Business leaders may be overlooking a key partner in their efforts to prepare for the future—their workforce. According to our research—a collaboration between Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work project and Boston Consulting Group’s Henderson Institute—workers are happy in their jobs and are prepared to adapt to change. Leadership, however, views the future through a different lens and is struggling to identify and act on the forces shaping the workplace.
Our study of 11,000 middle-skills workers (those without a four-year degree) in 11 countries and 6,500 business leaders in 8 countries provides a global outlook on perceptions of the forces shaping the future of work. Those forces include new technology, remote work, contingent workforces, government protection of workers, and regulatory changes affecting trade.
At a time when discussions about the future of work are dominated by reports of widespread fear, we found that middle-skills workers see opportunity in changes and are optimistic for their future job prospects. Globally, 52% of middle-skills workers indicated that they are happy in their current jobs, and 45% said that their employment situation has improved in the past five years. Moreover, they believe that the forces shaping the future, including new technology, will have a positive effect. Nearly half of workers globally (45%) believe that changes in the workplace will result in higher wages, and 61% are optimistic about the impact of technology on their futures.
But managers’ outlook is less positive. While nearly half of workers (46%) consider themselves personally responsible for preparing for changes, and 75% reported probably or definitely seeing a need to prepare for the future of work, business leaders most often cited (29%) workers’ fear of change as the reason most inhibiting them from preparing for the future. And 39% said a lack of employees with sufficient skill sets is already having an impact on their organizations.
Moreover, leaders struggle to differentiate the forces that will affect their company in the future. The most common issues flagged as highly significant were increases in the skill and education level required of the workforce (30%), sudden shifts in customer needs (27%), and employees’ expectations for flexible work (27%).
To succeed, business leaders will need to put aside preconceptions and bridge the gulf in perceptions that separates management and middle-skills workers. The goodwill of the workforce is a tremendous asset that leaders can leverage. They must recognize this opportunity and be proactive in supporting their employees and generating concrete plans to prepare for the workplace of the future.
The BCG Henderson Institute is Boston Consulting Group’s strategy think tank, dedicated to exploring and developing valuable new insights from business, technology, and science by embracing the powerful technology of ideas. The Institute engages leaders in provocative discussion and experimentation to expand the boundaries of business theory and practice and to translate innovative ideas from within and beyond business. For more ideas and inspiration from the Institute, please visit Ideas & Inspiration.