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4Ds and 4Ws Shaping the Workplace of The Future

We do live in interesting times. We are living through many crises at once: never-ending stream of news about COVID-19 infection spikes, decimated labor markets, deep economic recession, reversion of globalization, global movement for social justice just to name a few. We are now at an interesting moment in history where there is a widening gap between workers’ expectations and what workplaces provide. We’ve witnessed the demise of the notion of a lifetime career. The benefits, perks, and anything else that traditional employment used to provide are things of the past. We feel “replaceable.” (Rogers, K. 2018). The exciting thing is that we are witnessing the beginning of a new reality of work that, at the core, is fueled by the information revolution. 

Digital innovation breaks down physical and speed barriers; enable us to learn and do, see and touch, create and share in new ways. It is the world of free-flowing knowledge rather than information dispensed by central authorities. But with the ability of technology now to generate “deep-fakes”, it is getting even more difficult to know the “truth” (Lazer, D. et al, 2018). A consequence of the digital revolution is that current work models are crumbling, the puzzle of work is being decomposed and reassembled in new ways, the organization of tomorrow looks a lot more fluid, and the workers of tomorrow are a lot more independent and empowered. 

Disruptions impacting the workplace described in 4Ds: demographics, digitization, datafication, disintermediation

Dramatic shifts are influencing the world of work and are impacting corporations, non-profit institutions, governmental agencies, and independent agents alike. These shifts are changing the dynamics between work requesters, workers, and the workplace. They can be grouped in the following framework - 4Ds - and specifically: 

  • Demographic shifts that include a multi-generational workforce (Catalyst, 2019); growth in global/local/social/job mobility (Fouberg, E. H. et al, 2019); more women entering the workforce (Catalyst, 2020), diversity in sexual orientation/identity, backgrounds, and thoughts (Reiners, B. 2020). This requires rethinking of the workplace practices and value proposition to ensure an inclusive, productive and innovative workplace that embraces the diversity of thoughts and backgrounds, and creates products and offerings that are accessible to everyone. More importantly, organizations are forced to rethink the sources of talent in light of shortages of qualified talent and the changing preferences of the modern workforce. (YEC, 2020)

  • Digitization including intelligent automation, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. “Digital” forces organizations to rethink their business model, decision making, and communications flows. It requires a very different mindset on how work gets designed such that it is more fluid and less constrained by the traditional (manufacturing) style of producing work-units. It opens up new opportunities and markets at the intersection of fields and industries and the persistent element in all of them is technology. (Accenture, 2020) 

  • Datafication of the interaction across and between humans, devices, sensors, bots, tools, etc. that is becoming increasingly sophisticated (Desjardins, J. 2019). The massive amounts of data allow us to see patterns, glean insights, and find the optimal solution. What’s unappreciated is how quickly these processes are evolving and the impact they have on the speed of decision-making. Along with many benefits, there are also risks associated with our pursuit of quantifying everything. To reap the benefits of an analytics-driven world, organizations must develop a different set of skills, rethink what gets measured and how, and set policies and control systems to bring common sense into the data deluge around us. (IDC, 2018)

  • Disintermediation, capturing the rise of independents, the gig economy, collaborative consumption, networked work, 3D printing, blockchain, cross-value chain companies, etc. (Nichol, P. B. 2016). Many technology-first organizations are rapidly disrupting the neatly organized adjacent industries. This doesn’t only change your product strategy but also the competitive landscape you have to consider. It brings a new complexity to the overarching principles of defining market share, value creation, and measurements of success. (S&P Global, 2020)

These shifts demand that corporations rely more on technology, data, and analytics to make decisions about their business, workforce, and workplace strategies. Corporations have to adapt their internal processes and management systems, have to change the communication and knowledge distribution flows to make sense of and influence human behaviors in the workplace, and have to identify opportunities for learning and development to maximize workforce performance. (Bailey, A. et al 2019) The same shifts are also forcing workers to rethink their digital personas and reputations, the management of their networks, and the development of their skills and credentials. As computers take on a bigger role in managing information and intelligence, the value creation will shift toward innate human traits that are difficult to automate and digitize, such as creativity, expressiveness, intuition, emotional intelligence, and storytelling. These traits will influence how we connect and work with others, how we relate to brands, and how we make choices and purchasing decisions. Business models, products, and offerings will become less about their quality and price and more about the language of emotions used to describe them. (Yen, H. Y. et al 2014).

We are witnessing a wholesale change in the way we work, think about work, as well as how we engage in our wider personal life. Digital identity and reputation will form the basis for a new system to describe the value and worth of actors in the future world of work. Workers’ digital imprints will enable them to carry their work and knowledge portfolios, profiles, networks, and expertise from one job, project, or experience to the next. Managing digital identities of corporations and institutions will be just as important, since these will determine attraction factors for workers, who will not only consider the monetary value of the relationship, but also the value the corporate brand will add to their own reputations. (Greyser, S. A., & Urde, M. 2019)

4Ws - a way to reframe how we deal with disruptions

The current work model is tumbling down and being reassembled in a new way. The emerging world of work has four core components that the authors dub the “four Ws”:

  • Work that is being decomposed (often by sophisticated analytical algorithms) into smallest units—work blocks—in a way that can then be distributed to one or multiple combinations of workforce types through one or multiple channels.

  • Worker with a digital identity that contains information about their capabilities, experiences, accomplishments, credentials, network connections, and communities. This digital identity paints a picture of who we are that might have value in the eye of employers. 

  • Workplace that is becoming more like a digital grid, where workers can “plug-in” their skills whenever there is opportunity or interest to use them and gain access to tools and services/offerings. Instead of companies managing a huge infrastructure and overhead, organizational entities may shrink. The focus becomes the orchestration of complexity vs owning resources/relationships/space.

  • Worth of the transaction that takes place and the associated perceived value that changes “hands” in the context of doing the work. That value can be ascribed to skills, outcomes, relationships and influence level, intellectual property, and reputation of parties involved in the transaction. The attribution of worth enables the matching of work units to the most optimal workers’ mix.

The ever-evolving present requires a significant amount of change at both individual and company levels. Although there is resistance to change, humans are often quite quick in adapting to changing environments. Change also impacts the organizational ability to rethink the work environment. (Rauch, E. et al 2020) After all, leaders are humans too, and they have their own barriers for change. This might hinder their ability to make dramatically different decisions on behalf of the company on adapting to stay current and survive in the long term.

The role of HR in this new future

The traditional roles primarily played by HR within corporate boundaries will have to shift to adapt to this new order and to the complexity of the relationships between work, the workplace, workers, and worth elements. Such complexities will at first include organizational ability to manage the contractual aspects of employment, as well as to manage the considerable challenge of cross-cultural integration (Wilkie, D. 2020). Organizations will also have to rethink their approach to employee experience and evolving systems of workplace motivators (Lupushor et al 2020), to align with changes due to role enrichment and worker independence. Furthermore, organizations will be required to reassess their approach to leadership and skills development, to the management of workplace diversity, and rethink performance management and recognition in this context. Over time, these complexities will be addressed by using a variety of applications, platforms, and service providers. 

As many of the involved processes and tasks will be automated, space will be created for the role of HR to shift to three key areas: 

  • Workforce relationship management: including the orchestration of the relationships an organization has with its workforce versus being a mere administrator of processes and managing employment risks on behalf of the company; HR can adopt techniques and methods from marketing and customer relationship management on how to build and manage relationships with its workforce by treating them as past, current and future customers, how to build the employment brand image such that it appeals to and attracts the candidates with the best cultural fit and critical skills, and how to build a better understanding of its workforce through sophisticated analytics. By employing such methods, HR will have the opportunity to create the stories necessary to match the emotional connections of workers with the organizational brand 

  • Workplace experience: which entails using human-centered design principles to design the workplace and shape the experience of the workers across both the physical and digital realms. This requires examining the interactions and touchpoints along the entire employment journey from being a prospect, candidate, new hire, all the way till the worker leaves and beyond. The goal is to minimize the hassles/barriers to performance, and to maximize the performance and outcomes, and to amplify the drivers of creativity and general wellbeing. 

  • Humanizing force: being the guardian of common sense, the shaper of corporate consciousness with the responsibility to humanize the workplace and prevent inequity, bias, and extremism. With developments in AI penetrating mainstream awareness thanks to the salience of white-collar job loss (e.g., Dunkley, 2016), HR can shape the changing attitudes to AI and machine-assisted work through the monitoring of whether the introduction of AI – and indeed other technology-related changes in work processes – enhances flow, creative self-efficacy, and gratification, or produces harmful outcomes. 

At the human level, our intrinsic needs for self-actualization, love and belonging, and respect and dignity will remain constant . The digital world will change the vehicles through which we develop and express ourselves, how we connect with others, and how we define and attain our purposes. The organizations that build their models to work in harmony with these intrinsic needs of their workforce will have a chance to survive in the long term. HR has the opportunity to create and evolve these models. 


Many questions arise in relation to this future, to the opportunities to use the advancements in the fields of data, analytics, and neuroscience to better understand human behavioral patterns and ways to influence them. What is the impact of such opportunities on individual privacy and the ethics and morality of data use and analytics? How to balance wealth-building with solving weighty societal issues, and defining the steps governments must take in order to balance the needs of the global business environment and changes in domestic policies to stay competitive and con- tinue to provide social protections to their citizens? What will be the impact on taxation? What will constitute crime in this increasingly digital world and how will security and protection of digital assets be ensured? How will organizations need to be structured, how should workflow be designed, and what is the notion of leadership and decision-making in the new era? 

There are also specific psychological issues to consider. In light of the recent COVID19 pandemic driving everyone to work from home (WFH), we can anticipate a cultural shift and broader acceptance of remote work. What will an epoch of mass remote work look like? If these trends follow through, it may be common to live in households composed of remote workers, with implications for home and work life. How much will we be inclined to invest in the daily rapport with our virtual team mates when we have good friends or family right there, in our kitchen? How is remote working experienced by those who to date have not gravitated to roles where this is the norm, and how far can technology vanquish alienation? 

Should the office become a thing of the past for everyone? Furthermore, how will these concerns align with cohort effects, given that the newest generational cohort, enact more of their personal relationships online. Are they content for this to extend to the workplace, or is the face-to-face office an important buffer against the loss of physical human contact? 

The impact of such disruptions on the psychological wellbeing of individuals is not fully understood and will require much research in the years to come. One thing is clear – data and technology have a lot of power and with power comes great responsibility. It is the responsibility of all of us to innovate, design, build, and regulate in a way that minimizes the negatives and amplifies the positives of such an environment. 

Be the creator of interesting times! And do no harm!


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