This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘The future of work: predictions for 2023’

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to this special episode of Working It, where we’ll be discussing the future of work in 2023 and the trends to look out for.

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Isabel Berwick
It’s a roundtable discussion, and I’m joined by my FT colleagues Taylor Nicole Rogers and Sophia Smith in New York. Taylor is the US labour and employment correspondent and Sophia edits the Working It newsletter. So this is a discussion and we’ll be weaving in some of the predictions from our Working It regulars. But like the future, this could go anywhere. So Taylor and Sophia, welcome.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Thanks for having us.

Isabel Berwick
I want first to cast our minds back to 2022. That’s been the year when hybrid work really took off in a lot of office-based workplaces. Number one, because the pandemic eased and more of us have been able to go into work. And number two, because the autonomy we gained during the pandemic is not going away anytime soon. Many people want to stay at home for half the week or more. So looking ahead now, Taylor, I’m being asked a lot. Is the switch to hybrid and flexible working going to be reversed by the recession and hard economic times? What are you hearing from your reporting?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I don’t think that workers are going to be eager to give up the patterns that they’ve established over the past couple of years when it comes to working remotely and working hybrid. But I would say an important caveat to that is that the bosses might be ready to switch things up. I think it’s important to remember that the reason we were able to develop a remote work pattern was not just because of the pandemic, but because we’re in a very tight labour market and we’re experiencing a global labour shortage. So bosses have been more willing than they would have been five, 10 years ago, to make allowances to keep employees happy, knowing that employees can just quit and go somewhere else if there is a remote work policy that they’re not happy with. But if we get into a scenario where employers are laying off people en masse, kind of like we’ve seen in tech and in media, I wouldn’t be surprised if more and more chief executives started to say, “You know what, you’re lucky to have a job. There’s nowhere else you can go if I make a decision you don’t like. So now we’re gonna do things my way”. We’ve already started to see some of that in Silicon Valley.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I think people are gonna start to double down on coming into the office. That’s really interesting. So we’ve gone first with my obsession on how hybrid is going to develop. So Sophia, what’s your number one prediction for listeners on how work and workplaces might change?

Sophia Smith
I think obviously the big trend that we saw this year was around quiet quitting, the loss of ambition, people are really scaling back on the grind and the hustle. However, I don’t necessarily think that that sort of workaholism hustle is going to come back in the same form. But as we’re seeing, you know, entering into a possible recession and lots of lay-offs, I do think that people are going to be taking stock of what their relationship is with their boss. You know, how visible are they within their company? Just making sure that they are known as someone who is a really effective worker.

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Isabel Berwick
Taylor, do you think that how we think about work has profoundly shifted? We’ve talked about this before in the context of the great resignation and people not putting up with crap from their employer anymore. Do you think that is just not going away?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Absolutely. I think that’s here to stay. And I think we’re in for an interesting moment of tension as employers get to this point where they start to see workers as a little bit more replaceable, a little bit more disposable than they have in the past two years. But at the same time, employees are like, wait a second, I deserve to be treated like a human being. I’m essential, remember? That’s one thing I’ve heard over and over and over again, as I’ve covered different labour issues, is you told me two years ago I am essential. Am I not still essential? Like what happened?

Isabel Berwick
And I wanted to ask, you know, you’re both millennial workers in New York. You’re at the absolute epicentre of cutting-edge workplace trends. What are you seeing among your peers? Are your friends quitting? Have they got side hustles? Are they climbing the corporate ladder in a traditional way? What’s going on?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I’m seeing a lot of people kind of borrowing down in their jobs, trying to create some stability for themselves because at least myself and my friends are at an age where we’re trying to maybe not settle down in the like marriage and family sense, but we’re trying to feel more established in the lives that we’ve built. But I also have several friends who are job hunting and who are looking to change jobs, who are looking to get the jobs that they deserve based on their experience. A lot of people are still really, really fed up with the conditions that they’re in, in regards to pay and to hours, especially those in the entertainment industry, which, you know, is huge in New York. So I think a lot of people are still trying to have their great resignation moment. And, you know, I wish them all the best, obviously, but I think that is going to become tougher and tougher, or at least I’m hearing from my friends who have a propensity to switch jobs frequently, that it’s getting tougher and tougher to land those interviews, get solid offers. I’m hearing a lot of people saying, “I interviewed for this job and then they pulled the position halfway through”. So I think it, we’re definitely coming on to tough times and people are preparing in whatever way they can.

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Isabel Berwick
Just to get back to the nitty gritty of work. Sophia, I’ve seen people saying that we’ve made a decade’s worth of advance in terms of tech and corporate culture in the past couple of years, while many of us were at home. What do you think’s gonna advance in terms of workplace tech? What’s on the horizon? Will it help us or will it spy on us?

Sophia Smith
I think potentially both in terms of the spy tech that employers could potentially be utilising. I know Zoom this year has been working on technology for gesture recognition. So say you’re in a Zoom call, you could raise your hand and it would then add you to the queue for people to be called on in the conference call. And they’re also working on facial expression recognition, which could potentially have implications for who is engaged with this meeting, who’s multitasking in this meeting. So those are very real possibilities. The technology is there for employers to really start having more purview into those aspects of how you’re working remotely.

Isabel Berwick
So hang on. They’ll be able to tell if you’re looking at your phone during the meeting?

Sophia Smith
Potentially, yes.

Isabel Berwick
Oh! (Laughter)

Sophia Smith
So they’re working on facial expression recognition. So as you’re on camera, it might be able to detect your eye movement. It could potentially recognise if your facial expression reads as bored or interested or confused. And so that could potentially generate a lot of very interesting data for employers about who is doing what on video calls. But in terms of tech, that could help or potentially hurt us. There’s been a lot of talk in the tech world about generative AI. You might have seen recently a lot of people are posting these generative AI selfies from an app called Lensa, but it’s also happening in text. A lot of people will post on Twitter, you know, “Oh, I fed this artificial intelligence, a bunch of scripts, movie scripts, and I asked it to write a scene of some ridiculous scenario”. But that could also potentially help us. If you wanted to work with an AI to develop your next podcast script, maybe it could generate some ideas for you, and then you could go in and sort of tailor it yourselves. However, if your employer is thinking, “Oh, we can just use an AI to replace all these workers”, then that is less helpful.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I would love a bit of AI to help me with my scripts, but there we go.

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Isabel Berwick
So, Taylor, I wanted to bring it back to the human. I think what we did learn in the pandemic was the importance of connection and psychological need, which I think is something that has really been overlooked in a lot of workplaces until now. Do you think that companies are gonna be thinking more about human needs in 2023, or do you think that the reality of recession is going to be a cold, hard stop to all of that touchy-feely stuff?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I mean, listen, Isabel, I’m an economics person, so I do think that we’re gonna see quite a bit of reversals. That’s just my prediction. I mean, trust me, I hope that I’m wrong, but I’ve already started to see lay-offs in targeting, recruiting, targeting human resources, targeting all sorts of people functions, including diversity and inclusion. And that just leads me to believe that companies are making choices. And when it comes down to it, they’re deciding they need to finance people more than they need the people-people. And we all know how that’s gonna work out for the rank and file.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I’m pretty pessimistic too. I think they’ve made so much noise about their wellbeing programmes and DEI programmes. And I think you’re right, these things could be cut and I really hope they’re not. And I think it could be counterproductive in the medium to long term. And I wanted to ask you both what your outlier thoughts on trends.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I’m not sure this is too out there anymore, but I have heard a lot of people continuing to talk about remote work, nomad life. And so I think, we could see a little bit of a resurgence of that this year. I remember in the summer when everyone was doing their first European vacation since the pandemic, a lot of people came back and said, “I want to do that for three months next summer”. And I think, we’re potentially going to see that on a grander scale. And the reason my outlier predictor is so mild, you could say, is just because, once again, I think a lot of employers are not gonna want to spend too much money on employees when they’re just gonna lay off half of them off anyway. But, we’ll see.

Isabel Berwick
Good point, Taylor. Sophia, what’s your outlier prediction?

Sophia Smith
Well, I don’t know how widespread this would be, but I think it’ll be interesting as we see more places experimenting with the four-day workweek. We’ve also seen the rise of the side hustle. If we are entering into a recession, that historically can be a time of opportunity for a lot of entrepreneurially-minded people.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah. When you touched there on the four-day week, I tell you, we’ve gone really big on the four-day week here at the Financial Times, because there’s been a big experiment in the UK where 70 companies have been trialling a four-day week for six months. And, it’s had really positive results. But we don’t hear much about the four-day week in the States. Is it something that is taking off, though? I know there’s a lot of interest in it. But, do you think because of the recession, this might not be the year for it?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Yeah, I don’t think this is the year for it. I think you’re totally right. I think the US is behind the UK on this one, for sure. I don’t think we’ve, at least I haven’t seen, the type of large-scale studies done here, comparable to the one that’s running in the UK. And it seems like a lot of employers just think that it’s completely out there and we would never even consider it. Maybe it’s the stereotypical American workaholic culture thing that we have going on, but I don’t see it taking off year, maybe 2024.

Isabel Berwick
I agree, Taylor. I think you’re right.

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Isabel Berwick
I wanted to pick up on the last trend of 2022. It’s just coming into view now. And I wondered, has the great resignation turned into the great cushioning? You know, career cushioning is this latest trend. And Sophia, could you explain what it is and why it’s apt for this moment?

Sophia Smith
Career cushioning is a term, I think, that’s sort of borrowed from romantic relationships, where you’re in your long term post, but you’re maybe looking around for what’s next and you’re using the stability of your current situation to have a low stakes exploration, and moment of preparing for a shift into a new opportunity. It’s funny that this is coming up. Taylor and I actually were just discussing a related trend last week of “job cuffing”, which is also a term borrowed from romantic relationships, where in the wintertime you sort of hunker down and you have your current prospects and you sort of ride that out for the season, and then you wait until springtime when there’s more activity, and then you can go out and find your next conquest, so to speak.

Isabel Berwick
I love the way that this romantic life is shifting into work so we could have a “tinder” for jobs thing. So, I wanted to sort of round off by talking about leadership and management particularly, because they’ve undergone a big shift in recent years. Lots of leaders want to be seen as listening and empathetic, which was a big thing in the pandemic. I think I know what you’re gonna say, Taylor, but do you think a recession is gonna bring back the autocrats?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Maybe yes, maybe no. I mean, the reason I have pause about just saying like, yes, everyone’s gonna make a power grab in 2023 is because I think we’ve also had a big cultural shift, where people are understanding that certain things are not OK in the workplace. That might have been OK five, 10 years ago. We’re starting to, you learn how to treat each other well. I think people are losing tolerance for harassment and bullying, which I think is fantastic. And so, some of those activities will say that really narcissistic autocratic bosses use will not be tolerated in the same way that they once were. And that might bring more humble, charismatic people to the top of our companies. We’ll see.

Isabel Berwick
Sophia, what are people filling your inbox with in terms of leadership trends?

Sophia Smith
A lot around DEI. But the newer one that is just as big, if not bigger, is ESG: Environmental, Social, Governance. It’s about, how can we bring our business into good social standing in terms of being net zero with our carbon emissions? How can we be a greener, more sustainable business, not only for the planet, but also to be attractive to potential candidates, because people want to work for socially minded companies?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I just wanted to add that, there are also a lot of American conservatives who really, really are pushing back on the idea of ESG as well. And so I think, as much as there are, are young people who are looking at a company’s ESG metrics to decide, “do I wanna work here?” — there are also a lot of conservatives who are pulling their money out of corporations, whether it be they’re pulling their pension funds out of investors and out of fund managers that are prioritising ESG, because they have ties to coal or they have ties to oil and gas, etc, etc. And they want those industries to be protected. So I think ESG is definitely this flash point where for some people it’s really attractive and for some people it is a reason to walk away. And so I think, Sophia is absolutely right. We’re definitely going to be talking about ESG more and more and more, but not always as a draw for people.

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Isabel Berwick
It’s pretty hard to sum up a year that hasn’t happened yet in a few words, but for me, I think the looming recession and economic hardship that Taylor alluded to there and she sees all the time in her reporting — that’s going to overshadow everything. It may end this kind of job hopping and you know, real power to the staff that has been a real feature of the last few years. But I think, this career cushioning idea that you’re in a job but perhaps looking for the next thing, that you’re building your personal brand — the growth of the personal over the corporate, I think, is what I see is likely to be the biggest thing happening. You can prove me wrong at the end of the year, but I think 2023 is gonna be a really interesting, pivotal year for workplace culture.

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Isabel Berwick
With many thanks to Taylor Nicole Rogers and Sophia Smith for this episode. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you. We’re at workingit@ft.com or I’m @isabelberwick on Twitter. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our Working It newsletter. We’ve got behind-the-scenes extras from the podcast and original reporting you won’t find anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer Flo de Schlichting and executive producer Jo Wheeler. With production support from Amalie Sortland and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT, we have editorial direction from Manuela Saragosa. Thanks for listening.

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