Economic, social and technological transformations are not just changing our behaviour and expectations; the way we work is constantly changing too. The steam engine, for example, powered the industrial revolution. The impact that computers have had on the world of work is perhaps even greater. And with ‘Industry 4.0’ – the intelligent networking of production – we are now on the cusp of another profound shift. People are being replaced by robots, traditional professions are dying out, and new ones are being born. Virtual worlds are augmenting the real world. How will our working lives change? What should staff and their employers be prepared for? What will the workplace of tomorrow look like? These are just some of the questions we asked Karin Frick, Head of Research at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI).

Drones, robots and virtual reality (VR) headsets are increasingly assisting us in our day-to-day work. Emotions and senses are falling by the wayside as a consequence of dematerialisation and digitisation. How will we work in the future? Will we sit alone at our desks, wearing a VR headset or talking to computers and robots?

In the past, technology replaced human muscle power and made us more mobile, allowing us to move greater loads, for example. Today, more and more technical aids are being developed to help us think or see. Some of these tools are enabling us to see the world in a whole different way in the form of augmented reality. Improving our mental capacities, developing new ways to communicate, enhancing our senses and changing our perception have become the overriding objectives. Smartphones can be used for many different things, not just for making phone calls. Similarly, the glasses of the future won’t just protect our eyes against UV light and correct our vision – they will also serve as microscopes and telescopes that can be overlaid with augmented reality. These new tools will make our day-to-day work easier in many ways.

What will the employee’s role be in the future?

We are currently seeing a shift from physical to virtual work. We are moving more data, and less concrete and stone. More things are being built on computers, and machines are being used to help design entire properties and control how they are interconnected. These trends will shape the future of the real estate industry. The transformation is very gradual, however. There will be a long transition period lasting several decades. Old forms will exist alongside new ones. Some industries (e.g. finance) will become virtualised more quickly than others, of course. The construction sector is changing at a slower pace. Here in Europe, construction is still very much reliant on human input, but in China it is likely that entire towns and new districts will soon be created by fully automated means. Less complex structures such as commercial buildings might also be produced by 3D printers here in the Western world in the not too distant future. Nevertheless, widespread change takes time. But for people and employees, it will ultimately give rise to new tasks that we can only begin to imagine.

Is the behaviour of young people affecting the development of companies and society? After all, they are the ones who are creating new types of work.

It works both ways. When someone joins a company, certain structures are already in place. Young and old influence each other. There is a clear trend away from fixed employment towards project-based contracts, especially among skilled workers. This calls for more flexibility.

Will this mean more work for us?

The concept of work will change. We might put more effort into our own personal projects than we do into paid work. The boundary between work and leisure is becoming blurred.

There is also a tendency to outsource work to us. Bank transfers are a good example: whereas banks used to perform this service for us, we can now do it ourselves online. We can check ourselves in at the airport and book flights directly on online platforms. Travel agents are becoming a thing of the past. If you want to grow your own fruit and vegetables in future, you can become a part-time gardener. We are filling our free time with other jobs and activities. Paid work in the conventional sense is less continuous, but we’re still always busy. The question is: is it leisure, or is it work?

The offices of tomorrow will consist of multifunctional spaces that can be utilised together for different purposes

The trend towards flexible workplaces with ‘trolleys[PH1] ’ is on the decline. Some studies have found that the workplace is also a place of wellbeing. We have turned the office into a second home, with photos of our children and other sentimental objects. What will this mean for employers and workplaces in the future?

The fact is that we no longer have just one workplace. If our office is cosy, it will feel more like home. The only time we come together is if we need to discuss something. That’s why it’s important to have good meeting areas and common rooms in offices. We no longer work in just one location. Core functions such as accounting are still performed in physical offices, so there is sure to be a picture or two adorning the desks in those departments. People who sometimes work from home and sometimes on the client’s premises don’t need a cosy workplace but, instead, somewhere very functional and isolated where they can work in peace.

Large IT companies such as Google provide their staff with everything they need to feel relaxed at work, be it gyms, common rooms with comfy couches, kitchens, or massages. Is this more than just a trend?

These types of workplaces are unique to large corporations and are usually located in trophy buildings. The companies are sending out a status message with their head office and nurturing a very particular corporate culture. It’s not realistic for companies to create comfort zones just for the sake of it. What Google and some other (mostly American) IT firms are offering will not become the norm. After all, the top software developers, who these companies are primarily targeting, can also work from anywhere. The question is: what kind of work will still be performed centrally? The world is extremely fast-moving. People and work are changing all the time, and this will determine what the working environments of the future will look like.

What other qualities apart from flexibility and agility will employees need in the future?

Not everyone is the same. We will see a polarisation. The new and powerful tools that digitisation is giving rise to, the trend towards greater freedom, and a diminishing attachment to fixed structures will increasingly call for the ability to think entrepreneurially, combine things well and, in particular, manage oneself. These skills must be honed and become more common in the future.

How are young people supposed to acquire these skills if they are spending all of their time on social media, playing computer games, and chatting on their phones? Are Generations Y and Z even employable?

It’s not that black and white. Modern technology is actually teaching them new skills: young people are learning how to collaborate and interact in networks. Many of the computer games that they play are a true reflection of reality, especially the strategy games, which have very little structure to them. It is precisely these games that are teaching them how to organise, collaborate, and involve others. Of course, there are also people who now rely solely on wisdom acquired online and hardly ever think for themselves any longer – after all, they have a fountain of knowledge at their fingertips and can obtain information and help at anytime from anywhere with a click of the mouse.

How will providers of service space and commercial space need to adapt their products to make them fit for the office of the future?

The offices of tomorrow will consist of multifunctional spaces that can be utilised together for different purposes. Companies are already offering innovative new products such as these. Space can now be rented on demand and combined with personalised services, kind of like an Airbnb for business premises.

Where do you see room for further innovation and change?

The next generation of construction materials is opening up previously undreamed of possibilities. It’s an exciting field and we haven’t even scratched the surface. The new types of materials are giving rise to new construction methods as well as new spatial qualities. They are also changing techniques and leading to more mobile concepts and skills. The quality of plastic and concrete is improving, allowing them to be used for different purposes. So a house made of plastic by a 3D printer will soon be reality rather than science fiction. Self-repairing concrete or intelligent 4D printers that can identify cracks in walls and automatically fix them are also a real possibility. The materials of tomorrow will clean and fix themselves, which in turn will affect maintenance requirements.