining older workers and career management for the younger generations.” The maximum sagacity – when the rate of brain cells dying is outweighed by the rate of brain cells being created – is aged 72, he said emphasising that older workers had an essential role to play in the workplace.

Talking the day before the release of his own Fair Pay Report, which argued that bosses' salaries should be no more than 20 times those of the lowest-paid staff in an organisation, Hutton said that the polarisation of income meant that many businesses would have to think about fair-proofing themselves. “Income and wealth disparities are widening in developed economies while the opportunities for social mobility are limited,” he said adding that the traditional paradigm of wealth-through-work will be challenged by very low economic growth in the developed countries. The real growth will come from Brazil, Russia, India and China, he said.

The development of increasingly sophisticated technology will present challenges and opportunities for how we work, where we work and when we work, Hutton argued. This would provide significant challenges to managers around virtual team dynamics and increasing the productivity and innovation of employees.

By 2020, Hutton predicted that the workforce will be largely knowledge based (and therefore be able to work flexibly by time or location).  New industries will require new skills – green, low carbon, STEM – which will been a skills gap requiring the UK to embrace a global talent market.
The changing environmental picture will also play a part in the world of work, Hutton predicted. “There will be a shift in the zeitgeist towards greater personal and societal responsibility for the protection  of the environment, possibly to the point of resisting the primacy of the discourse of economic growth.”

David Smith, chief executive of Global Futures and Foresight echoed many of Hutton’s points, arguing that by 2020, little work will actually take place in a workplace. “Mobile and remote working technologies will be considered routine, reliable and widespread enough to allow most jobs to be completed away from the office” which could result in a shift in the built form and social organisation of cities. Quoting a 2009 Orange survey, he argued that most people don’t want to work in cities but would prefer to move to the south-west, Wales or Scotland – rural areas – if work was not location dependent.

By 2020 we will interact with artificial intelligence just like humans.  Smith predicted that almost all routine work roles such as secretaries, tutors and salespeople will be done by virtual assistants. Virtual worlds which also become mainstream.


The 2020 seminar series aims to build a picture of how life, work and the workplace will be in 2020. The inaugural seminar, focused on the likely macro-economic, demographic and social context for the UK in the world in the next decade, took place in April 2010; the second explored the future of sustainability; the third, which was held last September, looked at the role of virtual worlds and social networking; and the fifth, to take place next month, will build on the first four sessions and explore what work and the workplace could look like in 2020 and the implications and new capabilities needed by organisations for sustained success.


Predictions for 2020


Will Hutton



•The war for talent will intensify and be fought on a global scale. Organisations will need to focus more on developing skills. Innovation and skills are the backbone of the knowledge economy
•We will see new business models and a significant shift to more flexible, remote and virtual working – this will pose challenges for line managers, engagement, performance management etc
•Further polarisation of jobs will make it harder than ever for employees to move up the ladder
•Employees will become increasingly sophisticated – as employees and consumers – demanding more from their employer.  CSR for example will move centre stage. Notions of fairness will be increasingly challenged as inequality increases.
•Organisations will need to be smarter about managing the motivation, health and productivity of an increasingly age diverse workforce.

David Smith


• There will be seamless computer-human interaction: advances in speech recognition, artificial intelligence (AI), and computer power suggest the old computer interface (keyboard, mouse, etc.) may yield to an intelligent interface in which we simply converse with smart computers.

• Mobile and remote working technologies will be considered routine, reliable and widespread enough to allow most jobs to be completed away from the office, signalling potential shifts in the built form and social organisation of cities
•Recruitment will become increasingly fragmented owing to changing demographics, technology and flexible employment. Power will shift towards candidates and there will be a war for talent with offers being personalised
•New jobs will be created from nano-medics and memory augmentation surgeons to old age wellness specialists and time broker
• Professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as rapidly as it is gained. Most professions will require continuous instruction and retraining.