The future of work

Ready or not, the future of work is already here. For those who make the world of work their business, there’s reason for both optimism and concern.

Ready or not, the future of work is already here. For those who make the world of work their business, there’s reason for both optimism and concern.

When the Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrew – a senior leader with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative – answers her phone, the subject of the interview, the future of work, is put on hold. She’s looking out toward the Mackenzie Mountains, which loom to the west of her home in Norman Wells (traditional name Tlegohli), Northwest Territories. “My husband is up there in a helicopter,” she says, “counting caribou.”

Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor on the future of work at Deloitte, takes advantage of the spring weather to go for a walk. She answers questions about future trends to the soundtrack of footsteps, of dogs barking, of a bicycle bell.

Riz Ibrahim, executive director of CERIC (formerly the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling), pops onto the screen and apologizes for his unruly hair – the result of Ontario’s lockdown. The interviewer, a Canadian living abroad, turns her laptop to show him the view – a blue swath of Atlantic, the green hills of Galicia.

The pandemic has afforded us a taste of a new world of work – tech-driven and virtual with a touch of the personal – where such scenarios have become the everyday. “It’s not just an academic conversation anymore,” Ibrahim says. “The fact that I’m having this conversation with you is living proof.”

But while we may have entered into “this frontier of the boundary-less, the portable career,” Ibrahim says, he fears such innovations will not be shared equally. “We need to walk lockstep,” he says, “with that potential, or that promise. We need to get ourselves there.”

Ready or not, the future of work is already here. For those who make the world of work their business, there’s reason for both optimism and concern. CERIC dedicated this year’s conference, Cannexus21, which they hosted with the support of The Counselling Foundation of Canada, to issues surrounding the future of work. For the first time in its 15-year history, the conference went virtual, welcoming more than 2,000 attendees – from Glasgow to Regina to Beirut – to create a conversation about a future that’s as much about technological trends as creating a more equitable world.

“COVID has clearly been a time machine to the future,” Hirji says in the conference’s opening keynote, “Building a Future of Work That Works for All,” citing companies whose five-year plans rolled out in five months. She describes a future of inclusive prosperity, shaped by three drivers of change: technology, demographics, societal expectations. Top trends revolve around reskilling and upskilling workers, welcoming a multigenerational and racially and culturally diverse workforce, and recognizing soft skills – or what Hirji prefers to call “power skills.”

We have an opportunity, she says, “to turn this moment into a movement.”

We have an opportunity to turn this moment into a movement.

Zabeen Hirji

This moment is looking pretty bleak. A recent Toronto Star analysis found the pandemic has cost Canada $1.5 billion a day – “a price tag higher than the Second World War.” One and a half million Canadians are currently out of work. Last year, GDP decreased by 8.3%. Economist Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, describes this situation as “an unprecedented economic catastrophe.”

There’s another side to the future-of-work conversation, according to Stanford, one that’s “far less sexy, less shiny, and exciting.” The latest research shows that work has become more menial, low-paid, low-tech, insecure, and “grittier” in recent years. If anything, it’s “back to the future,” he says, referring to the iconic time-traveller film of the 1980s. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, focusing a “laser beam on the people who could least afford it.”

In 10 Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic Must Change Work for Good, Stanford predicts recovery will take years and must focus on the quality of work as much as the quantity. “Reforming work is not just a moral imperative: something we desire, because we would like a fairer and more inclusive labour market. It is also an economic necessity.”

Rebuilding will be an all-hands-on-deck effort. The non-profit sector – as both service provider and employer – will play a “vital role,” Stanford says. Human services industries are destined for major growth, but this shift is a “good news/bad news story,” he says. The good news? Non-profits will become more and more important. The bad news? It will be “a desperate fight” for resources “to do the job and do the job right.” This struggle, Stanford says, will require appropriate compensation, benefits, job security, training, and basic capital investment in equipment and tools.

Advocacy: Charity begins at home

Advocates are calling for more of a focus on the sector as employer as much as service provider. By all rights, the charitable and non-profit sector – which consists of more than 170,000 organizations, employs 2.5 million workers, and accounts for 12.8% of all jobs in Canada – should be a major player in conversations about the future of work. But, traditionally, the sector has been “overlooked,” says Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN): “I think government policy-makers and industry leaders often forget that non-profits are employers and that we play an important role in shaping workforces and working conditions.”

For the past decade, ONN has been promoting a “decent work” movement, encouraging Ontario’s more than 58,000 non-profit organizations to download the Decent Work Checklist or adopt its Decent Work Charter. So far, hundreds, including umbrella organizations such as East Scarborough Storefront, have signed on.

The movement acknowledges the elephant in the room: when it comes to the sector, charity doesn’t always begin at home. Change Work: Valuing Decent Work in the Not-for-Profit Sector notes that while many non-profit organizations focus on “providing employment services, alleviating poverty and promoting community health and well-being, little attention is paid to the sector’s role as an employer in promoting these same goals.”

The decent work movement has grown steadily, says Taylor, expanding beyond researching, advocating, and creating resources to mobilizing the sector to take action. One major takeaway has been learning that the future of decent work is female: “We can’t really build a decent work movement without women, because women are 80% of the sector’s workforce.”

With a focus on valuing soft skills, increasing training opportunities, and promoting equity and racial justice, the decent work movement aligns neatly with future-of-work trends. Taylor recognizes that to attract and retain the workers of the future, compensation and benefits are important but not enough. “I hear often that younger workers, especially those that identify as racialized, don’t want to work in our sector if we don’t prioritize decent work,” she says.

Catalyst for Change: A Roadmap to a Stronger Charitable Sector, a Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector report, identifies a “significant challenge” to recruit and retain staff of all ages for a host of reasons. Nearly 700 respondents complained of problems like a “subsistence existence” and high levels of staff burnout, even before the pandemic. Thirty-seven percent expressed concerns about recruiting next-generation workers. In a Youth and Philanthropy Initiative survey, Youth Perceptions of the Non-Profit Sector, 78% said they were either indifferent or uninterested in a career in the sector, with some respondents expressing concerns about compensation. One youth wrote, “There is not enough money in that industry … to survive.”

Lower compensation levels, well below economy-wide averages, according to the Senate Committee report, can make it difficult for the non-profit sector to compete with the private sector. In addition, only a fraction of employees enjoy benefits such as drug, dental, or vision, and one million lack a workplace retirement plan. For some, what the Muttart Foundation’s latest publication calls the sector’s “passion bonus” might not be enough.

The stakes are high if the sector doesn’t respond. In her 25-year career, Taylor has seen many workers leave for greener pastures. “The future of the sector really is at stake if we cannot effectively treat and engage our employees,” she says.

The future of the sector really is at stake if we cannot effectively treat and engage our employees.

Cathy Taylor

Technology: A tool for equity

The stakes are also high if the sector doesn’t prioritize investments in technology to both improve the quality of service and create a more equitable playing field for those served. Andrew Reddin, chief development officer of NPower Canada – an industry-certified training and job-placement program for underserved and young adults aged 17 to 30 who face barriers to employment – says there will be “profound consequences” if organizations don’t get on board.

To bridge gaps between virtual and traditional service delivery, organizations can start by investing in databases. As NPower clients struggled during the pandemic, trying to access food banks and other services, Reddin became aware of the “fragmented landscape” of the sector and the need for “real-time ways” for agencies to collaborate to “improve our collective capacity to serve vulnerable people.” Better online communication platforms can also ease transitions. Free versions of Zoom don’t always provide the kind of security clients need, he says. Professional versions provide options for one-on-one confidential support, and also breakout rooms for larger groups.

Organizations need to be aware that while technology drives the future of work, some clients may not even own computers. When the pandemic hit, “clear inequities emerged,” Reddin says, as they realized how many of their students faced technological barriers to access training and support. In response, NPower shipped out nearly 300 emergency laptops and also provided Wi-Fi sticks and data plans. Generations of young people could be left behind, Reddin says, if we don’t seize this opportunity to improve access, particularly for those systemically underrepresented.

Canada’s digital divide is no longer an abstract concept. Century Initiative’s National Scorecard ranked Canada 27 out of 32 OECD countries for the quality of broadband internet. Unconnected: Funding Shortfalls, Policy Imbalances and How They Are Contributing to Canada’s Digital Underdevelopment outlines a worrying state of affairs in the non-profit sector, concluding that without long-term funding, “needed systemic changes are not likely to happen.” (Read Fatima Syed’s coverage of the report.)

NPower’s programs provide both a much-needed service and a template for systemic change. In a recent Metcalf Foundation report, When Training Works: Promising Workforce Development Practices, NPower is cited as one of four organizations “leading the way in demonstrating how workforce solutions can be poverty reduction strategies.” The report recognizes a “critical” need for a massive reskilling of Canadian workers. The World Economic Forum is calling for “a global reskilling revolution,” estimating that by 2030, one billion people will need to be reskilled to meet workplace demands.

Organizations such as NPower want this workplace to be more equitable. In 2018, 87% of NPower students were from racialized backgrounds. In light of statistics such as the fact that 26% of Indigenous people aged 24 to 64 lack a high school diploma, double the rate for non-Indigenous people, NPower works with employers to support “non-traditional” hiring. With an average starting salary of nearly $40,000, many graduates double their prior household income, says Reddin, a concrete step in emerging from poverty that creates ripple effects throughout the community:

Since 2014, Reddin has witnessed transformation that goes beyond dollar signs, noting how even posture changes from the beginning of the program to graduation, as students grow to believe in themselves: “Training transforms lives.”

Knowledge sharing: Traditional knowledge is contemporary knowledge

People who have been at the forefront of initiating systemic change for decades, such as Blondin-Andrew – the first Indigenous woman elected to Parliament – feel optimistic about the future of work, if we make the right choices. “What you don’t choose, you don’t change,” she says in Cannexus21’s closing keynote, “The Future Is Bright: Indigenous-led Conservation, Stewardship and Shared Prosperity.”

Indigenous people, she says, are well positioned to be at the front lines of collaboration where environmental crises such as climate change will shape the workplace of the future.

Unfortunately, past experiences have shown Blondin-Andrew that some sectors, such as industry, aren’t always open to collaboration. “We are the best friend they never had,” she says, adding, “they don’t have legacies in our communities.”

In a follow-up interview, Blondin-Andrew says Indigenous communities have often looked to the charitable and non-profit sector for support. “We look after our people. We look after our land. We look after the water and the air we breathe. Therefore, when these things are beyond our control, we go to places and people that can help us.”

From food security to conservation programs, the sector has both “taken on” some of their causes and helped create “opportunities for Indigenous people to become engaged,” she says.

The Indigenous Leadership Initiative and the National Indigenous Guardians Network are receiving more and more attention as both workplaces for Indigenous people and examples of new, more equitable ways to do business. The United Nations recognizes traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples as contributing to “sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment” integral to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, the Canadian government is exploring a “principles-based Indigenous knowledge policy framework,” perhaps part of an attempt to right a host of wrongs, as outlined by organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

Such recognition, though long overdue, comes as no surprise to Blondin-Andrew: “We’re the oldest model in the world of how to care for Mother Earth,” she says. The consequences are dire if other cultures don’t pay heed to what Indigenous people have known for millennia. “If we lose our connection to nature,” she says, “we lose hope for the future.”

Valuing traditional knowledge signals a shift from “linear” thinking to “finding ways forward that are inclusive, that are innovative and contemporary,” Blondin-Andrew says. “Indigenous people have always been contemporary.”

Indigenous people have always been contemporary.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew

But it’s not just about valuing the knowledge of Indigenous people, she says. In her ideal future of work, a “blending of best practices” draws on the best of the world in which she’s travelled extensively – training programs from Germany, conservation programs from the Australian outback.

Ultimately, work is about “what makes people tick,” she says. “What makes people want to live better and have a better quality of life?” The “examination of the living human” is important, she says. “Look at what’s essential to people, what they eat, how they live, their sense of occupation, what gainfully occupies them.”

“There’s nothing worse than people who do not do anything,” she says. “Everybody, every human being that has a mind, wants to be engaged, wants to do something, wants to contribute something.”

The power of soft skills: Valuing what makes us human

Riz Ibrahim says the pandemic has shown us our tendency to view work in a hierarchical nature, and the harm this can cause. To embrace a future of work for all, we need to have conversations about how we value different types of work. It’s become clear that those who do what we call front-line or essential work – “foundations that are holding our society and our communities up” – have been underpaid and undervalued. But “if you don’t have the support, you can’t have the thing that it’s supporting,” Ibrahim says.

Conversations surrounding the future of work are being defined by those who are already supported. If we want to see real structural change, “we need to change who is at the table,” he says, and the first step is “recognizing that we need to change who is at the table. And I think we’ve started that now.”

Ibrahim is heartened by conversations that are less homogenous than before the pandemic: “the lens has changed, the context has changed.” Future-of-work talk isn’t just about AI and automation; there’s an acknowledgement that “the future of work affects people differently. And the future-of-work conversation means different things to different segments of our society.”

Tapping into our human reserves could be one common denominator – resiliency, adaptability, agility. In a future where experts say another pandemic is highly likely, “being able to cope with crazy change, disruptive change” will become an important career mindset, Ibrahim says, and something we need to start preparing for right now.

Being able to cope with crazy change, disruptive change, will become an important career mindset.

Riz Ibrahim

Maybe that’s why Zabeen Hirji refers to power skills as opposed to soft skills, Ibrahim says. They’re future-proof. They have the ability to “permeate through industry, permeate through disruption, permeate through shifts in labour-market demands,” he says.

Organizations such as Futureworx are working to create a “pan-Canadian soft skills framework” to identify and implement such skills. Change It Up offers a suite of “strength-based foundational tools.” In a recent Future Skills Centre report, the growing demand for soft skills is likened to a “new workplace currency.”

A shift to valuing soft skills signals a shift to taking stock, to figuring out what’s important in our lives. Human connection is what we’ve missed most during the pandemic, says Ibrahim. “I don’t hear people saying, ‘I really miss my Office 365 suite.’”

As we come closer to understanding what’s important, we come closer to creating a future of work where it seems that what’s old is new again ­– namely, being human. Hirji sums this up in her keynote: “It’s in to be human again.”

Perhaps in the world of work that Bruce Lawson, president of The Counselling Foundation of Canada, describes as “a very big universe” where all sectors and all levels of government converge, a very simple desire remains at its heart.

Sixty years ago, Lawson’s grandfather established the foundation on a belief that people will be happier, both professionally and personally, if they’re given the opportunity to use their skills and talents to their highest purpose – and the economy as a whole will benefit. Now, when Lawson looks to the workplace of the future, he just hopes, finally, for “a roadmap of how we’re getting there.”


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