The Webforce of 2031: Danger Ahead

Can you imagine what the workplace might look like 20 years from now? On a recent retreat, I was asked to do just that. So I imagined. And what I saw—even with all its promise of a better, more efficient life—made me squirm. It’s easy to predict that technology will only advance faster and become more pervasive. I can see a future in which there is no workplace in the way we think of it now: a physical space where people go to work. Instead of a workforce, we’ll have a webforce—people connected even more virtually than they are today.

For instance: In 2031, I imagine, our online experience won’t be limited to a screen. Thanks to advances in holography and virtual reality, we will attend virtual meetings in virtual rooms, where we see virtual representations of our colleagues. If we need a whiteboard, we’ll be able to produce one out of thin air, as it were.  The need to leave our homes to “go to work” will nearly disappear.

Education and training will change in similar ways, with profound effects. Online schooling will become even more common and cover more disciplines than ever. In my imagined scene, the time will come when, to become an architect, students will either spend years in college or simply master the information they can find on the Internet—again, without leaving their homes.

So why am I uncomfortable with all this? With the education piece, people who learn from the Internet will have a distinct competitive advantage over their college-trained counterparts:  they will absorb the available information more quickly and work at lower salaries because they won’t have student loans to repay. But who’s to say these people will have nearly the skill needed to excel in their chosen field? After all, they would be selecting their own sources of knowledge, rather than learning from a preset curriculum carefully designed to impart the necessary skills. That may lead to many people entering professional fields unprepared to serve their clients at the highest level. Industries and their customers could suffer as a result.

On a broader level, these changes may cause people to see education as more of a commodity than a cherished gift. There is something about the excitement and immediacy of a live class—the intellectual challenge of interacting with professors and peers in physical space—that brings home the value of education. When we lose that sense of value, we can easily start discounting the need for any education beyond technical training.

Similarly, the idea of webforce may well have many advantages. It could eliminate much of the waste that occurs in today’s workplace with its extensive travel and inefficient communication and duplication of effort.

But actually, I’m concerned that all the virtual reality will create more waste, not less. Every new technology sparks endless conversations about how to use it. That’s why we see so many articles on email etiquette and tips on being a good “netizen.” Those conversations will only multiply in the future—and leave us even less time to do our best work.

Even worse, the misunderstandings that arise because of different approaches to the technology will make people feel less valued. If you expect an immediate response to your email when it scrolls across my TV at 10:00 p.m., will you worry if I don’t respond? Will you wonder whether I am deliberately excluding your opinion or simply taking a night off to be with my family?

There’s a broader level to this aspect of the future too. As we connect more virtually, we may connect less in physical space. This is already happening with children who text and IM and game instead of playing outside with actual friends. If living exclusively in the “virtual bubble” isn’t good for kids, it surely isn’t good for the rest of us.

Of course, I don’t know that the future will look exactly like this. But my imaginings are simply projections from what is already happening, so they are not that far-fetched. And I don’t know how we can come to terms with such a future. But I do know that we should start asking the questions now—so we’re more prepared for tomorrow when it comes.