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Contemplating the Future of Work When There May Be No Workplace at All

Government office space and workforce development initiatives will look a lot different in a post-pandemic world.

empty office space
There was a time when the workplace of the future seemed like a far-off fantasy. Legions of office workers would one day be replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. Employees would communicate by video link and gather in virtual meetings. Anyone could work from anywhere. With remote workers scattered across the country, companies — and even government agencies — wouldn’t need all those conference rooms and cubicles. Maybe they wouldn’t need buildings at all.

A year ago, that was science fiction. Today, it’s fact. The coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of society, with an indelible impact on everything from how we eat to how we learn to how we move throughout a city. But when it comes to how we work, the virus didn’t really usher in unpredictable changes. It merely accelerated trends that already existed.

“What we’ve seen in the labor market shifts and what we’ve planned for to happen in 10 years has really happened overnight due to COVID,” Ling Becker, director of Ramsey County, Minnesota’s Workforce Solutions department, said during a call with other county officials earlier this year.

This is what crises sometimes do. They take what’s already happening and amplify it. The Great Recession didn’t cause income inequality or the urban/rural divide. But those trends were intensified as cities recovered from the downturn faster and more successfully than rural communities. Indeed, according to a 2019 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, in the decade following the recession, 25 urban centers (with less than a third of the American population) accounted for two-thirds of all new jobs in the country.

The pandemic is applying similar pressure that threatens to widen this economic gap. That’s particularly true when it comes to certain jobs that will be rendered obsolete by AI and automation. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs are in occupational categories that could shrink between now and 2030, according to McKinsey, and more workers in rural areas are expected to lose out to automation. Highly educated workers are much more likely to have a job that adapts along with automation compared with lower-income workers who don’t hold a college degree.

These trends are now being hastened. In the course of just a few months this year, tens of millions of Americans found themselves out of work. For many in the service sector, their jobs are not coming back. The inequality gap instantly widened between the tech-savvy, college-degree-holding knowledge workers and lower-income, hourly service workers.

Underlying trends toward AI have accelerated as well. This summer, when government agencies were overwhelmed by unemployment filings and requests for other human services benefits, they didn’t all hire new employees to handle the surge. They used robots: Three-quarters of states implemented new chatbots between March and June. Countless cities and counties did, too.

As the future of work quickly becomes the present, governments are impacted in a number of ways. On the one hand, states and cities want to help create and sustain good local jobs for the workforce of the future. Smart economic development means working with educational institutions and private companies to ensure a pipeline of next-generation workers with the right skills to meet future demand. Governments also play a role in retraining people who have lost their jobs to automation, equipping them with new capabilities for new work.

But government agencies are also employers. They recruit new hires and provide them with computers and phones and other equipment they need to do their jobs. Governments own high-rise buildings downtown and fill office parks in the suburbs. They buy printers and paperclips and coffee creamer and Ficus trees. As the office of the future evolves — or even disappears — what will the public-sector workplace look like?

Think[box] at Case Western Reserve University is indiative of how higher education institutions are evolving to meet new workforce needs. / Credit: Russell Lee, CWRU

LOCATED IN THE HEART of Cleveland, Ohio, Case Western Reserve University’s think[box] is a seven-story, 50,000-square-foot tinkerer’s playground. It’s an open-access makerspace where students, artists, faculty, local residents and the business community mingle and collaborate on ideas and inventions — and have the tools like 3D printers and milling machines to turn them into reality. Recent creations include a pediatric pulse oximeter for use in developing nations and a hypodermic needle incinerator for health-care centers in rural Uganda. Part of the goal is to give students not just simulated real-world experience, but actual experience working in an innovation ecosystem that represents the future workplace, said think[box] director James McGuffin-Cawley.

“The people who work in think[box] learn a lot they wouldn’t otherwise learn in a college classroom,” he said. “How do you work with a customer? How do you identify what tools you need to achieve your goal? How do you work with someone and assess what they want to do versus what is practical?”

Think[box], which first opened in 2012 and has played a role in spawning nearly 100 startups, is an especially successful enterprise. But it’s indicative of how educational institutions are evolving to meet changing needs. The workforce of the future prizes practical training and skills that will directly translate into a reliable income and prove adaptable to changing technology. The role of higher education, said Ann Forman Lippens of the education consulting firm EAB, is to make that happen.

“The amenities arms race of the last few years is largely over,” Lippens said. “Students are not necessarily going to be drawn to a lazy river or rock climbing wall, and they’re also less interested in the debt that’s associated with that. So schools need to be thinking about what are the ways in which we can use our facilities and classrooms to both facilitate learning and also interactions with each other.”

For four-year universities, that means the campus of the future will include makerspaces like think[box] that break down silos between academic departments and even institutions. (Case engineering students frequently collaborate with students at the Cleveland Institute of Art, for example.) Integrating campus resources into the community is one way that universities will blur town-and-gown lines in the coming years. For local officials, such developments are an opportunity to bring life into underserved areas and further economic development and workforce goals.

For community and technical colleges, the future means leaning in to what they do best: providing practical skills training and cultivating programs for lifelong learners. Instead of focusing only on the jobs that exist now, however, training must also anticipate jobs yet to come.

Automation poses the biggest threat to middle-skills jobs — paralegals, office clerks, lab technicians and scores of other jobs that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. While some of those workers will be able to transition easily into similar positions, 41 percent of them will have little to no chance of finding a new job unless they learn new skills, according to a 2018 report from the World Economic Forum and the Boston Consulting Group. Community colleges can take the lead as training grounds for jobs of the future in direct collaboration with local employers.

Some already are. Motlow State Community College in Tennessee, for example, is a modest system of schools serving 5,000 students at four campuses scattered across the middle part of the state. In 2015, the college received a $5.5 million state grant to build a cutting-edge Automation and Robotics Training Center at its campus in the town of McMinnville, to train students for new jobs in manufacturing and design. Last year, the school became home to Zurich-based ABB Robotics’ sixth U.S. affiliate training facility. ABB is a global company with $7 billion worth of business in North America alone. The Motlow partnership provides a pipeline of qualified workers — and helps Tennessee develop a future-ready workforce. “This is the wave of the future,” state Sen. Janice Bowling said at the program’s launch in 2019. “In a few short years, [from] hamburger places to taco places to hotels and motels, they are going to be replacing people, whether we like it or not. So we have a responsibility now to make certain we are educating our young people.”

Students who complete the program earn comprehensive qualification as an ABB customer-certified robot professional — a valuable market skill. Businesses can also contract to have robotics training classes given to their employees at Motlow. For its part, ABB trains and certifies Motlow instructors to teach the robotics classes, and it provides all the required professor certification, curriculum materials and ongoing support. In addition to the ABB program, the Motlow center offers automation and robotics training for undergrads in need of college credit as well as mid-career job seekers looking to upskill.

Liberal arts educations aren’t going away, but an increasing number of institutions a decade from now will be redesigned as collaboration hubs and learning centers working in conjunction with their surrounding economies. “I’m not sure every university is going to need to become a workforce development-focused university,” said Lippens. “But I absolutely agree a number will succeed because they will make that link to preparing for future roles.”

But for governments, there’s work to be done in collaborating around shared goals. In many cases, workforce development is a threeway union of state officials, education institutions and private companies; local government officials are often working separately to woo companies to promote regional economic growth. The ABB program at Motlow, for example, was a collaboration between the state of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents, regional business leaders and the college itself. But the local McMinnville-Warren County Industrial Development Board, which promotes the county as a low-cost manufacturing region home to Bridgestone-Firestone and Yorozu Automotive plants, makes no mention of Motlow’s robotics program in its online marketing.

Both state and local officials are responsible for bridging that gap, said William Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. The ideal system, he said, would be something along the lines of Major League Baseball’s farm system. State workforce commissions should include local officials in the creation of programs in their backyard so that localities can play a part in cultivating homegrown talent. Local officials, meanwhile, need to recognize that their players won’t always stick around for their entire career.

“Cities have to realize that jobs come and go,” Fulton said. “The economic development process is different now. There are going to be fewer production-level jobs, and there will be more job churn.”

Tax incentives can help land new companies and manufacturers, Fulton said, but the key to keeping them is providing a dependable pipeline of local workers. “The big selling point will be how far they’ll have to look for talent,” he said. “You have to make sure your workforce is there.”


AS GOVERNMENTS reimagine the future of education and training, they’re also re-evaluating the future of the office itself.

“Looking at 2030 we’re going to see some pretty radical changes that will have been accelerated by COVID-19,” said William Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights. “We’ll see a lot more virtual agencies and virtual work,” he said. “We’ll have hubs of government workers located across the country that are arranged around a services standpoint like births or finding a job. We’ll finally get to the point where it won’t be necessary for citizens to understand who does what in terms of agencies. It’ll be seamless.”

AI will enable governments to automate certain workflows and processes while making better use of employees for higher-level decision-making. Deloitte estimates that employing AI technology in the government space could free up as many as 1.2 billion working hours every year, for a potential savings of $41.1 billion. For employees, that means focusing less on paperwork and more on service delivery. The traditional social worker will become an eligibility coach who supports residents by working with them to address the root causes of what brought them into the social safety net. Child aid coordinators will use supporting technology to provide background and contextual information and to compare notes with other caseworkers from different agencies who also support their clients. Analytics will help them make faster, more effective decisions. Instead of assigning cases arbitrarily, case management systems will match clients with coordinators based on the latter’s expertise and area of specialization. Kids can feel well-served by agencies and people who know and remember them, and coordinators can avoid burnout with wellness management tools that optimize workloads and encourage work/life balance.

If the pandemic has shown anything about the future of work, it’s that employees do not need to share an office to share ideas and get things done.

Before the virus, most government organizations were wary of allowing employees to work remotely. Even those agencies that had telework policies in place likely only let people work from home one or two days a week, on a pre-approved basis. (Private-sector companies generally were more tolerant, but only to a point. IBM, for instance, which was once at the forefront of liberal remote-work policies, actually pared its program down in 2017 to bring more employees back into the office, with the goal of encouraging collaboration.)

The notion that physical proximity begets creativity is a mistake, said Rebecca Ryan, an author and futurist who works with governments on long-range planning.

“It’s lazy to think that innovation requires collaboration; collaboration means being in the same room; and therefore innovation requires an office,” she said. Forced togetherness can even serve as a distraction from doing deep work. “When we’re together in the same space, it’s too easy for me to interrupt you. And interruptions are expensive: It takes seven to 14 minutes to refocus and get back into the flow of what you had been doing.”

That’s not to say we’ll all be telecommuting all the time. Even employees who are predominantly remote may want to come into the office on occasion. Expect to see flexible meeting spaces and coworking centers — and cohabitation facilities — become more commonplace. These spaces won’t just offer hot desks and shared conference rooms. They’ll also play a more active role of community networker and innovation incubator.

Such facilities have already been popping up in different places in recent years. In Bennington, Vt., for example, the Lightning Jar is a public-private-nonprofit venture that brings together entrepreneurs and city employees. “The founders here saw a need for a place where people could collaborate and inspire and exchange ideas,” said former director Joelle Greenland. “Our goal is to be a place where anybody can connect to other businesses, schools, community colleges.” For instance, the nonprofit has partnered with the Community College of Vermont-Bennington to provide classes for budding local entrepreneurs on how to start their own business.

Indeed, Vermont is at the vanguard when it comes to promoting remote work and its coworking and makerspaces. The state Legislature in 2018 invested in a remote worker recruiting program that includes money to help offset the cost of moving to Vermont as well as grants for coworking spaces in towns across the state. The state’s tourism board has been aggressive in marketing the notion that you can live in Vermont and work anywhere in the world. In addition to the grants and recruitment funds, the board also produces tools for entrepreneurs, including a detailed starter guide to coworking in Vermont. It’s an approach that could serve as a model for other states in the coming decade, particularly in older regions where the working-age population is stagnating.

As employers are learning, collaboration doesn’t come from having everybody under one roof. It comes from uniting a thoughtfully assembled team around common goals and shared values.

That’s already gotten many governments eyeing the possibility of reducing their physical office footprint and potentially even hiring employees who might live several states away. That could be an especially enticing prospect in places with expensive real estate and a high cost of living.

“Governments are becoming more open to the possibility of more remote work and people working from other areas of the country,” Rivka Liss-Levinson, research director for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, told Government Technology in August. “We know that there are certain job functionalities within state government that are particularly difficult to fill for,” she said. “The possibility to recruit from outside the immediate area could help with that.”

Consider Montgomery County, Md., a pricey suburb just outside Washington, D.C., where local government must compete with federal agencies, defense contractors and corporate headquarters to recruit and retain talent. Remote work could allow the county to hire new employees from anywhere, including parts of the country where Montgomery County’s salary levels would be more competitive.

“Earlier this year, if I said we’d have everybody telework full-time for three months, I would have been laughed out the door,” said county human resources director Berke Attila. But now, he said, the idea of hiring “someone from Colorado to telework for Montgomery County” is a real possibility. “That’s what we’re trying to get to at some point.”

This story appeared in a special Future Ready sponsored issue of Government Technology. It was prepared by the Government Technology Content Studio, which is editorially independent of both the sponsor and the Government Technology editorial staff, who were not involved in producing the issue.